While there aren’t any instant solutions — your muscles just need time to heal — there are some strategies you can use to ease soreness and aid recovery. Here’s what you should know:
1. During and After Your Workout: Hydrate
It might sound obvious, but staying hydrated is an important aspect of muscle recovery. Water keeps the fluids moving through your system, which can help ease inflammation, flush out waste products, and deliver to your muscles the nutrients they need, Arent says.
The trouble is, it can be tricky to know if and when you’re dehydrated, as chances are you’ll reach dehydration before thirst actually hits, according to Schroeder. The color of your urine provides a good indication: Medium or dark yellow signals dehydration, whereas pale yellow means you’re hydrated.
Just be aware that taking vitamin supplements may cause your urine to look darker than usual. Who will be affected, and by what types of vitamin supplements? That’s hard to say. “Everybody’s different,” Schroeder says.
2. Immediately After Your Workout, Use a Foam Roller (Self-Myofascial Release)
Self-myofascial release (SMR) is a technique used to release tension in muscles and connective tissues (foam rollers, lacrosse balls, and massage sticks are common SMR tools), helping to move the fluids that accumulate in the muscle after exercise.
A review published in November 2015 in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy found that foam rolling may help increase range of motion and reduce DOMS. Foam rolling, as well as other types of massage, increase circulation to deliver more nutrients and oxygen to the affected area, which helps reduce swelling and tenderness, Arent explains.
If you’re interested in trying a foam roller, look for a softer version to begin with. Firmer foam rollers will allow you to apply more pressure, but they can be intense if you’re unaccustomed to them. Lacrosse balls can also be handy tools to keep around, as they’re ideal for smoothing out hard-to-reach spots, like the glutes, lats, calves, and illiotibial (IT) band, Arent notes.
3. Eat Within a Half-Hour After an Intense Workout
By feeding your muscles the nutrients they need to repair and grow back stronger, you may be able to speed up the recovery process, Arent says.
He suggests kickstarting your recovery by making sure to get 20 to 40 grams (g) of protein and 20 to 40 g of carbs into your system within 30 minutes of an intense or long workout (one that is 60 minutes or longer). (A serving of Greek yogurt with a handful of berries and a tablespoon of honey is one snack option.)
Protein is important for providing the amino acids needed to rebuild your muscles, while carbohydrates play a starring role in replenishing fuel stores your muscles used up during your workout, according to a position paper on nutrient timing published in 2017 in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition.
But don’t stop at the post-workout snack; you won’t help your muscles recover if you go hungry or skimp on nutritious foods the rest of the day, Arent notes. Prioritize meals and be sure to keep your daily protein intake fairly consistent so your tissues are fed a steady stream of amino acids throughout the day. Recommendations vary, but the International Society of Sports Nutrition recommends consuming 1.4 to 2 g of protein per kilogram (kg) of body weight every day if you’re active, making sure to spread out the doses evenly every three to four hours. That means if you weigh 150 pounds, you’ll need approximately 95 to 136 g of protein every day.
Fruits, vegetables and legumes are also key for giving your body vitamins and minerals — like vitamin C and zinc — that promote healing, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
4. Later On: Sleep
Sleep is critical for many reasons, but it’s also one of the most important components of exercise recovery, Arent says. “It may not seem like it has an immediate effect on [muscle soreness], but it can be useful for sure,” he adds.
Non–rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep, for example, increases protein synthesis (the creation of new proteins), which is needed to repair damaged muscles, according to a review published in October 2014 in Sports Medicine.
S, the post-workout phase is no time to skimp on shut-eye. Aim to score at least seven hours of sleep, as recommended by the National Sleep Foundation.
5. The Day After a Tough Workout, Do Light Exercise
Sore muscles need to rest, but that doesn’t mean it’s best to kick your feet up and spend the day on the couch. Try to get some gentle movement through activities like restorative yoga; an easy walk, swim, or cycle; or even light resistance training. The key is to avoid doing another intense workout using the same muscle groups on consecutive days. On an effort scale of 0 to 10 (where 10 is maximum intensity), aim for an effort level of 3, Schroeder says. You want to get blood moving to the sore muscles to deliver oxygen and nutrients needed for repair — without causing more damage to the muscle tissues.
6. You May Want to Steer Clear of NSAIDs
Though you might be tempted to pop a painkiller and call it a day, Arent warns that you may sacrifice key parts of the muscle rebuilding process by doing so. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like Advil (ibuprofen) and Aleve (naproxen) may ease pain associated with muscle soreness, but they may also prevent your muscles from growing back bigger and stronger. A small study published in the August 2017 issue of Acta Physiologica found that taking the maximum dosage of over-the-counter ibuprofen stalled progress during an eight-week resistance training program geared toward building muscle and strength in young adults.