Exercise is pretty magic (not that I’m biased). The right dose of exercise can reduce your risk of most chronic diseases and cancers, help you to live longer, improve your quality of life, reduce the burden of mental illness, and aid in the recovery of physical injuries. This most wonderful of medications can come at a cost, the dreaded DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness). For us to improve our health, our strength, our fitness through exercise, it is necessary to test what our bodies are capable of and work up to our physical limits. By working outside of our comfort zone, we are exposing ourselves to the post-exercise side-effect of DOMS.
It is natural to experience some soreness following exercise, especially during the first 2-3 sessions of a new program or regime. Typically DOMS will peak within 24-72 hours after exercise and will last for a couple of days. To ensure you recover from exercise as quickly as possible with the least amount of discomfort, I recommend the following three strategies.
1. Foam Rollers
Foam rollers were developed to stretch our fascia, the connective tissue surrounding our muscles. We now know that this is not possible as connective tissue is structural and does not stretch (yes, even your infamous ITB – Illiotibial Band – does not stretch, more on this in a future blog). What we know is that rolling (1):
- Helps muscles to relax
- Aids in muscle recovery
- Reduces DOMS
- Improved recovery of maximal strength and power
- Reductions in muscle swelling and perceived muscle pain
- Improved blood lactate removal
- Increase in body temperature
3. Contrast Therapy
How much better does contrast therapy sound than ‘ice bath’? It really is much more comfortable too as there is no ice required and this can simply be performed in the comfort of your shower. Start with the water as hot as you can tolerate for about a minute, then turn the hot water off completely for 30 seconds to 1 minute. Repeat this process 3 times really targeting the areas you are anticipating soreness and you can enjoy the benefits. Contrast therapy aids in recovery by the process of contracting (vasoconstriction) and relaxing (vasodilation) of your blood vessels, stimulating blood flow and reducing swelling. It basically prevents the pooling of waste products and metabolites while also getting plenty of blood flow and therefore nutrients into the tired muscles allowing them to start the repair process. This results in (3):
- Reduced swelling
- Faster restoration of speed and power
- The ability to walk down stairs without looking like a baby giraffe taking its first steps
Other common recovery strategies such as stretching, cryotherapy (ice), homeopathy, ultrasound, and electrical current modalities have no proven effect on reducing muscle soreness (4). But hey, if any of these work for you and make you feel better, then I say do it!
Note on massage: The evidence for the effectiveness on massage for reducing muscle soreness is inconsistent, which is why I have left it out of this review. However, foam rolling is a form of self-massage and has been shown to be very effective, which leads you to believe that other forms of massage are also worthwhile in reducing muscle soreness. I believe (personal opinion) that the difference comes down to foam rolling being self-limiting. i.e. When you are sore following exercise and your body is going through the inflammatory recovery process, you will work within your limits with a foam roller whereas other forms of massage, such as deep tissue, may delay the healing process. Light massage to promote circulation and blood flow would certainly be beneficial. Once again, if it feels good, then I say do it!
- Pearcey GE, Bradbury-Squires DJ, Kawamoto JE, Drinkwater EJ, Behm DG, Button DC Foam rolling for delayed-onset muscle soreness and recovery of dynamic performance measures. J. Athl. Train.2015;50(1):5–13.
- Born DP, Sperlich B, Holmberg HC. Bringing Light into the Dark: Effects of Compression Clothing on Performance and Recovery. Int J Sports Physiol Perform 2012.
- Cochrane R. Alternating hot and cold water immersion for athlete recovery: a review. Phys Ther Sport 2004; 5: 26-32
- Cheung K, Hume PA, Maxwell L. Delayed onset muscle soreness: treatment strategies and performance factors. Sports Med 2003; 33: 145-64