Isaac Newton’s third law of motion goes something like: “what goes up must come down.” And today, I would like to posit yet another law of motion: “Those who work out will, at some point, get sore.” While I don’t expect my insights on this topic to be quoted thousands of years after my death, it bears remembering that getting your sweat on will often lead to a little bit of discomfort in your body. So if you’re wondering how to relieve sore muscles from your last run, weight training session, or Pilates class, there are a few things you need to know before slapping on an ice pack.
Corrective exercise specialist and trainer Tatiana Lampa, NASM, says that feeling the slightest bit achy in your hamstrings, arms, or core usually occurs for one of three reasons. And, fortunately, all of them can be remedied after a few days of TLC, stretching, and—yes—other, slower workouts. Below, you’ll learn everything you need to know about delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and how to care for your body when walking up the stairs suddenly feels like a Sisyphian task.
What to know about DOMS—the technical name for sore muscles
“Sore muscles are known as delayed-onset muscle soreness, or DOMS, which can occur after physical activity, a new exercise program, or changing your exercise routine or increasing the intensity and duration of your normal workout,” says Lampa. DOMS happens because of deep muscle tears, and it will make its presence known. However, when it comes down to what exactly your body will feel like 24 hours after you’ve finished a particularly difficult abs circuit, exercise-lovers report feeling very different things in their bod.
“It affects everyone differently. Some people feel mild soreness, and some people have pain so bad it restricts their range of motion,” Adam Rosante, strength and nutrition coach and founder of The People’s Bootcamp, previously told Well+Good. “The truth is, no one’s really isolated a single cause for DOMS, but it’s most likely a combination of damage to the muscle tissue and inflammation.”
If you’re a dedicated runner who suddenly decides to start cross-training by lifting weights, swimming, or biking, for example, you’ll likely feel DOMS come in the day after you introduce the new fitness into your workout routine. Your body loves a plot twist—but it will have to recalibrate itself before you can soldier on with your new, more well-rounded workout.
But how long should soreness last?
According to Lampa, mild soreness (like you might get from introducing more reps into your weight training workout) should last for one to two days. More severe muscle soreness, meanwhile, could last up to five days and come as the result of trying something completely new and intense like rock climbing or boxing.
The longer your DOMS sticks around, the more often you’ll have to ask yourself: Is it okay to work out today? Sometimes the answer will be yes; sometimes, it will be a resounding, NOPE. If any part of your body is swelling up, if you find varying body parts compensating for others, or if you don’t feel emotionally invested in your workout, it’s best to let the DOMS run its course and let rest be your workout routine for the day. “If you can’t get yourself to fully ‘rest’ for a day, then at least make your recovery active. Meaning, if you feel the need to move, go swimming in the ocean, play tennis, take a walk in the park, [bike] ride around the city,” recommends Charlee Atkins, trainer, and founder of Le Sweat.
How to relieve sore muscles in five easy steps
1. Rest. Rest. Rest.
When it comes to recovery from muscle soreness, there’s no substitute for some old-fashioned rest and relaxation. And of course, the gold standard of rest is sleep. “Without sleep, muscles become more inflamed and begin to break down their own protein to provide building blocks—aka nitrogen and other protein components—to the rest of the body, which needs more protein to function during sleep deprivation,” says Ben Smarr, science advisor to Oura and assistant professor at UCSD Bioengineering & Data Science. “Sleep allows healing, but deprivation causes breakdown, making getting good sleep doubly important.”
And thus, when it comes to combatting DOMS, your bedtime is just as important as whatever techy recovery gear you decide to invest in.
2. Don’t skip your warmups
Skipping your warmup is the exercise cardinal sin that we’re all very, very guilty of. While it won’t necessarily give you DOMS, it could lead to more serious injuries that make muscle soreness look like, well, a cakewalk. As Gold’s Gym Personal Trainer, NCSF, Katie Merrick puts it, “motion is lotion.” “A tight body is more prone to get injured if you try to move it too quickly or lift too heavily without your muscles being prepared. I like to compare it to a new balloon. It’s more difficult to immediately start inflating the balloon. If you stretch and move it well first, it will inflate much easier. Our bodies are very similar,” she told Well+Good.
Start with this warmup:
3. Become very good friends with your foam roller
Foam rollers loosen tightness that happens in your body as a result of soreness from exercise. That means a little one-on-one time with the device can improve your range of motion and reset your muscles from their fatigued state. If you have no idea how to foam roll, here’s how to tackle every single muscle in your body.
Check out this five-minute foam rolling routine:
4. Stretch after your workout—and every single day
You should think about stretching as the finale to every single one of your workouts and a tool to pull out when you’re sore. “Taking the time to warm up and cool down will help you avoid or minimize soreness,” said Karena Wu, DPT of ActiveCare Physical Therapy. “Static stretches are best after working out to lengthen the muscle fibers and minimize any lactic acid build up in the muscles.”
Unsurprisingly, stretching also goes hand in hand with sleep (that other ingredient you need to recharge your muscles). So if you’re in the market for a nightly ritual that helps you in more ways than one, try a few forward folds or backbends.
Runners, this one’s for you:
5. Research and invest in a recovery device
Lampa loves her Hyperice Hypervolt ($300): a percussive therapy device designed to massage sore and stiff muscles. However, as the corrective exercise specialist points out, you’ll really have to do a bit of experimenting to discover the exact combination of treatments and devices that helps you feel the most equipped to tackle your exercise regimen. “I stretch, foam roll, and use my Hypervolt post-workouts and when I’m sore,” says Lampa.
DOMS, in short, is just a fact of the active life, a way for your body to say to your mind that, Hey! We need to rest! TLC! Maybe a recovery device if you want! Even though everyone experiences it differently, that fact remains true for everyone. Whether you feel a little sore for two days or five, that’s the price of being a person in motion.