After your “runner’s high” fades away, you may feel your legs starting to become stiff and sore, or you may hop out of bed the next morning only to find that your quads really don’t want to move. You might experience pain that ranges from mild discomfort to fatigue that makes climbing a staircase seem like a Herculean task.
If you frequently deal with muscle soreness following a workout, there are a number of preventative measures, stretches, and pain alleviating strategies that could easily fit into your workout plan. This brief guide will share some of the best ways to get a solid workout without overworking your muscles, and how to distinguish between regular muscle soreness and more serious running injuries. Let’s get started!
Recognizing Pain: Soreness vs. Injury
Some level of soreness and discomfort is expected when someone begins a new exercise regimen or increases the intensity of their workout. “For muscle strength to increase, the muscle must see some increase in stress over what it is used to experiencing, and this stress is usually perceived as the ‘burn’ in muscle during activity,” doctors Edward G. McFarland and Andrew Cosgarea explain. “This pain should be short-lived and resolve soon after the activity ends.”
The short-term pain described by McFarland and Cosgarea is typically categorized as “good pain.” It signifies that you’re being challenged without pushing yourself to the point of actual injury. If you feel sore or fatigued right after a run, or if you experience delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) a day or two after a workout, you can follow the strategies listed below to alleviate your pain. However, if your muscle becomes too sore to move much, begins to swell, or you feel excessively fatigued for a number of days, you need to contact your doctor to check for potential injuries. Severely overworked muscles may develop permanent damage if not treated properly right away.
Strategies to Relieve Soreness
The most critical part of treating any ache or pain after a workout is to reduce or stop exercising your sore muscles for a short length of time. This doesn’t necessarily mean you need to skip all of your workouts; simply focus on different muscle groups as your body recovers. For example, the day after a difficult run, you could do mostly upper-body exercises. The key is to not force yourself to do anything that further aggravates your sore muscles.
Aside from resting your tired legs, you can relieve soreness by:
- Using ice. Applying an ice pack to your sore muscles for just 15 minutes can reduce swelling and pain, providing some level of immediate relief.
- Elevating your legs. Propping your legs up so they’re above your heart will reduce blood flow to the muscles, which can ease pain and reduce swelling.
- Doing gentle stretches. Stretching out stiff hamstrings and calf muscles for about 30 seconds may help improve your recovery time.
- Massaging the area. Whether you use a foam roller, massage your legs yourself, or visit a professional masseuse, it can help alleviate DOMS by up to 30%.
- Going for a light jog. Keeping your muscles moving a bit can speed up the recovery process and improve muscle strength. Of course, this is only recommended if your pain doesn’t increase with light exercise. If you feel pain, stop!
Prevent Pain with a Recovery Plan
Now that you know how to manage soreness from running, what steps can you take to prevent severe pain in the first place? Coaches from Runners Connect suggest this recovery strategy to alleviate pain right after a difficult run and prevent your pain from worsening in the days following your workout:
- Keep yourself hydrated. You should try to take small sips of water throughout your run and then replenish your electrolytes with a sports drink after working out.
- Have a cool-down routine. Let your muscles relax with a short walk followed by some simple stretches that focus on the major muscle groups. Gently stretch your muscles for about 30 seconds without bouncing your legs or rushing through the movements. Give yourself time to cool off.
- Replenish with plenty of protein. “Eat foods high in carbohydrates and proteins,” recommends Susan Paul, a running coach and exercise physiologist. “High-glycemic foods like baked potatoes are a good choice because they are absorbed into the bloodstream quickly. Protein should be from lean meats, eggs, dairy, or vegetable sources.”
- Take a bath. Ice baths, while they can be a shock to the system, can relieve sore muscles and numb pain for hours afterwards. If you don’t think you can handle submerging your legs in freezing cold water, you could try a warm bath using Epsom salts.
- Listen to your body. If you feel too sore to workout the next day, take a break. Don’t put further stress on your body as you recover. Be sure to get plenty of sleep, get proper nutrition, and put your overall health first. You’ll be back to running in no time!