How to support muscle recovery after a workout

Muscles hurting after a workout? A tough exercise session might boost energy and lift your mood, but it can also leave you feeling sore. Thankfully, there are ways to support muscle recovery after a workout.

While even seasoned pros experience some post-workout soreness, it’s important to know what’s causing yours, as well as how to support yourself.

We spoke to Chartered Physiotherapist and Corefulness founder Elizabeth Cordle to get to the bottom of why your muscles might be hurting, and what you can do to help your recovery.

Why you feel sore after working out

Contrary to the popular motto ‘No pain, no gain,’ feeling sore isn’t necessarily the best metric for a good workout. While sore muscles often aren’t anything to worry about it, figuring out the source of the pain will help you better treat it – and even prevent future soreness.

Post-workout muscle pain falls into two main categories: Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) and pain caused by incorrect exercise technique or having very poor ‘stability’ muscles. The former results from a rise in creatine kinase, while the latter is triggered by your  ‘movement’ muscles going into spasm. Read more about stability and movement muscles here.

“It’s different types of soreness,” explains Elizabeth. “One is a chemical soreness, and one you’ve got spasms because you’ve got other things going on.

“In order to control the body, you want a strong core, a strong stability system, which basically helps pull it together so that the movement muscles can move more efficiently. What I see with people is, if they haven’t got a strong stability system, then the movement system has to take a stabilising role, and therefore it doesn’t like that and goes into spasm.”

How to know the difference

Triggered by changes to your workout routine such as increased intensity or frequency, DOMS is perfectly normal and even affects professionals. This feels like a dull, aching pain and sets in around one to three days post-exercise, typically peaking after 48 hours – hence the name! Muscles will likely be stiff or tender when stretched or in use, but not at rest.

This is easily distinguishable from a strain or sprain, which is felt as a sharp pain that comes on immediately after exercise. Other signs of a more serious injury include bruising, swelling or redness of the affected area and pain even when the muscle isn’t being used.

Although sometimes mistakenly associated with lactic acid build-up, DOMS results from microscopic damage to muscle fibres, called ‘microfibril tears,’ which activate a local inflammatory response.

The good news is that DOMS can be easily alleviated in the short-term. Plus, those micro-tears will make your muscles recover stronger and firmer! Just started working out? These tips may also come in handy.

By contrast, pain caused by exercising incorrectly or having poor stability muscles will require a more long-term approach.

How to support muscle recovery in the short-term

 If you’re suffering from DOMS, this section is for you.

Try a foam roller

A foam roller is a great way to kickstart your post-workout routine. Research suggests doing so not only reduces DOMS but also enhances recovery and even muscular performance.

As muscle fibres repair, they can become knotted, so rollers can help work out kinks, while also alleviating soreness and improving circulation. This is best done within the first 10 minutes of your cool down, when muscles are still warm. Try it alongside your post-exercise stretches.

Alternatively, Elizabeth recommends using your fist or knuckle instead. This is a good option for muscles that can be awkward to use a foam roller on, such as the iliotibial band (ITB) that runs down the outside of your thigh.

Take a bath

Whether to take a hot or cold bath post-workout has been subject to much debate. The answer is more complicated… it’s both!

Ice baths constrict blood vessels and decrease inflammation so they can reduce the chances of DOMS developing. However, this can also limit muscle fibre growth, meaning your muscles may not get as much benefit. It’s best to save cold baths for when you really need them, such as after a particularly gruelling run or class.

Can’t bear the thought of a cold bath? Using ice on affected muscles will have a similar effect.

Hot baths, meanwhile, will improve circulation, helping your body heal faster. Better blood flow means more oxygen and nutrients getting to the muscles that need it.

As a bonus, hot baths also improve metabolism, support your immunity and help mental health. In fact, research suggests hot water immersion has similar benefits to working out, and is even a viable alternative for those who can’t exercise. Your rest day activity just got a lot more productive!

Whichever you opt for, it’s vital to cool down first. This means letting your heart rate and body temperature return to normal, which takes around 20 minutes.

Use magnesium

 Magnesium is renowned for its muscle-relieving abilities, so incorporating it into your post-workout routine is a no-brainer.

We love BetterYou’s Magnesium Bath Flakes. Add two cups, or 250g, to a warm bath for a soothing experience. Prefer showers? The brand’s Magnesium Body Butter can be applied to damp skin instead. Containing 15% magnesium oil, as well as shea butter, coconut oil, vitamin E and more, this nourishing balm will relax muscles and smooth skin.

Even better, use LIZLOVES for 15% off BetterYou.

Stay hydrated

Post-workout hydration is vital when it comes to DOMS damage control, with research suggesting dehydration worsens muscle soreness. That’s because when we’re dehydrated, blood flow to muscles is reduced, hindering the repair process.

Most of us lose a fair amount of fluid during workouts through sweat. This, along with key water-retaining electrolytes like sodium and potassium, needs to be replaced.

Two litres within the first four hours after a workout is a standard recommendation, but it depends on the type of exercise and how much you sweat. The general rule of thumb is to take in around 125-150% of the fluid lost, so you can personalise your water target by weighing yourself before and after.

Fresh coconut water or other electrolyte-rich drinks are also great alternatives. Avoid anything containing excess sugar, salt or caffeine, which worsens dehydration and causes inflammation.

Get enough protein and nutrients

The right diet can help reduce muscle pain and support recovery.

Protein is especially important. Cottage cheese, which boasts 23g of protein per cup and is considered a top source of casein, comes highly recommended as a post-workout snack. Casein is a slow-digesting dairy protein and helps to support muscle growth.

Vitamin C, which plays an important role in the body’s natural healing process by enabling collagen production and repairing connective tissues, is also invaluable. Getting collagen direct, such as in these homemade collagen fruit gummies, is another alternative.

Antioxidant-rich foods like tart cherries are especially good. This anti-inflammatory hero, which contains vitamin C and the electrolyte potassium, is effective at reducing muscle damage and pain.

Equally, consuming sugar, alcohol and other inflammation-inducing toxins can slow down recovery.

Remember those rest days

It seems counterintuitive but taking days off is the key to a successful workout regime. The golden rule is that each area of the body needs around 24-48 hours to recover, though this can vary by person.

“It completely depends on what intensity of exercise someone’s doing and where they are in their training programme,” explains Elizabeth. “For exmaple, whether they’re training for a marathon, a half-marathon, or they’re doing Couch to 5K.

“Ultimately, if somebody’s starting out in exercise, then you really want to do something every other day rather than every day. Then you can see how the body’s reacting.

“Pace yourself and don’t overdo things. That would be my advice.”

One way to support your body without having to take full rest days all the time is to alternate between weight training and cardio, or focus on a specific set of muscles in each session. You can also try active rest days, involving gentle stretches.

How to support muscle recovery in the long-term

Want to better protect your muscles from future soreness or injury? Here’s how.

Make sure you’re stretching correctly

“The key thing with anybody exercising is that they have a good stretching regime,” explains Elizabeth. “A lot of people don’t really understand that you do dynamic before and static afterward.”

A dynamic stretch is a controlled movement designed to prepare your muscles, ligaments and tissues for exercise, such as high kicks or jump squats. Watch Liz’s warm-up routine.

A static stretch involves keeping a muscle or muscle group in a set position while standing, sitting or lying still. This should be held for at least forty seconds.

Think about the cause

 If you regularly feel sore or tight after your workouts, it’s worth considering whether there’s a deeper cause.

“Is it just after an increase in intensity, in which case it’s probably that you’ve got DOMS, or is it that actually, your body is weak and therefore you’re getting a lot of muscle spasms?” says Elizabeth. “If you’re having to foam roll your hamstrings every time you’re running, my big thing is, why are they tight? You can stretch and stretch and stretch, but why are they tight?

“That’s where, for example, hamstrings in runners are unbearably tight because of poor running style or they are holding on for dear life to their hamstrings when they’re standing up, because their core muscles are not good enough. You get a problem if the body is weak in some areas and tight in the other.

“A big part of our job is obviously to work out what’s going wrong. Not just treat the symptoms, but look at the cause.”

Get clued up

Educating yourself on what each of your muscles do, and how they work together, will also benefit you in the long run. Often the underlying cause relates to four key stabilising muscles.

“This is why I’ve devised a Corefulness Foundation course,” says Elizabeth. “A lot of the causes, over the 20 years that I’ve done this job, come out of these four muscles.”

Corefulness Foundation, a six-week programme which is free to enrol in, hopes to give people the necessary resources to support themselves. The course includes dynamic stretches and balance-work. It aims to improve awareness about alignment, core strength, and positioning when sitting, standing or walking.

“It teaches people from the beginning how to find these four particularly key muscles and how to sync them functionally. This means they can then use them as they’re doing their daily work, and also when they’re exercising.”

As Elizabeth explains, it’s also key to understand what ‘core’ really means.

“So many people think that core work is working your abdominal muscles – your outer abdominal muscles – but a sit-up is a movement using movement muscles and is not a stabilising activity,” she says. “I think people get a very warped view of what ‘core’ is, when actually ‘core’ means ‘in the middle.’

“‘Core’ isn’t just around the pelvis. It’s the deep muscles in the shoulder blades, it’s the deep muscles in the glutes.”

Go back to school

If in doubt, get schooled! You might think you know how to stand, walk or run but it’s easier than you think to do it wrong. Plus, it could be the reason your hamstrings or calf muscles are always so tight. Getting into running in particular? It’s absolutely worth educating yourself more.

“We learn how to play golf, we learn how to play cricket, all these sports, but very few people actually break down running,” says Elizabeth. “At the end of the day, running is something that masses of people are doing.”

The Corefulness Running module is a great resource if you want to ensure you’re exercising correctly going forward. The course breaks the sport down into five easily digestible sections: Alignment, Stability, Power, Acceleration and Hill Work.

In fact, it’s even useful if you’re not necessarily focusing on running.

“Running is in all sports,” explains Elizabeth. “Cricket, hockey – running is in there! If you’ve got good running technique, then you’re going to minimise muscles working in an incorrect way.”

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Words: Tilly Alexander