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Can you speed up your recovery from exercise?

All of us are familiar with the achiness and stiffness that occurs after hard exercise. We call it delayed-onset muscle soreness, or DOMS, because it usually doesn’t start until the next day or even 48 hours after exercise. It’s downright uncomfortable and if you’re trying to exercise frequently, it can really throw off your regimen. How to recover quicker from exercise is a big question on every trainer’s, athlete’s, and weekend warrior’s mind.

It’s been asked repeatedly and many solutions have been put forth, but are any really effective?

The answer depends on your goal. We may define recovery in two broad ways. One way is decreasing the symptoms of pain and stiffness. The other way, which is probably more important to more serious athletes, is restoring normal muscle function and strength. Let’s look at how a few common solutions stack up.

Cryotherapy (ice baths, cold packs, etc.)

A recent systematic review concluded that cryotherapy does not reduce DOMS or enhance the recovery of muscle performance.1 

Epsom Salt Bath

Bathing with Epsom salts is such an old and accepted remedy for muscle aches that it seems to predate scientific research. In fact, so many people just accept it at face value that almost no one has ever tried to answer the question scientifically. I found only a few unpublished studies and…drumroll…adding Epsom salts to a hot bath made no difference.2

Compression Therapy

Wearing compression garments after a heavy bout of exercise may reduce pain and enhance recovery of strength and power.3

Massage, Foam Rolling or Self-Massage Devices

Nothing satisfies after heavy exercise like a nice massage, but is it actually helping? A review conducted in 2013 concluded that massage may help decrease pain associated with DOMS, but is less promising for speeding recovery.4

Foam rolling did not have any significant effects on pain or recovery.5

The vibrating massage guns that are all the rage now probably achieve effects similar to that of massage and vibration therapy, but there just isn’t any quality evidence out there just yet. Vibration does seem to cause a temporary increase in flexibility, so that could be nice if your stiff, sore muscles are making it hard to bend over. And the novel stimulation of the device could be soothing and “hurt so good” like a massage, so there’s reason to believe it could temporarily reduce pain. Other than that, we can’t conclude anything. Are they worth the $300? I don’t know.

Stretching or Light Exercise

Stretching before or after exercise doesn’t appear to reduce or shorten symptoms of delayed onset muscle soreness.6 It may feel like it’s scratching an itch at the time but the effects are very temporary.

Various small studies claim to show some benefit of light exercise or active recovery for reducing DOMS, but the benefits are small and barely beat out doing nothing.7

Curcumin

Curcumin is an unexpected possible bright spot in the treatment of DOMS. A 2.5 g dose of curcumin twice daily resulted in a large improvement in pain and even an improvement in muscle performance as tested with a single-leg jump.8 It was a small study, but the effects were large enough that this one is promising.

Conclusion

Not surprisingly, most of the things we use to treat DOMS may have temporary effects on reducing pain. Pain can usually be altered to some degree, temporarily, by a lot of things. But speeding muscle healing and recovery of muscle function, which is the effect most people really want, is a bit harder to reliably attain. Some things listed above may work for some people some of the time, but it’s not predictable and the effects are usually small. As usual, the question often comes down to whether it is worth the time, money, and effort.

In the end, it is very difficult to undo or shorten post-exercise soreness, and there might be a very good reason for that. Perhaps it is a natural protective mechanism that forces a body to rest and recover after vigorous activity in order to avoid possible damage and injury. In that respect, it is a good thing that we should not actually want to override by any means necessary. We do so at our own peril.

So far, the only surefire solution to DOMS is to rest and wait it out. And maybe that’s just what nature intended.

1. Nogueira NM, Felappi CJ, Lima CS, Medeiros DM. Effects of local cryotherapy for recovery of delayed onset muscle soreness and strength following exercise-induced muscle damage: systematic review and meta-analysis. Sport Sci Health. 2020;16(1):1-11. doi:10.1007/s11332-019-00571-z

2. Byerley N. The Effect of Magnesium Sulfate on Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness. Published online August 2010. Accessed April 5, 2022. https://digital.library.txstate.edu/handle/10877/9523

3. Hill J, Howatson G, Someren K van, Leeder J, Pedlar C. Compression garments and recovery from exercise-induced muscle damage: a meta-analysis. Br J Sports Med. 2014;48(18):1340-1346. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2013-092456

4. Nelson N. Delayed onset muscle soreness: Is massage effective? Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies. 2013;17(4):475-482. doi:10.1016/j.jbmt.2013.03.002

5. Nahon RL, Silva Lopes JS, Monteiro de Magalhães Neto A. Physical therapy interventions for the treatment of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS): Systematic review and meta-analysis. Physical Therapy in Sport. 2021;52:1-12. doi:10.1016/j.ptsp.2021.07.005

6. Herbert RD, de Noronha M, Kamper SJ. Stretching to prevent or reduce muscle soreness after exercise. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2011;(7):CD004577. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD004577.pub3

7. de Azevedo Franke R, Rodrigues R, Geremia JM, et al. Moderate intensity cycling is better than running on recovery of eccentric exercise-induced muscle damage. Physical Therapy in Sport. 2021;50:65-73. doi:10.1016/j.ptsp.2021.04.004

8. Nicol LM, Rowlands DS, Fazakerly R, Kellett J. Curcumin supplementation likely attenuates delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). Eur J Appl Physiol. 2015;115(8):1769-1777. doi:10.1007/s00421-015-3152-6