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Training Advice for Women

How To Ease Sore Muscles

Stay on top of your game by tweaking your training to soothe sore muscles.

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Like any active woman after a killer glutes session in the gym, chances are you know what it’s like to barely be able to walk up a flight of stairs the next morning. Instead of swearing off squats forever, take note: it’s normal to feel stiff and sore a day or two after a tough workout.

What gives? You’re experiencing delayed-onset muscle soreness, or DOMS, and most active women go through it at one point or another. “DOMS is the soreness you experience in the 24 to 48 hours after an intense bout of exercise,” says Reed Ferber, PhD, director of the Running Injury Clinic at the University of Calgary in Alberta. It begins with micro-tears that occur inside your muscles during your workout. “The micro-tears set off an inflammatory response, as your body’s immune system rushes in to repair the damage,” says Christopher D. Black, PhD, an exercise physiologist at the University of Mississippi. This causes swelling and fluid buildup in and around the muscles. The excess pressure activates nearby pain receptors that relay the ouch-signal to your brain.

On the other hand, immediate soreness — the pain you feel right after racking the weights or stepping off the stair climber — is likely due to the accumulation of metabolic byproducts inside your muscles, explains Black. “When hydrogen ions break away from lactic acid as it enters your bloodstream, they trigger pain receptors,” but the pain often dissipates 30 minutes postworkout, when your body flushes out the waste.

But the good news is that soreness, especially DOMS, doesn’t have to derail your training. It’s most often caused by activities that challenge your muscles in ways they aren’t accustomed to, such as starting a new routine or rapidly upping the intensity (such as the poundage or mileage) of your current one.

What’s more, the recovery processes that occur within a muscle during an initial bout of soreness help to protect it from future soreness — thus, the same workout performed days later won’t cause the same degree of soreness, if any. “Not only are your muscles becoming stronger and better able to handle the force, but the proteins inside your individual muscle cells adapt in such a way that makes them more resistant to damage,” says Alan Mikesky, PhD, FACSM, an exercise physiologist at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

While it is practically impossible to prevent soreness altogether, since those same micro-tears play a role in building muscle, here’s even more good news: by carefully following a moderate rate of progression, avoiding extreme changes in your normal workout routine, and ensuring adequate recovery time between workouts, you can take steps to help reduce your chances of recurring muscle soreness.

We consulted a slew of experts and dug through stacks of recent research to find out how putting the Oxygen lifestyle into action today can help you prevent a muscle hangover tomorrow.

Before Your Workout

Fuel up with inflammation-fighting foods.

Eating to aid muscle repair may be easier than you think. That’s because the very same clean foods you eat to prevent heart disease will help keep postworkout pain at bay, too. How so? “A heart-healthy diet can be a muscle-recovery diet as well, because both are rich in foods that contain compounds, including antioxidants and essential fatty acids, that have been shown to help reduce inflammation,” says Nancy Clark, RD, author of Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook (Human Kinetics, 2008).

And don’t forget the protein, which protects the muscles from being broken down. “The protein eaten prior to exercise will be ready and waiting to be put to use when the exercise stops, in order to start repairing and building muscle,” says Clark. Combine dark-hued fruits or veggies with good-for-you fats, plus some protein in a preworkout meal. For instance, down a bowl of sliced fresh fruit (such as strawberries, banana and kiwi) with non-fat Greek yogurt topped with slivered almonds, or a romaine lettuce salad topped with blueberries, walnuts and a drizzle of olive oil.

Perform a dynamic warm-up.

Though it may feel good, studies have found that static stretching (holding a position) before exercise doesn’t reduce soreness later. Instead, do a dynamic warm-up, where you move your body, but at a lower intensity than your actual workout. “A dynamic warm-up will enhance blood flow to your working muscles and increase their internal temperature, potentially making them less prone to damage,” says Allan Goldfarb, PhD, an exercise physiologist at the University of North Carolina Greensboro.

If cardio is in your program today, start by doing five to 10 minutes of the same activity at a lower intensity, for instance walking or jogging before your run. Heading to the weight room? “Perform one set of each exercise in your training program using 50 percent of the weight you’ll be lifting,” recommends Goldfarb.

During Your Workout

Slowly increase intensity.

One of the most common culprits behind muscle soreness is stepping up your program too quickly. Taking a more gradual approach will not only protect against soreness, it will help you progress more smoothly. How so? “Lifting too much too soon can lead to overtraining, which occurs when your muscles don’t have adequate time to recover between workouts,” Mikesky explains. “You end up breaking down the muscle more rapidly than it can rebuild itself, which is counterproductive.”

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Instead, follow the 10-percent rule (upping your weights or intensity by 10 percent each week once you feel that you can complete all your sets and reps at your current level) — kind of. “Consider it more of a guideline than a hard-and-fast rule,” Ferber says. One reason: if you’re currently doing biceps curls with 20-pound weights, for example, you’re probably not going to find a 22-pound weight next week when you’re ready to take the next step. But the 10-percent rule will remind you to reach for the 25-pound dumbbell and not the 30-pound one, thereby safeguarding your body against soreness, as you’re increasing the intensity with a load your muscles are prepared to handle, explains Ferber. Keeping a training log where you record each workout is an ideal way to make sure you’re consistently boosting your intensity at a rate that will build strength while minimizing soreness.

Prep for circuits.

You know that performing circuits has its benefits (saves time, torches calories and boosts endurance, to name a few). But if you want to be able to walk a few days from now, ease into them slowly. “If your current training program involves bouts of rest between exercises, then you’re giving your muscles time to reabsorb the flood of chemicals that can cause soreness later,” Ferber says.

But if you’re diving into a super circuit routine, it can take your body even longer to recover afterwards, because you will be coping with the combination of soreness as a result of challenging your muscles in completely new ways, plus the swamp of chemicals that has accumulated when you scrapped rest between exercises. Your solution: gradually chip away at rest periods. If you currently take 60 seconds to rest between exercises, reduce that time to 45 seconds next week, 30 seconds the following one, and 15 seconds the week after that. Within a month, your body will have learned to move those chemicals out of your system more rapidly, so it can handle the back-to-back exercises in a super circuit without leaving you sidelined with soreness for several days.

After Your Workout

Chase your workout with carbs and protein.

The ideal postworkout, soreness-reducing snack contains a ratio of about four parts protein to one part carbohydrates, says Declan Connolly, PhD, exercise physiologist and director of the Human Performance Lab at the University of Vermont. “Protein helps repair muscle damage, which is essential for reducing soreness. Meanwhile, carbs help your body better absorb protein so it can do its job.” 

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A study of U.S. Marine recruits found that those who supplemented with both protein and carbs after a period of basic training experienced 17 percent less muscle soreness one day after a six-mile, full-gear hike, compared to a five percent increase in soreness among the group that supplemented with carbs only. Fortunately, you don’t have to spend a single second counting these compounds: washing down your workout with eight ounces of low-fat chocolate milk provides the perfect muscle-soothing combo for an active woman.

Ice, Ice Baby

The reality is, once your workout is over, the damage is done, says Ferber. “But applying ice to the muscle groups you worked the hardest can help blunt the inflammation response to those micro-tears, so you experience less swelling, and therefore less pain,” he says. Place ice packs on top of your muscles for 20 minutes at a time. If possible, repeat every hour for several hours to keep inflammation in check.

You Asked Us!

We dug through our emails to find your most pressing questions about muscle soreness, then asked our team of experts to dish the facts.

Q: “How can I tell the difference between soreness and a strain?”

A: If words such as “throbbing,” “stabbing” or “popping” enter your vocabulary while working out, you may have strained a muscle. Another sign of a strain (which is a large muscle tear): the pain persists even when you stop doing the activity. Soreness that occurs during a workout, however, feels uncomfortable, but the pain should let up when you stop. If you think you may have strained a muscle, drop what you’re doing immediately and see your doc.

Q: “If I am sore after yesterday’s workout, can I still exercise today?”

A: Yes, but with some adjustments. If you are resistance training, it’s recommended not to exercise the same muscle groups on two consecutive days. If you’re feeling sore, perform a low-intensity activity, such as walking, which will help temporarily relieve some stiffness. What also helps is resting stroke swimming. It works your entire body, but the buoyancy means there’s less impact on your joints and muscles, so it won’t add to your soreness.

Q: “If I don’t feel sore after a workout, did I not work hard enough?”

A: This is a common myth. You don’t need to feel sore to experience strength and other performance gains. While tiny muscle tears are an inevitable consequence of working out, if you increase your intensity at an appropriate rate, it will help reduce your chances of experiencing significant soreness.