How Runners Can Ease Muscle Soreness

A woman stretching outside after a workout.
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Whether you’re a new or seasoned runner, you’re bound to experience muscle soreness at some point in your training. Novice runners are particularly susceptible as their bodies adjust to the impact of running. But even experienced, elite athletes get sore after hard workouts and races, so learning how to handle it is an important part of the training process.

If you aren’t used to post-run soreness, it may be hard to know what’s normal and what’s not. Any sharp, acute pain is worrisome and should be checked out by a doctor if it continues, but generalized achiness or tightness is less concerning. DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) lives up to its name and creeps up slowly, 24–48 hours after a workout.

Trevor Hicks, a physical therapist with AdventHealth, notes that not all soreness is healthy. “Muscle soreness that doesn’t alleviate after 48–72 hours is too much soreness. Some signs of pushing too hard include soreness lasting longer than 72 hours or getting worse after three days, dark tea-colored urine and muscle bruising when no trauma has occurred, which are all signs of rhabdomyolysis. This is a serious, life-threatening condition that requires immediate medical attention.”

While there are many ways to address muscle soreness, painkillers or NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatories) are not on the list. NSAIDs stop the post-workout inflammatory process, which is what signals your body to begin muscle healing and repair. Unless you are acutely injured (a sprained ankle, for example, or a painful fall), try to avoid NSAIDs as they can be counter-productive to your continued improvement.

Nutrition for Runners

Nutrition may seem like a less obvious choice to counteract muscle soreness, but the recovery process always begins with refueling. Ideally, you should eat a snack or small meal immediately after finishing your run. Most studies show that refueling within 30 minutes is ideal, but some show the window where your body is especially receptive to fueling to be even shorter, such as 5–10 minutes.

While a 4:1 carbohydrate to protein ratio is ideal for a post-run snack, don’t get too bogged down in the exact math. A carbohydrate rich food with some added protein such as a smoothie, a banana with peanut butter or chocolate milk should be your goal.

Without adequate calories, your body will be unable to start the process of muscle recovery and repair. Over time, too much calorie restriction can lead to more serious injuries such as stress fractures. While a short recovery run may need minimal refueling, be prepared to address your nutrition adequately after workouts and long runs.

Stretches for Runners

While the benefits of static stretching continue to be debated, both dynamic and static stretching can have a place in your post-run recovery routine. If you enjoy static stretching, it’s best done after your run when your muscles are loose and warm.

As you stretch, work within your own range of motion and don’t push too far or too hard. Muscles can contract defensively when held in a stretched position for too long, so hold the stretch for less than a minute and don’t do any bouncing movement within the stretch itself. In addition to promoting feelings of well-being, static stretching may improve blood flow to tight, sore areas. Focus on the major running muscles including the glutes, hamstrings, quads and calves.

Dynamic, or active mobility routines can also be useful after a run. Dynamic stretching takes you through a range of motion rather than a passive stretch. Some options include leg swings and walking lunges, or more hip specific work like clamshells and donkey kicks.

Ice Baths After a Run

Ice baths can be just as torturous as they sound but are also an effective tool in reducing soreness and inflammation. Submerging yourself in a tub of icy water is not for the faint of heart. Focus on keeping the lower half of you under water for about 15 minutes to gain maximum benefits, while bundling up the top half to stay warm.

Ice baths work naturally in a way that is similar to NSAIDs in that they stop inflammation. While this can make you feel better if you are acutely sore and painful, they can also impede the recovery and healing process if used too frequently. Save ice baths for after a race or a very hard or long effort to maximize the benefit without slowing down your muscle adaptation to more routine workouts.

Foam Rolling for Runners

If you’ve ever used a foam roller, you know it tends to fall into the “hurts so good” category — much like a deep tissue or sports massage. Foam rolling can provide a range of benefits including enhanced circulation, reduced inflammation, removal of scar tissue or muscular adhesions, and improved range of motion. While foam rolling can be done prior to an easy recovery run, it’s most useful after a workout. For best results, work in shorter sessions of 1–2 minutes on each of the major muscle groups including your calves, hamstrings, quads, glutes and hips.

As you foam roll, remember that rolling across tendons, bones and sore areas can make things worse, not better. If you have a sore spot, work around the area instead of directly on it. Avoid the philosophy of “no pain no gain.” While rolling can be mildly uncomfortable, it should never be overtly painful. If you can’t get an area to loosen up, try 2–3 short sessions over the course of a day rather than one long one. If you can’t get relief after a couple days, it might be time to seek out professional assistance.

Massage After a Run

Professional massage can be a wonderful tool to add to your arsenal to reduce soreness and keep you healthy. Most providers offer a variety of options, from the lighter touch of a Swedish massage to sports massage and deep tissue work.

If you enjoy deep tissue massage, don’t schedule it too close to an important workout or race. Often you can feel a little sore with muscles that are less responsive immediately after massage, so try not to run hard for a couple of days afterwards. After a race, give yourself a few days to recover so you aren’t too sore or tender to gain the benefits of professional work.

Hicks recommends a hybrid strategy that includes multiple strategies to ease soreness. “My personal preference is light foam rolling and a long, very slow walk to promote blood flow the day after a race or hard effort. The day of the competition, directly following it, I prefer an ice bath but not everyone can tolerate this. I do not, however, recommend sitting or lying around all day following a race. I recommend getting up and moving around every hour to keep the blood flowing.”

While muscle soreness frequently comes with hard training and racing, there are a variety of ways to improve how you feel, both physically and mentally. Nutrition, stretching, ice baths, foam rolling and massage are all useful tools to reduce soreness and continue healthy training. For more information about how to reach your goals and recover safely, visit AdventHealth Sports Med & Rehab and speak with a sports medicine expert today.

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