Often, the most painful element of a workout occurs after the exercise has been completed. Almost everyone feels the agony associated with aching muscles the day after a hard run or an intense lifting exercise. This phenomenon is known as DOMS, or delayed onset muscle soreness, and it’s the reason why so many of us turn to various approaches that claim to ease pain and speed up recovery.
All athletes, whether weekend warriors or top competitors have adopted tactics such as foam rollers, compression tights, and ice baths. However, none of them are the wonder products that we frequently believe they are.
Why do we experience aching muscles after we exercise?
The reason we get sore in the first place is because of what happens inside our muscles when we exercise: we cause minor damage to the muscle fibers themselves. This soreness is natural and part of the muscle-building process, as irritating and painful as it may be. Doctors, physical therapists, and even athletes can test for this by counting the number of times they can execute a specific activity or lift. When you compare force production during a workout to force production 24 to 48 hours later, you can see how much muscle damage has occurred. The more the muscles are damaged, the lower the post-workout force production is relative to the original.
According to Nicole Dabbs, a kinesiologist at California State University, San Bernardino, “all of this muscle degeneration creates some pain,” but the two are not directly related. The degree of discomfort a person feels after an exercise isn’t always proportional to the amount of damage done. This is because pain is a subjective measure of muscle injury; the same level of muscle damage in two people can induce a large amount of pain in one person but not in the other.
However, it is usually the discomfort, not the actual muscle damage, that motivates people to employ muscle rehabilitation treatments. In fact, according to Dabbs, if the pain aspect didn’t exist, there wouldn’t be nearly as many rehabilitation mechanisms and instruments. Even so, she says, “suffering is important.” People who are in pain, regardless of how injured their muscle fibers are, are less likely to exercise as vigorously until the discomfort subsides.
All of these recovery techniques have a lot of pleased clients, and more seem to be on the way, but studies on whether or not they function are rare.
“I think it’s hard for people, particularly researchers, to realize that there isn’t one thing that works for everyone,” Dabbs adds. Due to factors such as training state, percentage of fast- versus slow-twitch muscle, biological sex, type of training, age, and others, she claims that what works for one individual may not work for another. Furthermore, buyers often evaluate a product primarily on how much pain they experience afterward, rather than objective evidence of muscle regeneration.
So, here’s what science has to say about whether or not these recuperation aids are effective.
Taking an ice bath
Paula Radcliffe, the current world record holder in the women’s marathon, took a 10-minute cold bath after winning the London Marathon in 2003. The popular healing procedure got even more popular once she reported the arctic plunge to the press media. This strategy is used by athletes all around the world and in every sport.
Is it, however, effective?
Ice baths are one of the most researched muscle regeneration techniques due to their popularity and maybe simplicity (any large bucket of water and ice, or even a cold stream or river will suffice). The theory is that sustained exposure to extremely cold temperatures reduces muscle damage-related edoema and pain. (Most of the time, the swelling is so minor that it goes unnoticed by a regular exerciser.) However, as Dabbs points out, and as several recent studies have suggested, a reduction in swelling may impede the recovery process, as swelling is required for muscles to recover and restore strength.
Some research demonstrates that it does function to relieve pain, while others show that it does not. Overall, ice baths appear to reduce related pain, although the degree by which they do so may not be much better than the placebo effect.
Researchers in one study had a group of “recreationally active” men bike for a brief time before putting them in one of three recovery conditions: an ice bath, a warm bath (as a control), or a bath with a popular skin cleanser that participants were told was a newly invented “recovery oil.” This last group was also given a leaflet outlining the supposed evidence in support of the oil, to persuade them that it would work.
When asked before starting the therapy, participants in the ice bath group and the “recovery oil” placebo group both believed in the integrity of the recovery procedures they were about to receive to a similar degree. This could influence how they felt about the treatment in the end if they didn’t believe in it, to begin with. Both the ice bath and placebo groups reported a similar favorable degree of recovery after the therapy, which was higher than the control group, which had a warm bath. Aside from a small amount of skin cleanser, the warm bath and the placebo were identical.
According to Dabbs, a post-workout ice bath may still be beneficial during specific training phases. It might be okay to use if it truly relieves pain and you don’t need your muscles to heal rapidly, such as if you have a race or a rigorous training session coming up in the next few days. However, taking an ice bath too soon before a hard training session or competition is usually not a smart idea. The study is clearer in this regard: Muscle temperatures have an effect on performance, and warmer muscles always perform better (which is why we warm up in the first place).
If that’s the case, and you’re not afraid of getting a cold, go ahead and do it solely for the placebo effect. It would be a fantastic moment to try out the cold after finishing a marathon or watching a championship game.
Cryotherapy for the Entire Body
Whole Body Cryotherapy is essentially a high-tech ice bath, in which a person enters a chamber with sub-zero temperatures for only a few minutes. The key distinction is in how cold is transferred to your body. Water can store more heat for longer periods than air, making it more effective at cooling you down. A study comparing the two treatments—a typical ice bath with whole-body cryotherapy—found that a cold soak decreases blood flow and tissue temperature better than cryotherapy.
What effect this has on your muscles is a separate topic, with the same mixed outcomes as a traditional ice bath. Another study, published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology in 2019, found that whole-body cryotherapy was more effective than cold water immersion (an ice bath) in reducing pain and other responses after resistance training, though “neither [intervention] was more effective than the placebo treatment at accelerating recovery,” according to the study. However, at-home polar plunges are much less expensive; a cryotherapy chamber can cost up to $75 per person, depending on where you live.
Rollers made of foam
Foam rollers are a staple in the training routines of many sportsmen. It’s supposed to function by causing self-myofascial release, which is the loosening of the layer of tissue that rests on the exterior of a muscle. Muscle pain can be caused by tight fascia in some circumstances, and pressing on it is supposed to loosen that grip. This is supposed to increase joint range of motion and minimize DOMS.
Unfortunately, it’s unclear whether this increases sports performance or muscle repair. According to Dabbs, the majority of research on foam rollers shows no positive effects on performance during the recuperation phase.
Vibrating components are now included in newer foam rollers, which are designed to combine the pressure and benefits of a massage with the help of vibration technology. The vibrating foam rollers boosted participants’ pain tolerance, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Sport Rehabilitation in January 2019. Others, on the other hand, claim that there is no difference between vibrating and non-vibrating foam rollers. However, vibrating foam rollers have only been available for a few years, and there may not be enough rigorous research to tell for sure.
Tights with Compression
Compression gear is a multibillion-dollar industry for athletes and wearing it has almost become a status symbol: if you require it, you must be performing some intense workouts. But, as with other healing strategies, the jury is still out on whether it helps muscles recover.
Compression tights have long been used in medical settings to aid persons with circulation problems. When worn, they generate a pressure gradient by lowering the level of compression from the distal (or farthest away from the body) to the proximal (or closest to the body) part of a person’s leg or arm (inner part). This improves blood flow and minimizes swelling in the veins. They work for both persons with circulatory problems and healthy people, according to studies.
The notion is that increased blood flow enhances clearance of blood lactate and creatine kinase, which are both produced from muscles and into the bloodstream after strenuous exercise and are indicators of muscle injury.
However, the evidence to support these statements is insufficient. At best, studies reveal it to be as effective as the other processes we’ve discussed—that is, minimal—and at worst, research shows it to be completely useless. One issue, as observed by Australian scientist Shona Halson is a 2010 review article, is that many of the studies done don’t quantify the compressive forces of the garments, making it impossible to know if they’re improving blood flow adequately.
A review published in the Open Access Journal of Sports Medicine in 2020 looked at 21 studies that looked at the effects of compression tights. The researchers found that wearing their improved performance in a small number of studies and that compression socks could help with perceived muscle soreness during recovery. The mechanism behind this, however, remains unknown. And, according to the study, more research is needed to determine this, as well as the long-term impact of compression tights on sports performance.
You might be better off experimenting with different healing methods, but if you insist on wearing compression garments, do so after exercise rather than during. According to certain research, the longer you wear them, the better. Instead of shorts, wear full-length tights or ones that cover the lower legs.
If you recall from PE class, you may recall sitting in a circle and stretching one body part at a time. However, during the past decade, experts have found compelling evidence that this technique, known as static stretching, is ineffective at warming up your muscles. Dynamic stretching, which involves moving and engaging more than one muscle group at the same time, is considered superior.
Dynamic stretching improves blood flow and warms muscles, both of which are important for athletic performance, whereas static stretching does not. That isn’t to imply that static stretching isn’t beneficial. They serve to expand the range of motion at the joints that bind muscles together, according to Dabbs. These stretches are essential for a variety of everyday and athletic actions, including weight lifting, running, and other daily activities.
Stretching is still necessary, but remember to do dynamic stretching first and static stretching afterward.
Massages, which attempt to relieve muscle fascia tension, have a lot of mixed evidence, just like other rehabilitation therapies. They most likely assist in the long run. The big issue, according to Dabbs, is whether people can use it as a recovery mechanism regularly. Massages are usually performed by professionals, such as physical therapists, who are trained to do so. “Most people don’t have the money or time to get a massage, even if it’s beneficial.” “There are some clinical benefits of massage in a rehabilitation setting,” she explains.
Drugs for Pain Relief
Drugs have far more hard evidence than other rehabilitation treatments, but this isn’t a good thing: they should only be used as a last resort. While non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like aspirin and ibuprofen are effective at reducing pain, they come at a price. Many recent studies have found that they significantly slow down the body’s normal muscle healing process. According to certain studies, NSAIDS decreases the multiplication of satellite cells, a kind of muscle stem cell that plays an important role in muscle healing. It’s usually best to just tough it out if you can withstand the agony, according to Dabbs. Of course, they have their place: “If there is an intolerable amount of pain (because you still need to be mobile),” the advantages will certainly outweigh the costs, “but knowing it may delay the recovery process.”
Sleep is one approach that most people overlook.
Most Americans, including athletes and regular exercisers, can’t get enough of it. Adult humans require approximately eight hours of sleep per night. Endurance and full-time professional athletes will most likely require nine or ten hours. Sleep and muscle healing, as well as subsequent sports performance, have been the subject of increased research in recent years. While scientists are still working out the exact methods by which muscle repair and adequate zz interact, they do know that sleep is essential for practically every organ system in the body. And if you’re going to all the trouble and spending the money on these various recuperation methods, you should make sure you get a good night’s sleep as well.