How to relieve muscle soreness after a hard workout

James Bird of Capital Physio explains 10 of the most effective, and proven, ways to improve muscle recovery after hard exercise.

We explain how to relieve muscle soreness after a hard workout. Credit: RyanKing999 / iStock / Getty Images Plus

We all dread that sore-muscle after a hard workout, which can in turn impede on performance and general comfort. In fact, recent research has changed views on the actual role of lactic acid and its byproduct, lactate, in that it is a necessary part of energy production. James Bird of explains some of the most effective and proven ways to improve recovery after exercise.


1. Go for a light swim

The constant pressure from the weight of the water surrounding us (hydrostatic pressure) acts as a compressive force on all of our muscles. This pressure will improve the efficiency of circulation and detoxification of blood, and therefore aid in recovery from intense exercise. It is also a non weight bearing activity that will not stress the joints.

2.  Activation exercises

This is a big one that people often miss out, and it’s a great tool to aid in reducing the onset of soreness. It is common that during an exercise some muscle groups (including the wrong ones) are used over others. To enable you to move more efficiently, and use the right muscle groups, you can incorporate activation exercises into your warm up routine to ensure the right neural pathways are firing and we are using the right dynamic of muscle groups.

One of the biggest culprits is people’s gluteal muscles not sufficiently contracting during a movement. The glutes are one of the most important muscle groups we have and when they are not firing properly, the load will go through other areas and increase the likelihood of compensatory movements and soreness.

3. Exercise again?

Yep, complete rest is not always the best answer to recovering faster. Between workouts involve a combination of low intensity exercises and stretches for about 15-20 minutes. Make sure that your heart rate is kept below 130 BPM. Active recovery ensures that your nervous system stays awake and increases circulation.

4. Get a massage

Besides feeling great, getting a massage from a physiotherapist/massage therapist can greatly improve function, boost lymphatic drainage, reduce the onset of muscle soreness and reduce inflammation. It is important however to mention to the therapist what your goals or potential upcoming competitions may be as there are various treatment approaches that will be tailored to you.

5. Use mobility tools

There is a long list of widely available mobility tools that one can use to aid in recovery. Foam rollers, mobility balls, resistance bands and massage sticks. These can all be packed into a bag and gives you the ability to treat yourself without the presence of another person. Using these tools can be confusing so it could be beneficial to book a session in with a personal trainer or physiotherapist to take you through how to use these tools to its full potential.

6. Eat and drink right

You could have the best training program in the world, but if your nutrition is not on point you are going to be feeling achy all the time and won’t be gaining the full effects from your training regime. This may seem obvious to some, but it is surprising how often people do not pay enough attention to what they are eating or drinking.

Foods with strong anti inflammatory properties such as salmon, turmeric and berries can reduce soreness; processed foods will aid in doing the opposite. It is proven that dehydration significantly adds to muscle soreness. Carry a 1L bottle with you daily and aim to drink 2-3 a day and more on days of intense exercise. A bottle makes it easier to monitor your water intake.

7. Cryotherapy

Also called cold therapy, whether it’s done through an ice bath, cold compress or a whole body cryotherapy tank, the idea is to apply below freezing temperatures to the body post exercise to reduce the onset of soreness. The effects are a reduction of the inflammatory response, pain relief, decreasing muscle spasm and If using an ice bath, the above mentioned hydrostatic pressure effects will also take place.

8. Recovery sprays

AKA transdermal sprays, this can be easily carried around in a bag/pocket for application post exercise. These products often contain magnesium and a mix of other ingredients sprayed directly onto the area of soreness/potential onset site. Although not greatly researched at present, it is one of the newer forms of recovery tools that has been getting lots of positive feedback as to how effective it can be in aiding recovery when applied directly post-exercise.

9. Epsom salt baths

Epsom salt contains magnesium sulphate and when dissolved in a bath, your skin will uptake some of this compound and aid in regeneration of muscles post activity, increase circulation and reduces inflammation. Lower levels of magnesium in the body increases the likelihood of soreness. The additional effects of hydrostatic pressure also come into play.

10. BCAA’s

This stands for branched chain amino acids, our body is unable to naturally produce all of the amino acids that it needs, taking these in a concentrated supplement form can boost protein synthesis and prevent the breakdown of muscle fibres that gives us that sore feeling after training.

James Bird is a Chartered Physiotherapist with the UK-based, which operates in London, Manchester, Birmingham, Cambridge, Doncaster, and North Lincolnshire.