What actually works for muscle recovery—and what doesn’t

The most painful part of a workout often comes after the exercise itself. The day after a hard run or an intense lifting session, almost everyone feels the pain associated with sore muscles. Researchers call this phenomenon DOMS, or delayed onset muscle soreness, and it’s the reason many of us turn to various techniques we’ve been told relieve the pain and speed up the recovery process.

Tactics from foam rollers to compression tights to ice baths have become popular among all athletes, whether they be weekend warriors or elite competitors. But none of them are the miracle products we often think they are.

Why do our muscles get sore after we exercise?

The reason we get soreness in the first place has to do with what’s happening inside our muscles when we workout: We generate small amounts of damage to the muscle fibers themselves. As frustrating and painful as it might be, this soreness is normal and part of the muscle building process. Doctors, physical therapists, and even athletes themselves can test for this by measuring something called force production, which is the number of times you can perform a certain activity or lift. Comparing the force production during a workout versus 24 to 48 hours afterwards gives a glimpse to the amount of muscle damage. The lower the post-workout force production is compared to the original, the more the muscles are damaged.

All this muscle damage also causes some pain, but the two are not linearly related, says Nicole Dabbs, a kinesiologist at California State University, San Bernardino. The level of pain a person is in after a workout doesn’t always directly correlate with the amount of damage. That’s because pain is a perceived measure of muscle damage and it is highly subjective; the same level of muscle damage in two people could cause a significant amount of pain in one person and far less in another.

But it’s the pain, not the actual muscle damage that typically drives people to use these muscle recovery tools. In fact, Dabbs says, there probably wouldn’t be this plethora of recovery mechanisms and tools if the pain factor didn’t exist. Still, she notes, “pain matters.” Regardless of how damaged their muscle fibers are, people who are in pain aren’t going to be particularly inclined to exercise as intensely until the pain goes away.

There are plenty of happy customers for all of these recovery tools, and more tools seem to but studies on whether these products actually work are far less common.

“A lot of times we want this cookie cutter thing where we can say foam rollers work for everyone but I think it’s hard to people, including researchers, to grasp that there isn’t one thing that works for everyone,” says Dabbs. What may work for one person she says, may not work for another due to factors like training status, percentage of fast- versus slow-twitch muscle, biological sex, type of training, age, and others. Plus consumers typically judge a product based on their level of pain afterwards, not on scientific evidence of muscle recovery.

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