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Natural Recovery from Post-Workout Soreness

It’s common knowledge that exercise is a great part of a healthy lifestyle, but we all know that post-workout soreness can be a real…well, pain. 

If you’re dedicating time and energy to a work-out routine, but are looking to ease that muscle soreness that can follow, this post is for you. As a fitness and nutrition professional, I’ve witnessed the power of natural post-workout relief in action and can, personally, vouch for its effectiveness. 

Exercise is awesome. Obviously.

Indisputably, medical and health professionals can agree that movement is essential to our overall health and quality of life. There are countless benefits to exercise which include but are not limited to, increasing strength, reducing the risk of chronic disease, increasing energy, improving bone and joint health, improving balance, and supporting mental health. 

However, the frequency, type, volume, intensity, and duration of exercise depend on the individual and the specific goal. Exercising to: strengthen, increase muscle mass, rehabilitate an injury, increase explosive power, increase flexibility, increase athletic performance, or reduce body fat, may have a similar foundation, but do not necessarily follow the same programming. Similarly, our individual backgrounds, fitness level, health history, injury history, nutrition choices, and mindset may also impact performance quality during exercise and recovery after exercise. 

Most of us have heard of the misguided phrase: ‘no pain, no gain.’ Of course, exercise does involve hard work, perseverance, and patience – all of which some people may consider ‘painful,’ but physically pushing our bodies beyond our limits where we experience intense pain, damage muscle tissue, or are too sore to function, won’t help us achieve our fitness goals and may actually hinder performance or lead to injury.

There are types of sensations to take note of since they vary in degrees of severity and change the course of the conversation.

  • Minor muscle-burning experienced during or immediately following exercise (exercise causes minor tears in muscle fibres, so some discomfort when challenging our comfort zone is expected.) 
  • Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) – may develop 12-48 hours after strenuous exercise resulting from eccentric muscle movements (muscle lengthening) or prolonged endurance event. 
  • Exercise-associated muscle cramp (EAMC) – is a “sudden, intense, electrically active contractions elicited by motor neuron hyperexcitability.” Though the exact cause of EAMC is unknown, the most widely accepted theory points to dehydration/lack of electrolytes.

If you have just started working out again or have started a new training program, some stiffness post-workout may happen since exercise itself is a type of stress on the body, and the body has not yet adapted to this stress load. If this is the case, then movement is the remedy such as light aerobic exercise to improve blood flow. 

However, lagging soreness may indicate that some of the lifestyle habits we cover below are overlooked. 

Lifestyle habits that aid in post-workout recovery

Whether you’re a high-performance athlete or an individual exercising as part of a healthy lifestyle, here are some of the recommended basic steps to consider first for increasing performance and decreasing post-workout soreness: 

  1. Resting and sleeping. Optimal mental and physical performance is heavily correlated to sufficient, good quality sleep which “plays an active role in processes such as synaptic plasticity and memory functions, emotional regulation, metabolic functions and energy balance, macromolecule biosynthesis, removal of toxic substances and metabolic waste, or prophylactic cellular maintenance.” 
  2. Exercising at the appropriate fitness level while executing movements with correct technique and respecting your individual range of motion.
  3. Prioritizing progressive overload when exercising (progress exercise selections and volume slowly, and increase amounts incrementally.)
  4. Consuming adequate calories and nutrients from high-quality nutrient-dense proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. Choosing to be in a calorie deficit (especially if it is too extreme) at the same time as increasing activity level usually has the opposite desired effect. We require adequate fuel to rebuild muscle fibres, reduce inflammation, and reduce soreness (more on that below).
  5. Hydrating. Water is essential to us since it makes up 75% of our body. Some people sweat a lot of water during exercise, but even a loss of only 2% of water can have consequences such as, “decrements in performance related to reduced endurance, increased fatigue, altered thermoregulatory capability, reduced motivation, and increased perceived effort.” The quantity of liquid needed to rehydrate depends on a few factors, but aim for roughly 2-3 litres per day through water, herbal teas, soups, or hydrating foods such as celery, cucumber, and watermelon. 

When the basic actions above become habits, then you may choose to incorporate practices or supplements that further support recovery (this list is not exhaustive as it depends on the individual need), but I would recommend considering the following:

A holistic approach to reducing post-workout soreness

Consume good quality protein

Ideally, it’s recommended to acquire our protein from whole food animal-based or plant-based sources. (i.e., chicken, turkey, beef, fish, eggs, greek yogourt, cottage cheese; or, lentils, beans, chickpeas, tempeh, soy milk, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds etc). However, if this is challenging then include high-quality supplements, such as whey protein and pea protein

Here’s one of my favourite fall-time, smoothie recipes that includes protein powder:

Apple pie smoothie:

1 cup dairy/non-dairy, 1 diced apple, 1 scoop vanilla protein powder, 1 tbsp almond butter, small pinch of cinnamon, drizzle of maple syrup

Add in electrolytes

The body balances its levels of sodium, potassium, chloride, calcium, phosphate, and magnesium, and we lose some of these electrolytes in sweat. So, depending on the intensity and duration of your workout, you may want to support your body in order to avoid cramping or dragging out recovery. Sports drinks are still viable options but if possible, try to get these electrolytes from food sources which include watermelon, cucumbers, maple syrup, and coconut water. 

Supplement with high-quality supplements

Again, this depends on the individual need and the current nutrition approach, but a few supplements that may reduce post-workout muscle soreness include Creatine, Citrulline, Magnesium, Vitamin D, and Zinc

Always consider that supplements are supplemental to the basic habits of a healthy lifestyle. Decreasing post-workout soreness starts before you even exercise!

Cold and heat therapy 

This combination reduces inflammation and increases blood flow, which promotes healing and can reduce the duration of muscle soreness. 

Receive integrative treatments

Qualified practitioners like acupuncturists, massage therapists and osteopaths can be a helpful part of your healthy movement routine.

Consistency counts

The most important elements of exercise are simplicity and consistency. Choose a fitness approach that is appropriate for where you’re at and consider how sustainable it is for your current lifestyle. If you’re too sore to stay consistent with a realistic training approach, then an array of supplements or alternative therapies won’t be appropriate long-term solutions. 

Please be aware of your body. If soreness persists longer than 7 days, impacts day to day actions, or has brought on other consequences such as a dark urine colour or intense pain may be a cause for concern. Consider taking a break from intense exercise and seek advice and assessment from a medical professional.

If you require accountability or support, need a review of techniques, need some assistance figuring out what to do in the gym (or out of the gym!), or just need a little push, speak to a qualified fitness professional to find a solution that is most appropriate for you. Train smart and move for life! 

Parastoo Badie

Parastoo Badie

Holistic Nutritionist, Personal Trainer
Based in Ottawa, Ontario, Parastoo integrates her expertise as a certified personal trainer, registered holistic nutritionist, and exercise nutrition coach to teach people how to become stronger in body and mind. A multi-passionate wellness leader, she remains active as a rugby player, belly dancer, speaker, and coach. Parastoo also pulls from her personal experiences to advocate for mental health, strength, and self-empowerment. Through education, she encourages unapologetic and authentic confidence in her clients to support healthier and happier people in her community. When she’s not coaching clients or planning on how to take over the fitness world, Parastoo can be found playing with puppies, drinking coffee, and giggling (mostly at herself).