Muscle soreness is often the biggest factor limiting your performance. It’s hard to get out of bed, every step hurts, and the stairs are your worst nightmare. Some people claim to like muscle soreness, because they think that it means they had a good workout. But define “good.” Is it really good to feel so sore that you can’t lift your arms anymore, or have to drop down every time you sit? And that’s not even the worst part; due to the soreness, you cannot train the muscle for days, which will slow down your progress.
So how can we reduce muscle soreness? Without going into too much detail, the key to attenuate soreness is to decrease inflammation. Inflammation begins right after you damaged the muscles, and is the first phase of tissue repair. During the inflammation phase, the body cleans up the damaged and dying cells to prepare for the repairing phase. This is an important process for tissue repair, but inflammation is aggressive and can also damage healthy cells, which is called “secondary damage.”1,2
The inflammatory process also produces multiple markers (like prostaglandin and substance P) that stimulate pain nerves, which results in more pain. Less inflammation results in less pain and less muscle damage, and thus a quicker recovery.3
3 Ways to Control Muscle Inflammation: 1. The Zingiberaceae Plant Family
This plant family consists of ginger, turmeric, cardamom, and laos, which can be found in any supermarket. The effects of ginger and turmeric have been thoroughly tested by scientists. They have anti-inflammatory qualities and have been successfully used to reduce muscle soreness.4,5,6 In fact, some it was shown that a mixture of turmeric and ginger was more effective in reducing inflammation than an NSAID. Try adding 2-3g of dried ginger or turmeric to your smoothie or tea each day.
3 Ways to Control Muscle Inflammation: 2. Breathing Exercises
You can also lower inflammation by turning on the right part of the nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is responsible for the “fight or flight” modus, making you ready to attack or run. One of the ways it does that is by releasing (nor)adrenaline, which is a major anti-inflammatory factor. With breathing exercises, you can stimulate the SNS, trigger the release of (nor)adrenaline and lower inflammation.7,8
Research from the Radboud University in the Netherlands even showed that a breathing technique was able to prevent test subjects from getting sick. During the study, two groups were injected with dead bacteria, after which the control group got flu like symptoms within an hour, whereas the test group was able to fight the sickness with breathing exercises. The scientists concluded that the increase of adrenaline in the breathing group caused a lower inflammatory response, resulting in reduced sickness.7,8
To stimulate the SNS, do 30 breaths focusing on breathing in, a form of hyperventilation. Inhale deeply and exhale shortly. This will produce some light-headedness and tingling in the hands and feet. After 30 breaths, exhale and try to hold your breath for as long as you can (should be more than 90 seconds). Repeat one or two times.
3 Ways to Control Muscle Inflammation: 3. Ice Baths
Symptoms of inflammation include redness, swelling, increased temperature, and loss of function. Did you see that the first three of those symptoms are highly influenced by blood flow? By restricting blood flow, the inflammatory response dampens.9,10 Cold therapy is a great way to do that. Besides ice baths, you can also take a cold shower or use cold packs. This has been widely studied, and scientists have concluded that ice baths reduce muscle soreness and also cause a lower strength deficit 24-72 hours after training.9,10,11,12 One disclaimer: don’t do it directly after strength training, because your body needs a little bit of inflammation. It’s better to do ice baths 45min or 60min after training.13 Try ice baths with a temperature of 10°C/50°F for 10min.
1. MacIntyre, Donna L., W. Darlene Reid, and Donald C. McKenzie. “Delayed muscle soreness.” Sports Medicine 20, no. 1 (1995): 24-40.
2. Smith, Lucille L. “Acute inflammation: the underlying mechanism in delayed onset muscle soreness?.” Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 23, no. 5 (1991): 542-551.
3. Lapointe, Benoît M., Jérôme Frenette, and Claude H. Côté. “Lengthening contraction-induced inflammation is linked to secondary damage but devoid of neutrophil invasion.” Journal of Applied Physiology 92, no. 5 (2002): 1995-2004.
4. Ramadan, Gamal, and Omar El?Menshawy. “Protective effects of ginger?turmeric rhizomes mixture on joint inflammation, atherogenesis, kidney dysfunction and other complications in a rat model of human rheumatoid arthritis.” International Journal of Rheumatic Diseases 16, no. 2 (2013): 219-229.
5. Mashhadi, Nafiseh Shokri, Reza Ghiasvand, Gholamreza Askari, Awat Feizi, Mitra Hariri, Leila Darvishi, Azam Barani, Maryam Taghiyar, Afshin Shiranian, and Maryam Hajishafiee. “Influence of ginger and cinnamon intake on inflammation and muscle soreness endued by exercise in Iranian female athletes.” International Journal of Preventive Medicine 4 (2013).
6. Wang, Shaopeng, Caihua Zhang, Guang Yang, and Yanzong Yang. “Biological properties of 6-gingerol: a brief review.” Natural Product Communications 9, no. 7 (2014): 1027-1030.
7. Kox, Matthijs, Lucas T. van Eijk, Jelle Zwaag, Joanne van den Wildenberg, Fred CGJ Sweep, Johannes G. van der Hoeven, and Peter Pickkers. “Voluntary activation of the sympathetic nervous system and attenuation of the innate immune response in humans.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111, no. 20 (2014): 7379-7384.
8. van Middendorp, Henriët, Matthijs Kox, Peter Pickkers, and Andrea WM Evers. “The role of outcome expectancies for a training program consisting of meditation, breathing exercises, and cold exposure on the response to endotoxin administration: a proof-of-principle study.” Clinical Rheumatology 35, no. 4 (2016): 1081-1085.
9. Ascensao, Antonio, Marco Leite, António N. Rebelo, Sérgio Magalhäes, and José Magalhäes. “Effects of cold water immersion on the recovery of physical performance and muscle damage following a one-off soccer match.” Journal of Sports Sciences 29, no. 3 (2011): 217-225.
10. Pournot, Herve, François Bieuzen, Julien Louis, Jean-Robert Fillard, Etienne Barbiche, and Christophe Hausswirth. “Time-course of changes in inflammatory response after whole-body cryotherapy multi exposures following severe exercise.” PloS one 6, no. 7 (2011): e22748.
11. Elias, G., M. Varley, V. Wyckelsma, C. Minahan, M. McKenna, N. Stepto, and R. Aughey. “Cold water immersion is most effective for recovery of repeat sprint ability and reducing fatigue post an Australian football game.” Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport 13 (2010): e16.
12. Rowsell, Greg J., Aaron J. Coutts, Peter Reaburn, and Stephen Hill-Haas. “Effect of post-match cold-water immersion on subsequent match running performance in junior soccer players during tournament play.” Journal of Sports Sciences 29, no. 1 (2011): 1-6.
13. Roberts, Llion A., Truls Raastad, James F. Markworth, Vandre C. Figueiredo, Ingrid M. Egner, Anthony Shield, David Cameron?Smith, Jeff S. Coombes, and Jonathan M. Peake. “Post?exercise cold water immersion attenuates acute anabolic signalling and long?term adaptations in muscle to strength training.” The Journal of Physiology 593, no. 18 (2015): 4285-4301.