But more isn’t always more. “You have to be careful,” says Seedman. “Doing some light stretching can be good, but trying to overstretch the muscle when it feels extremely tight can actually cause the muscle to come back even tighter because the body is trying to resist it.”
So how do you know how far is too far? “Stretch until it feels pretty tight, let up after 5 to 10 seconds, and then repeat that, without ever getting to the point where it feels unbearable,” says Seedman. If it’s too painful to even think about stretching, skip it—it’s really just about getting some temporary relief if you can.
4. Make sure you’re getting enough protein.
Protein is a critical nutrient for building and maintaining muscle, so it plays a huge role in helping your muscles recover from a tough workout.
While you should be eating enough protein all the time to prevent recurring or long-lasting soreness from your workouts, says Seedman, it can still be helpful to double-check that you’re eating enough protein after the damage is done. “You can almost make the argument that that’s going to be as vital as light exercise [to recover],” he says.
This doesn’t mean excessively high amounts of protein, necessarily. While needs vary, people who work out should aim for about 1.4 to 2 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight. For an active person who’s 150 pounds, that’s about 95 to 136 grams per day, split up between all your meals.
5. Try heat or ice to ease the pain.
The debate between heat therapy and cold therapy is ongoing, but when it comes down to it, it’s really just about what feels good to you—for the most part, the effects are temporary. But when you’re super sore, any fleeting relief (as long as it’s safe) is worth it.
Ice can help reduce the swelling that sometimes comes along with extreme soreness, says Seedman. Bringing the swelling down can help reduce some pain-causing tension. Elevating your legs (if that’s where you’re sore) can also help with this.
However, heat can also minimize tension and pain signals, says Seedman. So if relaxing in a warm bath makes you feel better, do that. McCall also notes that this may help with circulation.
What can you do to prevent muscle soreness after a workout?
While the tips above can help you improve soreness that you’re already experiencing, there are also some things you can do to prevent DOMS from happening in the first place—or at least limit it.
Take it slow to prevent DOMS.
Since too-much-too-soon is a big trigger of DOMS, it makes sense that easing into a new kind of training (or into any training, if you’re just starting out) can help make muscle soreness after a workout less likely.
Progress slowly with new workout types, says Miranda. So if you normally do equally timed contractions for strength training—spending about the same time on lifting and lowering—but want to start incorporate eccentric training, you might want to start gradually adding it into your routine. If you normally do four sets of regular biceps curls, maybe you do one or two sets the first time you try eccentric biceps curls, for instance.
If you want to try a new type of training, like with a virtual class, choose a shorter class aimed for beginners, which will introduce you to the moves rather than throw you right in.
Foam-roll after your workout.
Foam rolling after your workout may also help reduce the intensity of DOMS. A review of 14 studies published in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy concluded that self-myofascial release, as performed by a foam roller or a roller massager, after an intense exercise session helped decrease perceptions of muscle soreness in the following days.
“This improves blood flow and the oxygenation to the area, which they believe helps in the perceived reduction of DOMS,” says Miranda. (Percussive therapy devices like the Theragun Elite may also help you feel better too, as SELF recently reported.)
Overall, time should heal your soreness—as long as it’s not something more serious.
While you’re recovering, it’s also important to watch for signs of something more serious. A syndrome called rhabdomyolysis occurs when overworked muscle fibers die and release the protein myoglobin into the bloodstream, which can lead to kidney damage and even failure. This is a medical emergency, and along with extreme muscle pain, weakness, and swelling, the main sign is often cola-colored urine. If you notice these signs, get to a doctor ASAP.
If you experience sharp pain during your workout, or if the soreness doesn’t start improving after a couple of days, that can be a sign that you’re actually injured and need to see a health care professional.