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Best relief for muscle soreness from intensive training?

Dear Alice,

My husband is in an intensive training program to become a firefighter. He trains Monday – Friday. As a consequence, he is sore everyday. I know the best remedy for sore muscles is rest… but he doesn't get any. Is there anything else he can do?

— Concerned wife

Dear Concerned wife,

Delayed aches and pains aren't uncommon among athletes. In fact, muscle soreness one to three days after exercise is a sign that your muscles are growing! To keep muscles healthy and strong during intense physical activity, it's beneficial to build in time for rest, though some regimens, such as your husband's, don't allow time for the muscles to fully recover. While you're 100 percent right — rest is helpful for muscle growth and overcoming muscle soreness — there may be a few other strategies that your husband can try to care for his body during and after his training.

Firefighting is a physically demanding occupation so it’s not surprising that the training is intense and exhausting. It's likely that your husband is performing exercises that incorporate a full range of motion, causing the muscles to contract and lengthen, which may be contributing to the soreness. Not all people will feel the same level of soreness after exercise, largely due to a combination of individual factors and the type and intensity of the activity.

While it's impossible to prevent all soreness, warming up before exercise, especially if you're prone to stiff and sore muscles, might help to reduce pain and discomfort. Doing a warm-up before exercise has been shown to reduce additional muscle damage (and therefore reduced soreness) as well. A warm up routine may look like:

  • Begin the exercise session by elevating the pulse rate slowly with some light aerobic activity, such as a brisk walk or easy jog.
  • Once the muscles and joints start to warm up a little, spending some time stretching out tight muscles. Static stretching (i.e., holding a stretch in place for several moments, without bouncing back and forth) can help get muscles ready for any type of training.

There is some disagreement regarding the usefulness and safety of certain stretches, so your husband may want to chat with a personal trainer or health care provider on how to stretch before deciding on a routine.

Once training is over for the day, and the soreness starts to set in, there are some potential home remedies to help your husband ease his discomfort. Using a heat pack on sore muscles often helps ease tightness, which can reduce pain. Alternating with an ice pack can help reduce swelling at the site. If you have a bag of Epsom salt handy, taking a bath in a mixture of warm water and the salt may help to relieve muscle aches. Your husband could try taking an over-the-counter pain relivers, such as ibuprofen, which could also help in reducing inflammation-related pain. If your husband's muscle pain goes beyond normal soreness, last more than a few days after exercise, or spread into his joints or bones, it might be a good idea for him to have a conversation with his health care provider to check for and prevent injury. 

As you've mentioned, rest is key to recovery. Sleep is actually an integral part of exercise recovery. During sleep the body repairs and builds muscles much faster than during waking hours. Certain muscle-building hormones are only released during sleep, and these hormones can actually reduce soreness and pain. Getting seven to nine hours of sleep per night is recommended, especially for athletes, to make sure their bodies have enough time to heal and that they actually see progress from their hard work!

Lastly, hydration and nutrition also play a crucial role in helping the body heal from activity of any intensity. Dehydration is a frequent contributor to soreness, so prioritizing hydration before, during, and after training is another piece of the support for reducing soreness. Water is the best bet for quenching thirst, and a low-sugar sports drink can be an added boost for replacing electrolytes for prolonged periods of training. A well-balanced diet with fruits, vegetables, plenty of protein, and complex carbohydrates helps the body perform under intense conditions. Potassium has been shown to reduce soreness, so your husband may want to consider adding a banana or two to help with recovery. Avoiding excessive alcohol or caffeine use may also prove beneficial. Finding the right diet can be tricky, and it wouldn't hurt for your husband to talk with a registered dietitian or health care provider to make sure he's getting the right fuel for his workouts. After all, an optimal diet may be a key factor in helping your husband become an optimal firefighter!

Hopefully these tips will help your husband to recover from his workouts and feel less sore. In the meantime, massage can feel really good to fatigued muscles. So if you're inclined, a relaxing rubdown may be greatly appreciated by your husband. To be fair, the two of you could trade massages so you too can relax and recover from the day!

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Last updated Sep 09, 2022
Originally published Aug 03, 2001

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