What Helps Sore Muscles After Workout: Discover Effective Pain Relievers for Sore Muscles After Exercise

Unlock strategies on how to reduce muscle pain after a workout for optimal recovery.

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By Staff Writer
Lucia Gcingca
Edited by Lucia Gcingca

Published January 28, 2024.

a woman sitting on a bench in a gym: Discover Best Pain Reliever for Sore Muscles After Workout

After intense exercise, it's tempting to reduce muscle pain by whatever means necessary to stay on a training regimen or routine. However, common pain-relieving practices may not be best post-workout. Instead, research shows that certain supplements, along with active recovery methods, are more efficacious in alleviating muscle tenderness. Here’s how.

Considerations for reducing soreness after workouts

  • Exercise induces acute inflammation, which is needed for recovery and muscle growth.
  • NSAIDs like ibuprofen are designed to block inflammation. While they're safe to use for occasional relief, consistent use isn't beneficial for athletes or muscle growth.
  • Ice and cold water immersions aren't beneficial as a preventative measure of reducing muscle pain but can be a beneficial short-term recovery method.
  • Active recovery and self-massaging techniques like foam rolling increase blood flow to the fatigued muscle and can help relieve symptoms of DOMS.
  • Supplements like fish oil, collagen, and curcumin supplements all appear to improve pain in athletes.

» Wiped out after a workout? Discover food and supplements for workout recovery.

The development of sore muscles from exercise

Exercise is just as hard as it is beneficial to the body. It puts direct stress on muscles, tendons, bones, and ligaments, and initiates internal stress and inflammation. [1] Those who train regularly are more resilient when it comes to managing and recovering from this exercise-induced stress.

But no matter how trained you are, engaging in rigorous exercise, specifically excessive eccentric contractions (AKA EECs, types of exercises that lengthen the muscle, as in lowering a dumbbell during a bicep curl or running down a hill) can cause delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS). [2]

DOMS is especially relevant when training intensity ramps up or at the start of the season after a period of rest. [3]

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What is delayed onset muscle soreness?

Most people have likely experienced DOMS in their life. If you’re not sore immediately after a workout but start to feel it roughly two days later, that’s DOMS. Symptoms can range from slight tenderness to debilitating pain and tightness, typically peaking 24-48 hours after exercise. [3, 4]

DOMS can also impact athletic performance, manifesting as an impaired range of motion of joints, reduced peak torque, and stress on other muscles as the body compensates for sore areas. [3]

What causes DOMS?

Although it’s established that DOMS stems primarily from EECs, the exact internal mechanism of how that pain is produced is still up for debate. Some theories attribute this soreness to the following, although it’s likely a combination: [3]

  • Lactic acid buildup
  • Tissue or muscle damage
  • Muscle spasms
  • Inflammation
a diagram of how to use an inflamatory process

DOMS typically resolves with rest but athletes often seek to accelerate recovery by blocking inflammation. However, exercise-induced acute inflammation is crucial for muscle recovery and growth, and inhibiting this process can hinder these benefits.

» Discover how ashwagandha affects muscle growth and recovery

What’s the connection between inflammation and recovery?

Inflammation is the body’s natural, protective immunity response to illness or injury in the body. [5] During intense exercise, muscle fibers and cells are damaged, spurring the inflammation process.

This inflammation helps the body repair the damaged muscle by increasing blood flow to the area, clearing out cellular debris or waste from the affected area, replenishing oxygen, and providing fuel to the muscles. [5] This process often causes the following at the site of the injury:

  • Swelling
  • Pain
  • Redness
  • Heat

This acute inflammation, though uncomfortable, is essential for muscle repair and growth. The goal shouldn’t be to block inflammation altogether, but rather to get it under control.

» Training intensely? Here's how to know if you are overtraining.

Do NSAIDs help with post workout muscle soreness?

NSAIDs block inflammation and aren’t a cure-all for post-workout muscle soreness.

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are over-the-counter drugs like ibuprofen, aspirin, naproxen, and diclofenac and are frequently used by athletes. They work by blocking certain enzymes (COX-2) that initiate the body’s inflammatory response. [6]

This helps to reduce the pain and swelling associated with muscle soreness, but it also means that the impacted muscles aren't getting much needed:

  • Oxygen
  • Nutrients
  • Extra blood flow
  • Debris clean-up crew

Research comparing NSAID use with sports performance measures, including peak performance and self-reported pain, shows no significant differences between NSAID groups and control groups. [7]

2017 randomized controlled trial on NSAIDs and muscle growth

  • Study overview: A randomized controlled trial published in 2017 investigated the effects of daily high-dose ibuprofen (1,200 mg) versus low-dose aspirin (75 mg) for eight weeks on healthy adults 
    participating in resistance training [9]
  • Methodology: Researchers measured muscle volume, strength, and inflammatory markers at the start and end of an eight-week period
  • Findings: By the study's conclusion, muscle volume was two time larger 
    in participants taking low-dose aspirin compared to those on high-dose ibuprofen

Study limitations and implications


  • The study had a small sample size
  • There was no control group (i.e., participants who didn't receive medication but engaged in resistance training)
  • It compared two different medications at different doses

Significance: Despite limitations, this study does provide evidence for avoiding consistently high intake of NSAIDs for muscle growth.

Key takeaway: NSAIDs, while safe for occasional soreness, do not improve sports performance when used regularly and may inhibit muscle growth. Scientific consensus shows that NSAIDs often fail to enhance performance with high doses potentially reduce muscle gains in resistance training. [8]

Cold therapy: Does ice help sore muscles after workout?

Icing sore muscles or taking cold baths interferes with the body’s inflammatory response. Ice causes blood vessels to constrict, limiting blood flow and mediators of the inflammation process to the area being treated.

But this cold and constriction can be effective in ameliorating muscle pain, swelling, and heat in affected muscles. So yes, they can help to soothe and reduce exercise-induced pain for short-term recovery, like between matches or on race days.

However, it may be best to skip icing on a regular basis as a preventative measure for pain to maximize training results.

Studies on cold therapy for muscle recovery

2013 study on cold packs:

  • Focus: Impact of applying cold packs after exercising arm muscles compared to no ice. [10]
  • Results: Participants who used ice reported increased subjective fatigue three days later. They also showed signs of delayed recovery compared to those who did not use ice.

2017 study on cold water immersion:

  • Focus: Effectiveness of cold water immersion compared to standard active recovery after resistance exercises.
  • Findings: Cold water immersion was not more effective than a standard warm-down.

Further insights from recent studies

Impact on muscle volume and strength: Recent small studies and animal studies have looked at icing post-workout.

  • Findings: Icing after training may result in lower muscle volume gains and reduced strength after exercise. [10, 11]
  • Additional information: Discover what the science says about the effects of saunas and cryotherapy.

Key takeaway: Ice and cold water immersion can be valuable short-term recovery tools between events, but aren't beneficial as preventative or cautious practices—and may even interfere with beneficial muscle adaptations from exercise.

*Acute inflammation is needed for muscle recovery. However, for injuries and in situations where inflammation may be doing more harm than good, NSAIDS & ice can be beneficial in controlling that inflammation. Talk to your healthcare provider for more information.

five ways to reduce muscle pain and soreness

5 ways to reduce soreness after workout: What to take for muscle soreness and active recovery exercises

1. Active recovery

It doesn’t get more back to the basics than this: take time after a workout for active recovery. Exercise increases blood flow to the working area, which is beneficial to initiate the recovery process.

In fact, research shows that active recovery of 20 minutes post-exercise using the fatigued muscles is more effective in reducing DOMS compared to working out other muscle groups. [12]

So if you cycle to fatigue, for example, an effective active recovery could be cycling at a lower intensity for 20 minutes.

A review of 99 studies showed significant decreases in DOMS in athletes who participated in active recovery methods. This helps muscles feel more rested for the next training session and helps athletes stay injury-free. The best methods depend on the sport and athlete.

2. Fish oil supplements

Studies show that taking fish oil supplements rich in omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA may reduce muscle soreness and improve measures of muscle recovery, like range of motion. This is likely due to the positive impact these fatty acids have on inflammatory and immune processes. [1, 2, 13]

However, the optimal dose of this supplement isn’t clear yet. A seven-week randomized controlled trial found that a 6g fish oil supplement lowered soreness ratings after exercises compared to lower supplemental doses of 2g or 4g per day. [1]

Other studies have shown that ~1g or 2g daily fish oil supplements may be beneficial for perceived pain after exercise. [2, 13] Talk to a healthcare provider or registered dietitian for questions on what dose may be best for you.

» Ready to enhance your most prized muscle? Check out the heart health benefits of fish oil

3. Collagen supplements

Collagen is a type of protein that supports connective tissues (including tendons and ligaments). Collagen supplements, often sold as powders, appear to reduce joint pain in athletes, both during physical activity and at rest.

Separate studies show that supplementation regimens of 5g of collagen peptides per day for 12 weeks and 10g of collagen hydrolysate per day for 24 weeks are both viable options to significantly improve measures of joint-related pain. [14, 15] Collagen supplements can be taken any time of day, before or after a workout.

4. Curcumin supplements

Curcumin is the main active compound in turmeric and has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects in the body. A systematic review of 11 studies found that curcumin supplementation of 150-1,500 mg per day reduces perceived muscle pain and muscle damage while increasing muscle performance. [16]

Study investigators concluded that curcumin plays an important role in controlling inflammation and protein breakdown associated with muscle damage.

» Curious about nature's answer to inflammation? Discover turmeric and curcumin's effects on inflammation

5. Foam rolling

This is a self-messaging technique used to target fascia, the connective tissue around the muscles. Foam rolling can bring oxygenated blood into your fascia and may help to reduce the perception of muscle pain. This can also be done with tennis balls, lacrosse balls, or massage sticks.

While it is a well-accepted technique among athletes and trainers, the scientific literature on foam rolling is still emerging. Though some studies have shown that it does improve range of motion and pain indices, others do not show a significant effect. [17]

Expert tip: Foam rolling is generally safe to practice. To get the most benefit, roll out fatigued muscles for 20 minutes after exercise.

The final rep to recovery

In summary, while managing exercise-induced fatigue and soreness, it's crucial to understand the role of inflammation, NSAIDs, ice therapies, active recovery, and specific supplements. Balancing these elements can significantly enhance your recovery process.

For personalized insights tailored to your body's unique needs, check out InsideTracker's comprehensive plans. If you're looking for helpful tips on optimizing your health and performance, explore our Rest Day Checklist - make your rest days as effective as your workouts.


[1] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32727162/

[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27085996

[3] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12617692/

[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11701094

[5] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK556083/

[6] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30002579

[7] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/32346802

[8] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/37252825/

[9] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28834248

[10] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22820210

[11] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33764172

[12] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27706260/

[13] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19451765/

[14] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18416885/

[15] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28177710/

[16] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/32075287

[17] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26618062/