An intense workout can leave you feeling stiff and sore the next day, but there's no reason to feel alarmed.
"This is a very normal and essential part of exercising and getting stronger," says Angie Asche, RD, CSSD, an expert nutritionist at Centr. In fact, feeling sore is part of the repair process after you put some stress on your muscles during a workout.
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If the soreness hits during a workout, it's known as acute soreness, according to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). But when soreness arrives one to three days after a workout, it's deemed delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
Typically, soreness ends on its own over a short period of time. "While certain nutritional strategies can help to improve this soreness, it won't necessarily take it away completely," Asche says.
That said, there are some supplements available that may ease soreness and aid muscle recovery after a workout — take a look.
Don’t Neglect the Essentials When You Refuel
Supplements can have a real allure, with marketing that's full of bold claims and promises. But, it's important that you don’t neglect the essential building blocks of a healthy eating plan in favor of a handful of pills.
“Without adequate calories, carbohydrates, protein and hydration, your body will have a very difficult time recovering properly,” Asche says.
And, when it comes to these essential nutrients, food sources are your best bet, according to the Mayo Clinic.
1. Protein Powder
Working out causes tiny tears in your muscle tissues, which is why they feel sore. Protein is often touted when it comes to workout recovery, which makes sense. Your body uses protein to build and repair cells, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE).
For a long time, experts believed that following a workout, your body required protein right away. But now, research suggests that this might not be true. After a workout, muscle protein synthesis "peaks within three hours," per a June 2017 review in the Journal of the International Society for Sports Nutrition.
That is, you've got time to shower, change your clothes and go about your day after a workout before downing protein. And of course, plenty of protein-rich foods are available for meat-eaters, vegetarians and vegans alike.
Still: If you're in a hurry, or looking to get more protein in your diet, a protein powder can support those goals.
"Protein powder can be a helpful way to boost the protein content of a recovery smoothie — something that is often more convenient and easy to get in during that optimal recovery window [after exercise]," says Rachel Fine, a registered dietitian nutritionist and certified sports nutrition specialist at To The Pointe Nutrition.
Plus, whey protein powders, in particular, have high amounts of essential amino acids — supplementing with whey protein may help increase muscle mass, according to the results from a January 2020 clinical trial in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness.
While protein powder is generally considered safe, many have added sugar, calories and even toxic chemicals in them, according to Harvard Health Publishing. Just as well, some may cause digestive symptoms due to allergens like lactose.
Be sure to check your product labels for ingredients and additives you are avoiding.
Recommended Protein Powders
First, a definition: Creatine is an amino acid that gets converted into phosphocreatine, which is stored in your muscles and used for energy, per the Mayo Clinic.
"Creatine has been shown to aid in muscle recovery by enhancing muscle glycogen resynthesis," Asche says. There are food sources for creatine, she says, including meat and fish.
"But supplementation with creatine monohydrate will provide the most benefit," Asche says. This type of creatine (there are several) is the most frequently studied, per a June 2017 article in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. Creatine may help with muscle recovery after intense workouts, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Creatine supplements are considered safe for most people and do not cause renal disease. That said, people who already have renal disease or impaired kidney function should not use creatine, per May 2019 research in the Chilean Medical Journal.
Recommended Creatine Supplements
"Magnesium supplementation has been shown to reduce muscle soreness," Asche says. It's true: Many studies have indicated this electrolyte supports muscle recovery, according to a Fall 2021 review in the Translational Journal of the ACSM.
Most people in the United States get less than the recommended amount of magnesium through their diet, according to the National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS). For people assigned male at birth (AMAB) that's 400 to 420 milligrams, while it's 310 to 320 milligrams for people assigned female at birth (AFAB), per the ODS.
If you fall into the group of people not getting adequate amounts from your diet, Asche recommends supplementing with magnesium bisglycinate.
Note: Another electrolyte that can be helpful is potassium. "When potassium is depleted (especially from intense sweating), low levels can trigger cramping and soreness,"
Fine says. But she doesn't recommend taking a potassium supplement unless it's medically prescribed. Instead, she recommends looking to food sources of potassium, such as bananas and coconut water. These are "two personal favorites, especially for intense dancing," Fine says.
Recommended Magnesium Supplements
4. Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Asche recommends eating foods with omega-3 fatty acids, which include fatty fish (think: salmon) and walnuts, chia seeds and flax. Supplementing with omega-3 fatty acid may help alleviate exercise-induced muscle damage, according to a November 2021 meta-analysis in Food Science and Nutrition.
Fish oil supplements are generally considered safe, according to the Mayo Clinic. That said, they can cause side effects including:
- Bad breath
High doses of fish oil from supplements can also increase the risk of bleeding and stroke, although rare, per the Mayo Clinic. Fish oil may interact with anticoagulant and antiplatelet drugs, blood pressure drugs, contraceptive drugs and some weight loss drugs.
Always check with your doctor before adding a new supplement to your routine.
Recommended Omega-3 Fatty Acid Supplements
Before You Buy Supplements for Muscle Soreness
Supplements are largely unregulated, Fine says. That means that manufacturers can make big and unsubstantiated claims on the packaging. Plus, even though they're an over-the-counter purchase, they can cause harmful interactions. So you'll want to proceed with caution before making a purchase.
Scroll down for other things to consider before you buy.
"Look for supplements that are third-party tested," Fine says. Well-known organizations that test supplements to ensure they contain what they say they do include the ">United States Pharmacopeial Convention (USP), the National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) and ConsumerLab.
You'll also want to seek out well-known, reputable brands when possible.
Take a look at the ingredient list before purchasing — you'll want to avoid anything you do not or cannot eat, whether due to your dietary choices, an allergy or food intolerance (such as dairy, gluten or soy).
Your Specific Needs
Talk to your doctor before starting any new supplement. "Supplements can interact with common medications, and some even have ingredients that aren't suitable for everyone," Fine says.
A physician or sports dietitian can also help you confirm the right dose for you, Asche says. That may vary based on a variety of factors — keep in mind, for some vitamins and minerals, taking too much can be harmful to your health.
Other Strategies to Help With Muscle Recovery
Following a workout with carbohydrates and protein is a great way to support muscle recovery.
"Carbohydrates help to replenish muscle glycogen while protein helps to rebuild torn muscles," Fine says. "Eating carbs after a workout not only replenishes energy but also enhances your body's uptake of amino acids for muscle recovery".
So, before you reach for the supplements, ensure that you're getting the nutrition (and hydration) your body requires, Asche says.
Nutrients — whether they come food or supplements — are just one aspect of recovery after a workout. Other things to keep in mind if you want to avoid feeling sore and improve your muscle recovery are:
- Sleep: Yes, that's right — those Zzzzs you get at night are essential to your recovery process, according to NASM. Also key: giving yourself time to rest between workouts. That rest day replenishes the energy stored away in your muscle cells and allows for time to repair tissue damaged by a workout, per ACE.
- Hydration: It's important for muscle recovery, along with performance and avoiding injuries, according to a July 2021 article in the Journal of Human Kinetics.
- Massage: Spending some time with a foam roller reduces soreness, among other recovery-related benefits, per ACE. Get started with the best foam rollers.
- American College of Sports Medicine: "Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS)"
- Mayo Clinic: "Debunking the top 10 workout myths"
- American Council on Exercise: "9 Things to Know About How the Body Uses Protein to Repair Muscle Tissue"
- Journal of the International Society for Sports Nutrition: "International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: protein and exercise"
- Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness: "Intake of whey isolate supplement and muscle mass gains in young healthy adults when combined with resistance training: a blinded randomized clinical trial (pilot study)"
- Mayo Clinic: "Creatine"
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition: "Creatine supplementation with specific view to exercise/sports performance: an update"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Creatine and Creatine Supplements"
- Translational Journal of the ACSM: "Magnesium and Vitamin D Supplementation on Exercise Performance"
- Office of Dietary Supplements: "Magnesium"
- Food Science and Nutrition: "Effect of omega‐3 fatty acids supplementation on indirect blood markers of exercise‐induced muscle damage: Systematic review and meta‐analysis of randomized controlled trials"
- NASM: "THE IMPORTANCE OF SLEEP AND RECOVERY"
- ACE: "8 Reasons to Take a Rest Day"
- Journal of Human Kinetics: "Hydration to Maximize Performance and Recovery: Knowledge, Attitudes, and Behaviors Among Collegiate Track and Field Throwers"
- ACE: "6 Benefits of Using Foam Rollers"
- Chilean Medical Journal: Effects of Creatine on Renal Function
- Harvard Health Publishing: The hidden dangers of protein powder
- Mayo Clinic: Fish Oil