Exercise recovery | How to prevent muscle soreness

Five ways to avoid sore muscles after the holidays.

We’re pretty sure that whoever invented the ‘No pain no gain’ motto was a dancer, because nobody knows pain like a dancer seven hours into a pointe rehearsal. With holidays coming to an end, New Year’s resolutions spurring on new fitness goals, and dance classes resuming with renewed vigour, this time of year can be a particularly tender time for our bodies as they readjust to an increased workload.

Still, dance doesn’t have to equal eternal stiffness for your limbs, so if you’re hobbling around the day after dance class then let us help you with these handy tips to beating the post-workout burn.

1. Ease into it.

So you made a New Year’s resolution to have rock hard abs by February, and you’ve just realised there’s only three weeks left before you resort to drawing them on with a sharpie. Unfortunately, pumping out a hundred sit-ups isn't going to solve the problem. In actual fact, you might feel good for the hour or so afterwards, but after that it’s a downhill battle as your muscles start protesting any and all movement with relentless intensity.

Not all discomfort is a bad thing though. Increasing your muscle’s workload by any measure is going to result in a little bit of discomfort. Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (or DOMS for short) is a normal side effect of the muscle strengthening process. It’s when your workout produces muscles so stiff and sore that any exercise or stretching becomes unbearable for the next week or longer that you know you’ve overdone things. So to avoid the frustration of having to take a week off when you’ve only just returned to classes, take it easy. It’s much better to do 20 push-ups every day than smashing out eighty once every two weeks.

Tip: If you’re trying to build up your fitness without being bed-bound as a side effect, short, sharp bursts of strenuous activity, interspersed with brief periods of rest are a great way to push yourself without pushing too hard. It’s important to bear in mind that your body can only cope with what you’ve trained it to cope with, so if you’ve never done two hours jogging on the treadmill before, don’t suddenly launch into a double session. Build up to your goals and you’ll reap the rewards. Also, whilst there’s no evidence to confirm that warming up will reduce DOMS, it will certainly reduce your risk of injury and increase performance, so don’t skimp on your warm-up time. Plus it’s the perfect opportunity to psych yourself up for a great workout and switch your brain into exercise-mode.

2. Adapt your routine.

The predicament a lot of people find themselves in when getting back into demanding exercise is that they only think to prepare their body for it immediately before (the day before – or worse the day of). We all know that it’s important to drink plenty of water when you exercise, but throwing a water bottle into your dance bag at the last minute is sort of like a bandaid for your bruised knee. In other words, if you’re only thinking about hydration as you’re exercising, the damage is likely already done.

Dehydrated muscle fibres are far less elastic, making them more likely to break. Insufficient hydration can also cause electrolyte imbalances (cramps anyone?) and lowered blood volume, in turn causing lowered blood pressure, which can then decrease the oxygen supply to your body and your brain, which is bad news! Your brain is 80% water, so it’s no surprise even minor dehydration can give you a throbbing headache and make you dizzy and weak. The best thing you can do for your body when you’re getting back into exercise is to adapt your routine, not just at the studio or in the gym, but during your day-to-day life. Being active isn’t just an activity, it’s a lifestyle! Don’t worry, we’re not talking about major routine-overhaul here, it’s the little things that count.

Tip: Give your body the best possible chance at handling your exercise regime by modifying small habits in the lead-up to a routine change. Be kind to yourself. Make sure you’re upping your water intake compared to your more sedentary needs over the holidays, try not to overload on coffee or alcohol, and make sure you’re getting enough fuel. It’s not just about wolfing down a muesli bar half an hour before the gym, you need to ensure you’re getting adequate nutrients around the clock, as muscles can only utilise energy from food that has been digested and absorbed. Eating nutritious food the day before (not just the hour before) is a good way to give your body a head start. Similarly, carbohydrates after exercise are essential to rebuild the energy stored in your muscles, whilst protein repairs muscle damage. This is why if you’re serious about muscle recovery and enhancing your performance, then it’s worth taking a look at your diet to make sure you’ve got a healthy balance down-pat.

3. Rest.

What’s the best reward for making it to the gym six days in a row? If you answered ‘a seventh day in the gym!’ then whilst your commitment and discipline are admirable (seriously, can you share some of that willpower?) your extra determination might not necessarily be paying off, even if you’ve taken things step-by-step and slowly built up to your current workload. Exercising the body unremittingly without any time to recuperate is likely to be more harmful than it is beneficial.

Ever heard of cumulative microtrauma? This refers to the damage that occurs to your muscles at a cellular level as a result of repetitive strain (which can happen during any activity that utilises eccentric muscle action*) and is further aggravated by repetition whilst the muscle fibres are still inflamed. The key is to know the difference between normal muscle inflammation and chronic muscle inflammation, which is when the cumulative microtrauma to your muscles never gets too heal and instead develops into more serious injuries. 

*An   eccentric contraction   is the   motion   of an active muscle while it is lengthening under load.

*An eccentric contraction is the motion of an active muscle while it is lengthening under load.

Overtraining also messes with your immune system, since your body is too busy trying to summon energy for the next workout to worry about fighting off viruses and other nasty pathogens. So do work hard, do reach for your goals, just don’t forget to rest and reward your body regularly too.

Tip: Make sure you’re giving yourself at least one day off a week. Really make the most of it, have a bubble bath, soak you muscles, sprinkle in a pinch of Epsom salts, put on some relaxing music and let your body reset for the week ahead! Gentle post-workout stretching is another helpful remedy, after you’ve done a class or session at the gym your muscle fibres are temporarily shortened due to repetitive contractions. Stretching helps elongate the muscles again, promoting mobility and combatting that uncomfortable stiff feeling that starts to creep up in the hours following.

4. Eat for recovery.

Alright, here’s the bottom line. No matter what you do, if you’ve given yourself a decent workout then you’re inevitably going to be a little sore in places the following day. It’s (unfortunately) a natural part of the recovery process. So whilst you may have done everything in your power to prepare your body, there are some steps you can take that will help treat and greatly minimise any oncoming soreness – and by ‘steps you can take’ we mean things you can eat.

Top of the list: protein. Whilst carbohydrates are the essential energy-producing fuels that working bodies rely on to power a workout, protein is the marvellous stuff that repairs your muscles, speeds up recovery time, increases muscle strength and controls fluid levels during and after exercise. The ideal time to get a serving of protein in is the two hour window after a workout when protein synthesis is at its highest and is particularly helpful in repairing muscle damage and reducing soreness.

It’s recommended for athletes that 12-15% of total calories come from protein. In a dancer that translates to around 60-78 grams of protein per day for a 52kg (115lb) female dancer and about 90-108 grams for a 77kg (170lb) male dancer. And if you really want to maximise the benefits, spread your protein intake out into five or so serves, taken equally throughout the day (10-20 grams per serving is the ideal amount for recovery purposes). Raw nuts and eggs are great snack-able options for a protein serving. Fish, cottage cheese, beans and lean chicken are also excellent sources of protein.

Tip: Eating fruits high in potassium (such as bananas, kiwi fruit and apricots) is another helpful strategy, as potassium is great for combatting muscle cramps and easing soreness. For optimising your recovery, remember the first two hours after exercise are the most crucial for protein intake, so make sure to keep those snacks on hand!

5. Be tough, but not stubborn.

Dancing and working out is no piece of cake (obviously!) and often, in order to boost that dwindling motivation or to get through the last gruelling hour of a session, many of us get in the habit of adopting this tough, kick-arse persona with ourselves. Silently berating yourself with cheesy workout mottos like ‘Winners don’t quit!’, 'No pain, no gain' or ‘Don’t you dare stop now you lazy couch potato!’ becomes the Modus Operandi whenever you're exercising. The strategy is to muster up the strength to push a littler harder and not give in to tiredness or discomfort, and let's face it, it’s a very handy technique when you’re half way through a dance en pointe and you get a cramp, or you’re on the treadmill fantasising about jam donuts.

But at the end of the day, sometimes we’re all a little too tough on ourselves. Pushing through ‘the burn’ of a couple of extra squats or another five seconds in arabesque isn’t a bad thing, but ignoring actual pain or persistent issues because you’ve convinced yourself it’s nothing or that 'the pain of living with love handles is worse than that twinge in your hamstring' isn’t right. Your body deserves better and in the long-run you’ll only end up putting yourself out of action and undoing whatever good work you’ve achieved so far. It’s not just about being kind to your body, remember to talk kindly to yourself too. Our mentality has a tremendous influence on the way we live our lives, and a happy, positive outlook will give you so much more willpower and enthusiasm to get through a workout than the person who's always beating themselves up. 

Tip: Don't let your inner drill sergeant bully you into ignoring pain signals in your body or pushing too hard. Instead of focusing purely on what you haven't accomplished with your goals, practice looking at things from the positive angle. Perhaps you wanted to be able to run 10kms by the end of the year but only made it to 8? That's still 8 more than last year! Or maybe you promised to go to the gym tonight, but now your muscles are feeling too drained. It's the end of one day not the end of the world. Instead of feeling like one slip-up means you may as well give up altogether, tell your internal pessimist to be quiet and make not going today inspire you to do even better tomorrow. Your only hurdle to success is yourself.


In conclusion, a little soreness the day of or even 2-5 days after training isn’t a bad thing,  especially when easing yourself back into an exercise routine after time off. It’s just confirmation that your workout did its job. Tender muscles are evidence that you’re benefiting from all that exercise you’ve been doing, muscles are growing and repairing so that they can better handle the workload you're giving them. If you do find the pain or tightness from a workout lasts longer than a week, there's no harm in going to see your physiotherapist and making sure there's nothing more serious going on. As long as you're increasing things gradually, allowing time to rest and stretch, and adapting your routine and nutritional intake to suit your exercise requirements, you'll be well on the way to achieving all your fitness goals!

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Article by Elly Ford.