Alternative Muscle Pain Relief
Soreness after exercise is quite common. This is known as delayed-onset muscle soreness, often abbreviated as DOMS. This soreness frequently keeps people from working out. So preventing and treating DOMS is the subject of a lot of research and speculation. We previously outlined several very helpful methods of preventing and treating DOMS. But beyond those, people often ask about supplements to prevent soreness after exercise as well.
One of the most effective pain relievers is standard anti-inflammatory medications. These include common medicines like naproxen and ibuprofen. But these medications have their problems, and not everyone can take them.
They give some people stomach pain or even ulcers and increase the effects of blood thinners, so you can’t take the two together. Since these medications are processed in the kidneys, people with renal problems often can’t take them either. Additionally, there is growing evidence that long-term anti-inflammatory use can lead to heart disease!
With all that being said, the side effects of many supplements aren’t fully known. They may interact with other medications or cause problems with different diseases. We just don’t know yet, so user beware!
Protein supplementation is highly regarded amongst the fitness community. And for good reason! High protein intake has proven to be very beneficial when it comes to building muscle. And high protein diets have helped many people lose a ton of weight. Extra bonus: Protein is delicious. Personally, when eating at a buffet, I skip desserts and go back for seconds on the meat. Give me a good churrascaria and I’m in heaven!
Additionally, some people hypothesize that extra protein intake will prevent your body from breaking down muscle to repair itself. They theorize that less damage will mean less soreness. In reality, your body only breaks down the damaged portions of the muscle before rebuilding them. And the rebuilt muscle fibers contain about 70% recycled amino acids from the damaged muscle proteins. Which is probably why muscle soreness after exercise doesn’t show much improvement from protein supplements in studies.
Bottom Line: Take protein supplements to build muscle, but don’t expect them to help reduce muscle soreness after exercise.
A supplement of 300 mg capsules of saffron taken for ten days was shown to reduce DOMS even better than a prescription anti-inflammatory. This dose of saffron was taken for 7 days before the workout and three days after. The amazing thing was that saffron essentially prevented the DOMS entirely! And it showed a significant reduction in blood markers of muscle damage.
I’m certainly not sold on this completely yet; this data is from a single study with roughly a dozen people per group. And frankly, the results seem too good to be true. But it goes on my list of supplements worth investigating. Maybe McCormick’s or Penzy’s would like to get into the research game? Personally, I would like many more studies to replicate these results before we call it a miracle treatment. Check this link for possible side effects and interactions with saffron.
Bottom Line: While saffron may be helpful, we need far more information to know one way or another. But the preliminary results are too good to ignore.
3. Omega-3 Fatty Acid
These fats are plentiful in most fish oil supplements and have shown anti-inflammatory action. There are many more studies about their effect in preventing muscle soreness than we see for other products. And most of those show that 1.8g-3g daily doses of Omega-3 Fatty Acid are helpful in reducing post-exercise soreness.
While there is more data supporting the use of Omega-3 Fatty Acid, there are a couple studies that did not show any benefit. But still, I am reasonably confident that these supplements can help with DOMS. As an extra bonus, it’s great for people with heart disease! So overall, probably worth a try.
Bottom Line: Omega-3 Fatty Acid shows reasonable evidence of reducing muscle soreness after exercise. Plus with their purported cardiac benefits, they have little downside.
4. Tart Cherry
Another popular and fairly well-studied supplement is tart cherry products. These include tart cherry juice and powders, for the most part. The hypothesis is that the anti-oxidant components of tart cherry products can reduce the pain we feel after exercise. Antioxidants are supposed to be good at sweeping up free-radicals. And free-radicals have been shown to trigger pain-sensing nerves.
I did find several studies with good methods and design. Additionally, these studies often included well-trained athletes. The good news is that tart cherry derivatives do seem to benefit the recovery of strength after a rigorous workout. But unfortunately, they don’t seem to decrease soreness at all.
Bottom Line: Tart cherries do seem to have some effect on improved muscle function after exercise. But they don’t seem to help with delayed-onset muscle soreness. I am personally disappointed that not a single study looked at the effects of tart cherries in pie form.
Finally! Some of you knew this was coming from last weeks post. There have been a couple good studies to show that caffeine can reduce muscle soreness after exercise. While there have only been two major studies, the improvement in pain was significant. And one of the studies showed the same results when the placebo and caffeine groups were switched. This study used 3mg of caffeine per kg of body weight.
In addition, caffeine has been shown consistently to help improve athletic performance. In addition, many components of coffee have been shown to improve energy metabolism and storage during exercise. These other coffee chemicals provide benefits beyond those of caffeine itself. Furthermore, caffeine helps to boost muscular contractions, even in injured muscle fibers!
Bottom Line: As usual, coffee is here for you! Caffeine and coffee, in particular, provide notable benefits to most aspects of athletic performance. It can even alleviate delayed-onset muscle soreness.
Taurine is an amino acid. Your body is able to create taurine from other amino acids. Of course, it can be argued that pushing your body beyond its usual limits might require some extra dietary intake of this protein building block. But people seem to think that supplemental taurine can help with just about every kind of ailment. It’s even where Red Bull gets its name!
The data for taurine supplementation is light. Only two studies have been performed as far as I could find. One study did show some mild improvement in pain after exercise. But the other study only showed benefit in a group that used both Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs) and Taurine in combination. And even that group showed benefit at just a single time point. And BCAAs have come under question lately. They may be detrimental to muscle hypertrophy!
Bottom Line: Taurine supplements seem unnecessary if your overall protein intake is adequate, and there is minimal evidence that it helps to treat DOMS. Just eat plenty of complete proteins, including all of the essential amino acids.
These aren’t the droids you’re looking for. Move along, move along. Seriously though, there are three studies looking at the effect of ginger supplements for treating muscle soreness. And only one of them showed any significant improvement in delayed-onset muscle soreness.
I wasn’t really happy with the design of that study either. They only used a handful of participants. And they induced soreness by doing 18 single-arm curls. That doesn’t exactly replicate the demands of today’s functional fitness WODs. While ginger has been touted to have anti-inflammatory effects, those don’t seem to help DOMS in the limited data we have.
Bottom Line: What little data we have on ginger supplementation does not appear to show that it helps with delayed-onset muscle soreness.
The Final Word
In summary, there are dietary supplements that seem to help with muscle soreness after exercise. But we could use far more research about all of them before being able to definitively say that they help for certain. And like any medication, they may work for some people and not for others. Fortunately, the ones that have reasonable support also appear to be relatively safe. Other common supplements just don’t have much data to support their use in preventing soreness. Those supplements may help with other aspects of exercise and fitness, but not muscle pain. My list of supplements that probably help decrease muscle soreness are:
Omega-3 Fatty Acid
So you should totally add saffron and omega-3 fatty acid to three shots of espresso for a DOMS-busting daily wake up call! Heck, add in the ginger and tart cherry juice for an extra kick. We’ll call it “Bunker Buster Coffee!” You heard it here first folks, trademark it! I’m totally kidding, that sounds wretched and I wouldn’t recommend anyone with taste buds actually try it. Please don’t. Oh god; you’re doing it, aren’t you?
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Hurley, C F, et al. “The Effect of Caffeine Ingestion on Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.
Kim, Jooyoung, and Joohyung Lee. “A Review of Nutritional Intervention on Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness. Part I.” Journal of Exercise Rehabilitation
Levers, Kyle, et al. “Effects of Powdered Montmorency Tart Cherry Supplementation on an Acute Bout of Intense Lower Body Strength Exercise in Resistance Trained Males.”
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Ra, S G, et al. “Combined Effect of Branched-Chain Amino Acids and Taurine Supplementation on Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness and Muscle Damage in High-Intensity Eccentric Exercise.”
Wilson, P B. “Ginger (Zingiber Officinale) as an Analgesic and Ergogenic Aid in Sport: A Systemic Review.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.
da, L A, et al. “Effects of Taurine Supplementation Following Eccentric Exercise in Young Adults.” Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism