It’s very common to get muscle pain and stiffness the day after you exercise. There is actually a specific name for it too: Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness, abbreviated as DOMS. There are many ways to help treat DOMS. But prevention is better than treatment, and many dietary supplements have been found to help prevent soreness after heavy workouts.
Many people will just pop a couple of ibuprofen to help relieve the soreness of DOMS. But these medications have their problems, and not everyone can take them. And some people just want a more natural way of handling their aches and pains.
So, which supplements actually have scientific support for this purpose? Which ones are worth the money, and which ones are just snake oil? Well, we’ll cover both of them below!
Dr. James Larson is an orthopedic surgeon specializing in sports medicine and arthroscopic surgery. He also holds a CF-L1 certificate and is a Certified BFR Specialist. He supports weight training and high-intensity exercise throughout the lifespan. He started LSO to keep more people moving better, longer.
This does not constitute specific medical advice and does not indicate a physician-patient relationship between Dr. Larson and readers of this website. Please consult your own physician regarding any of these recommendations before starting them.
Updates: 11/2020 updated to include new data and improve readability.
What is DOMS?
Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness is the pain you feel about 12-24 hours after exercising. It happens most frequently when you start working out or increase your intensity. It can make simply getting out of bed miserable and it can be easy to mistake it for a real injury. But it only lasts a couple of days. And there is plenty you can do to relieve the pain!
Doesn’t Lactic Acid Cause DOMS?
No, though that is a common belief. Lactic acid is a byproduct of muscle metabolism. It plays a role in muscle fatigue and recovery. But it doesn’t actually cause soreness. DOMS is caused by the effects of microscopic damage to the muscles and the inflammation that follows.
How Can I Relieve The Soreness After a Workout?
Heat is a great way to increase muscle blood flow for pain relief and healing. And a light workout the next day can help relieve DOMS as well. Standard anti-inflammatory medications will usually help a lot, especially if taken before starting an exercise program. But certain foods and supplements can also help.
What Foods and Supplements Actually Work To Relieve Muscle Soreness?
In the first section, we are going to cover those dietary supplements that have actually been shown to relieve muscle soreness in scientific studies. That includes Omega-3 Fatty Acids (commonly sold as fish oil), Turmeric, Caffeine, and Saffron.
Omega-3 Fatty Acid
These fats are plentiful in fish oil but plant-based Omega-3s can provide all the benefits without the fishy aftertaste. And there is plenty of scientific literature showing the anti-inflammatory action of Omega-3 fats.
In addition, there are multiple studies showing that Omega-3’s help relieves DOMS pain after exercise. Most of those show that 1.8g-3g daily doses of Omega-3 Fatty Acid can significantly reduce post-exercise soreness.
Now, the reduction in pain isn’t particularly impressive. But plenty of studies actually do show significant benefits. And we already know that fish oil supplements are good for heart health. So you don’t have much to lose.
Bottom Line: Omega-3 Fatty Acid shows reasonable evidence of reducing muscle soreness after exercise. Plus with their cardiac benefits, they have little downside.
Curcumin, the most active ingredient in turmeric root, has well-documented medicinal qualities. Among these are its notable anti-inflammatory properties.
And – it turns out – turmeric can help to relieve the pain of sore muscles from heavy exercise! I didn’t include this in the first version of the article, but the research I’ve seen since then is pretty convincing!
It turns out that just 500mg of curcumin after exercise is enough to lessen the pain associated with DOMS. And as a bonus, the turmeric seems to help aid in recovery also!
Bottom Line: Turmeric proves to be a potent supplement once again. Multiple studies show that it significantly reduces muscle soreness after exercise and may even speed recovery after a workout. But there are many concerns when choosing your turmeric, like bioavailablity and potential lead contamination. Check out my article on Choosing The Best Turmeric for all the information you need.
Is there anything coffee can’t help with? We all know that caffeine is a stimulant that can help with athletic performance directly. But did you know it can help prevent muscle soreness after exercise as well?
There have been a couple good studies that show the benefits of caffeine in treating DOMS. One of them showed that men may benefit more from caffeine consumption than women, but both gained saw decreased pain from DOMS. These studies generally look at dose of caffeine of about 2-3 cups of coffee, a pretty reasonable amount of caffeine.
In addition, many components of coffee have been shown to improve energy metabolism and storage during exercise, 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.
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.
Of course this was a single study with only a dozen subjects. Personally, I would like a few more studies to replicate these results before we call it a miracle treatment. But its seems good so far! And be sure to check on side effects and interactions.
Bottom Line: Saffron seems to be helpful in relieving DOMS. I think we need more information to know definitively. But the preliminary results are too good to ignore!
Not All Of The Rumors Are True
As is usually the case with supplements, they don’t always do what people claim. I’m glad the scientific community is paying more attention to them though. It helps us weed out the useful from the waste of money.
And that what I found with some of the supplements that are supposed to help with DOMS. Some of them simply didn’t seem to help with DOMS when you look at the weight of the data. Included in that category are protein supplements, taurine, tart cherry juice, and ginger. While these do seem to help with other aspects of recovery, they don’t seem to relieve pain from DOMS.
Protein is, of course, a very important supplement if you are looking to build muscle. Increased dietary intake of protein helps to push your body to build muscle rather than just recycling the amino acids you have.
But the research regarding DOMS is a mixed bag. Some studies show slight decreases in DOMS. But most show no effect at all.
Bottom Line: Take protein supplements to build muscle, but don’t expect them to help reduce muscle soreness after exercise.
Another popular and fairly well-studied supplement is tart cherry products. These include tart cherry juice and extracts, for the most part. The hypothesis is that the anti-oxidant components of tart cherry products can reduce the pain we feel after exercise.
I did find several studies with good methods and design. And 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 and recovery after exercise. But they don’t seem to help with delayed-onset muscle soreness.
Taurine is an amino acid. Your body is able to create taurine from other amino acids. 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!
Unfortunately, data for taurine supplementation is light. There weren’t many studies that I could find. And those generally showed little to no benefit to taurine supplementation. And you can probably get the same benefits just by taking a complete protein supplement instead.
Bottom Line: Taurine supplements seem unnecessary if your overall protein intake is adequate, and there is minimal evidence that it helps to treat DOMS.
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 a slight 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
So obviously you should totally add saffron and omega-3 fatty acid to a triple-golden-latte for a DOMS-busting daily wake-up call! Heck, add in the 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 no… you’re doing it, aren’t you? Why? Why?!?
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
- Omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acid Supplementation for Reducing Muscle Soreness after Eccentric Exercise: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials
- Preventive Effects of 10-Day Supplementation with Saffron and Indomethacin on the Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness
- Effects of caffeine and sex on muscle performance and delayed-onset muscle soreness after exercise-induced muscle damage: a double-blind randomized trial.
- Caffeine Attenuates Delayed-Onset Muscle Pain and Force Loss Following Eccentric Exercise
- Effect of Caffeine on Perceived Soreness and Functionality Following an Endurance Cycling Event
- The Effect of Caffeine Ingestion on Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness
Turmeric / Curcumin references
- Local application of turmeric on delayed onset muscle soreness
- Reduction of delayed onset muscle soreness by a novel curcumin delivery system (Meriva®): a randomised, placebo-controlled trial
- Curcumin Improves Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness and Postexercise Lactate Accumulation
- Modulation of Exercise-Induced Muscle Damage, Inflammation, and Oxidative Markers by Curcumin Supplementation in a Physically Active Population: A Systematic Review
- Curcumin supplementation likely attenuates delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS)
- Ginger (Zingiber Officinale) as an Analgesic and Ergogenic Aid in Sport: A Systemic Review
- Acute Effects of Ginger Extract on Biochemical and Functional Symptoms of Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness
- The Effects of Pre-Exercise Ginger Supplementation on Muscle Damage and Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness
Tart Cherry References
- Effects of Powdered Montmorency Tart Cherry Supplementation on an Acute Bout of Intense Lower Body Strength Exercise in Resistance Trained Males
- Effects of Protein Supplements on Muscle Damage, Soreness and Recovery of Muscle Function and Physical Performance: a Systematic Review
- Combined Effect of Branched-Chain Amino Acids and Taurine Supplementation on Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness and Muscle Damage in High-Intensity Eccentric Exercise
- Effects of Taurine Supplementation Following Eccentric Exercise in Young Adults
- The Effect of Taurine on the Recovery from Eccentric Exercise-Induced Muscle Damage in Males