This Monday, The Globe and Mail offered some particularly shabby fitness advice, with an even higher myth content and lower science concentration than usual. Kathleen Trotter, a personal trainer, had some advice for a reader who asked:
I am an avid cyclist but I don’t usually lift weights. Yesterday I did a weight-training class and now I am really sore. What should I do to recover?
- Epsom salts
- a light workout
The first is goofy, the second is a popular myth, and a light workout is fine but it’s not actually going to make any meaningful difference.
There actually is no solution to this problem, but of course it wouldn’t make for much of a Q&A if Trotter had honestly replied, “I’m sorry, but there’s really nothing you can do about that — it just takes time.” The phenomenon of post-exercise or delayed-onset muscle soreness — often acronymized to PEMS or DOMS — is basically impossible to beat. It involves a complex maze of recovery physiology, and there are no confirmed shortcuts through it, and a long list of failed candidates. While ibuprofen will mask the pain a little, DOMS is indomitable.
Epsom salts is a folk remedy with no basis in evidence. Absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence, but Epsom salt bathing also has no basis in reason — it’s implausible, and its benefits are universally attributed to “osmosis” and/or “detoxification.” The latter can be debunked by any high school chemistry student, while the former is vague to the point of meaninglessness. Years ago, I wrote an extensive article on Epsom salts that became perpetually popular, and I still keep tabs on the subject. I’ve never yet heard a good argument in favour. The case for the healing powers of Epsom salt is mostly made by people selling the stuff, or recommending it as casually and imprecisely as an old wives’ tale. It’s just one of those things people learn and repeat without examining it. Sometimes in major newspapers.
Massage therapy is a complex treatment with some interesting benefits, but as a treatment for DOMS it falls pretty flat. The evidence on this point is either negative or damning with faint praise. At best it might “take the edge of,” but even that’s a bit doubtful. Massage is also quite guilty by association with the “toxins” claim. Although Trotter didn’t trot out the T word, it’s almost inevitable that it will come up in any conversation about this (especially with a massage therapist). Press for an explanation of how massage treats DOMS, and you’ll hear that “massage detoxifies” … and that’s about as good a reason as you’re going to get. Or maybe another myth: that massage “increases circulation.” So we have a claim based on negative or weakly positive evidence and explain with a couple easily debunked myths. Pretty weak sauce.
A little light exercise is a fine thing in many ways … but not as a treatment for muscle soreness. As far as I know, there is no evidence either way on this point — except over-training evidence, which generally suggests that more recovery time is a Very Good Thing. Meanwhile, as an active amateur athlete, I have had countless occasions to test this one in the Lab of Me, and I am highly confident that I just cannot tell if “active recovery” gets me through the soreness any better than sitting on my arse. If it makes any difference, it’s too subtle to get excited about.
Muscle soreness happens. It’s nature’s little tax on exercise, and it must be paid. As the saying goes, only DOMS prevents DOMS. You can prevent DOMS next time … by surviving it this time.
For more information, see this thorough review of muscle soreness treatments.
Photo from flickr user M-Haftek used under a CC licence.