Ice baths and ibuprofen aren’t the only ways to soothe painful legs.
For runners, sore muscles come with the territory. If you can’t handle tender calves and aching hamstrings, you shouldn’t run. In fact, according to surveys, muscle soreness is one of the major reasons non-runners don’t run.
While you can’t avoid muscle soreness completely as a runner, there are things you can do to lessen it. When you think of treatments for muscles recently beat up by the roads, you probably think of things such as ice baths, massage, topical analgesics, and anti-inflammatory medications. But there are also nutritional measures that can address muscle soreness, in a few distinct ways.
One of the simplest things you can do to reduce the amount of tissue damage your muscles are subjected to during running is to consume a sports drink in your longer runs. When muscle glycogen stores fall low late in long runs, the muscles rely increasingly on breaking down their own proteins to provide an alternative fuel source. It’s kind of like removing clapboards from the outside of your house to keep a fire burning in the fireplace inside. The more muscle proteins are broken down to keep you running, the sorer you are likely to be the next day. Drinking a sports drink throughout your long runs will keep your muscles well supplied with their preferred carbohydrate fuel and preserve your muscle glycogen stores longer, delaying the point at which the muscles begin to rely on their own proteins for fuel.
A second effective way to reduce muscle damage during runs is to consume some protein or amino acids before them. A little pre-run protein increases blood amino acid levels during the run, which appears to serve as a kind of biochemical signal telling the muscles not to break down protein for fuel.
Consuming protein after a run is also a good idea. It won’t reduce muscle soreness, but it will reduce the negative effects of muscle damage on your ability to run the next day. This was shown in a 2008 study conducted at the University of Brighton, England. Subjects performed sets of machine leg extensions to test their muscle strength before and twice more after running downhill to induce muscle damage and soreness. On one occasion the subjects consumed protein immediately after the downhill run. On another occasion they consumed a placebo. Markers of muscle damage and ratings of perceived soreness were the same in both trials, but whereas the subjects lost a lot of strength after the downhill run that was not followed by protein ingestion, they performed just as well in the post-run leg extensions test after protein ingestion as they did before the run.
Your overall diet can also reduce the amount of muscle soreness you experience as a runner. A lot of the muscle damage that occurs both during and after runs is caused by free radicals. A diet that is rich in antioxidants will strengthen your internal defenses against exercise-induced free-radical damage. The best sources of dietary antioxidants are, of course, fresh fruits and vegetables. Getting plenty of essential fats will further protect your muscles against free-radical damage during and after runs by strengthening muscle cell membranes. Most of us do not get enough of the omega-3 class of essential fats. Correct this problem by increasing your consumption of fish, nuts, and flaxseeds, and/or by taking an omega-3 supplement.
Speaking of supplements, there are a few supplements that have been shown to attenuate post-run muscle soreness. One such supplement is creatine, which is best-known for its muscle-building effects in weightlifters. A 2004 study reported that creatine supplementation before a 30 km running race significantly reduced signs of muscle cell damage and inflammation afterward.
And then there’s caffeine. Like most runners, you are probably aware that caffeine enhances running performance. What you may not know is that it does so partly by reducing the perception of pain during exercise. What’s more, this effect continues after the workout is completed. A 2007 study at the University of Illinois found that even regular coffee drinkers felt less sore after exercise when they consumed caffeine before the workout.
Doesn’t a nice hot mug of pain-killing coffee sound good right about now?
Matt Fitzgerald is the author of Iron War: Dave Scott, Mark Allen & The Greatest Race Ever Run (VeloPress, 2011). He is also a Coach and Training Intelligence Specialist for PEAR Sports. Find out more at mattfitzgerald.org.