It happens. You work out and you get sore muscles. Or tight muscles. Or muscle cramps. You stretch, but nothing doing. What to do?
1. & 2. Try PNF & Dynamic Stretching. If you tried doing static stretching, which is what most people do, and it didn't do much, try doing PNF stretching. Essentially, you are contracting the opposite muscle to the one you are stretching, which oddly relaxes the one you want stretched even more. Lots of great vids on YouTube to show you how. Secondly, consider adding in dynamic stretching as a warm-up before your cardio workouts. Dynamic stretching is NOT static stretching, which is passive and which is where you are holding a stretch (like in yoga). In dynamic stretching, you don't hold a position, you continually move your body to ensure proper range of motion. Good examples: arm circles and leg swings.
3. Get a Massage. Nothing like unwinding and releasing stress with massage. While a Swedish massage is nice and relaxing, go for a deep tissue to help get out those knots.
4. Get to Foam Rolling. Foam rolling helps to release tension in the fascia, which is connective tissue overlaying the muscle. It's a cheap alternative to getting a massage and you can pick one up form big box stores and online for under $30. Rolling over the tight area you'll feel that sensitivity, so go easy and use a lighter pressure initially. Here's a How-to Foam Roll for Muscles of the Legs. Yes, it does works.
5. & 6. Try Gua Sha or Moxa.
These are treatments used in acupuncture/acupressure. Gua sha is better known simply as scraping and it's where a spoon or other object is commonly scraped along your back and neck. It's excellent for releasing back and neck tension and increasing circulation. Don't worry about the marks left; they fade in a few days and aren't painful. Moxa looks like a fat incense stick and is placed closed to certain points on the body. Since it's a heat source, it can help to release muscular tension, especially useful for sciatica and lower back pain.
7. Cupping. Cupping is another Chinese medicine technique that you can do with or without acupuncture/acupressure. In fact, you can buy the cups on your own and DIY, or get a friend to help you. These silicone cups create a suction effect on your skin and are great for releasing shoulder, back and neck tension (think traps, scalenes, sternocleidomastoid, and lats), and are akin to getting a deep tissue massage. Like with gua sha, the marks will fade in a few days and aren't painful. Cupping can be used on other body parts, FYI, such as a deep tissue massage for the quads and calves. Also nice for the pecs as well.
8. & 9. St John's Wort & Comfrey Oil. Both of these oils are tools you definitely want to have in your arsenal. They are great for sprains, strains, bruises and muscular tension. Comfrey is excellent to help heal broken bones while St John's Wort excels in repairing nerve damage. You might want to take Comfrey internally as an infusion for further healing. You can buy the seeds for either plant and grow them yourselves, then infuse the top 1/3rd of the flowering plant in oil.
To Do: chop the plant with scissors into small pieces and place in a mason jar, slightly packed. Pour olive oil to cover, ensuring all the herb is submerged under the oil. Cap and let sit for 6 weeks. Use a sieve lined with a coffee filter to strain out the oil. Store the oil in a dark bottle in a cool location. Apply liberally and massage into the area.
You can also buy these oils online, although making it yourself is much cheaper!
10. & 11. Magnesium & B12. This might be an obvious one (or not), but muscular tension can sometimes be attributed to a lack of magnesium in the diet. Get in a good quality supplement (often paired with calcium in a 1:1 ratio) and take before bedtime (also helps with sleep). Good sources of magnesium include chocolate or dark cacao (go for bitter 70% +), grains, dark leafy greens, pumpkin seeds, avocados, bananas and dried figs. Oh, and soaking in magnesium-rich epsom salt bath is a great way to un-wind and get in some "me" time :)
If you happen to be a vegan for a while and haven't been taking any B12 supplement, your muscle cramping might be due to a deficiency. Make sure you get regular blood tests to check your levels. B12 sublingual is a cheap supplement that can easily be purchased from most health food stores or online.
12. Combination Therapy. You can obviously pair a few of these tips and tricks together. For example, you can try dynamic stretching pre-workout, then do foam rolling after a workout, get in a relaxing epsom salt bath, and take a capsule of magnesium at bedtime.
And did I mention that Rest, by the way, is another good option? :)
To pain-free days ahead,
Originally Written 2017. Revised 2020.