You know you had a good leg day when you can barely stand up from your bed or walk down a flight of stairs without your muscles feeling tight and sore. Muscle soreness after working out is normal, but you might wonder whether doing a cardio session will help your muscles recover or hinder your progress altogether.
So, should you do cardio with sore muscles? If you want to reduce your recovery time from sore muscles, then performing cardio immediately post-workout will allow you to recover approximately 1-day quicker. As well, if you do cardio while you’re already sore, you’ll see a temporary relief in muscle soreness. Performing cardio when you’re sore is safe and will improve your overall levels of fitness.
If you’re going to use cardio to reduce muscle soreness then there are some specific protocols you should follow in order to maximize your recovery. The goal is to reduce your muscle soreness and get back to normal functioning as soon as possible, and not beat yourself up any more than necessary.
Let’s dive into the research so you know the do’s and don’ts to doing cardio with sore muscles.
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Why Does Muscle Soreness Happen?
Your muscles will get sore any time you introduce a new training stimulus.
People who are just hitting the gym for the first time in a while can get incredibly sore with not much training effort.
Even if you are a well-trained person, you can still get sore, especially if you are pushing yourself.
For example, you can expect to wake up sore if you just set a new 10 rep max personal best with 10lbs more weight than you’ve ever done previously.
Muscle soreness is a byproduct of doing more of ‘something’ in the gym (volume or intensity) and is a normal part of the training process.
What’s Actually Happening When You Feel Muscle Soreness?
Not all muscle soreness is the same.
The type of muscle soreness you get during exercise is much different than the type of muscle soreness that you get post-exercise. Additionally, muscle soreness can depend on the activity you’re doing, whether it’s an endurance-related activity or lifting weights.
For the purposes of this article, we’re concerned with the type of muscle soreness that happens 1-3 days following an intense weight training session.
This type of soreness is called “Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness” (DOMS).
What is DOMS?
When you lift weights, you create microscopic damage to the muscle in the form of small tears. As a result, the body creates a short-term inflammatory response to kick-start the rebuilding process. This is what leads to the adaptation of the muscle, as it requires the body to build more muscle fibers and improve blood supply so that the next time we train there is less ‘damage’.
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Why Is It Important To Reduce Muscle Soreness?
While muscle soreness is normal, it can lead to some negative consequences if you are getting ‘too sore’ or the soreness lasts longer than a few days.
Sore muscles can change the mechanics of various activities. For example, if you’re particularly sore on one side of the body, then you may end up compensating when walking, which may lead to excessive strain.
If the sore muscles are perceived to be so painful that the person stops going to the gym for several days then they will hinder their overall progress if they aren’t training regularly.
Sore muscles can heighten the risk of injury. This is because with a lack of full range of motion it can lead to the inability to efficiently absorb the shock that comes from physical activity more generally.
As such, while we can’t avoid muscle soreness, we should make an effort to reduce and limit it as much as possible within our control.
This leads us to wonder whether cardio can be our savior when it comes to recovery.
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Does Cardio Help or Hinder Your Muscle Soreness?
The short answer is:
If you are going to do cardio, do it immediately post weight training (not 1-2 days later) if you want to reduce the recovery time from being sore.
However, if you’re already experiencing muscle soreness, i.e. 1-2 days post weight training session, then doing cardio won’t increase your recovery time. Again, cardio must be done immediately post weight training to have any significant effect on recovery time.
If you do cardio while you’re sore, you will experience a temporary relief in muscle soreness because of the extra blood flow to the muscles. So, cardio can be used as a treatment for sore muscles, but just know, your muscle soreness will return to normal post-cardio session.
If you do want to do cardio while you’re sore, it’s totally safe, and it will help contribute to your overall fitness goals.
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Study #1: Cardio Has Been Shown To Prevent Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness If Done Immediately After Weight Training
You can prevent delayed muscle onset soreness by performing ‘moderate-intense cardio’ post weight training.
A study conducted at California State University showed that if you do 20-minutes of moderate-intense cycling immediately following a lower-body weight training session that you can reduce DOMS by a full 24-hours compared with a group who did no cardio. This was the difference between feeling sore for 4 days vs 3 days. These results were verified by another study conducted at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology showing the exact same effect.
Takeaway: While you can’t prevent delayed onset muscle soreness fully, using cardio immediately post weight training will allow you to get back to normal functioning sooner.
Study #2: Cardio Has Not Been Shown To Help Reduce Muscle Soreness If Performed In The Days Following Weight Training
If you decide to perform cardio in the days following your weight training session, it likely won’t reduce your time to recovery.
A study conducted at the University of Florida showed that 20-minutes of moderate-intense cycling 48-hours post weight training session did not significantly reduce muscle soreness recovery times compared with a group that did no cardio. The study concluded that once you feel sore in the days following weight training, cardio will not increase your recovery time.
With that said, just because cardio doesn’t aid in recovery times from sore muscles, doesn’t mean you should abstain from cardio altogether. As you’ll see in the next study, there are some short-term benefits.
Takeaway: don’t expect to have magical recovery times by doing cardio when you’re already experiencing delayed onset muscle soreness.
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Study #3: Cardio Has Been Shown To Temporarily Reduce Perceived Pain When You’re Already Experiencing Muscle Soreness
You can use cardio as a way to get temporary relief from sore muscles.
Researchers from the Auckland University of Technology showed that cardio is a highly effective means of alleviating pain during delayed onset muscle soreness. However, they noted that the pain-reducing effect is simply temporarily, where you feel better when you’re performing the cardio, but afterward, the muscle soreness seems to return as normal.
What this means is that you can use cardio as a treatment for muscle soreness in order to ‘feel better’, but the length of time it’s going to take you to recover is going to be just the same regardless if you do cardio or not.
Takeaway: If you are experiencing soreness, doing a cardio session will help your muscles feel better in the short-term, which may be better than sitting on the couch and doing nothing. This is because doing cardio will allow you to continue working toward your fitness goals.
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Rules To Follow When Thinking About Doing Cardio With Sore Muscles
Here are some general rules to follow when it comes to incorporating cardio when you have sore muscles:
Make sure to do your cardio immediately post weight training
If you know you’re going to be sore from your workout, plan a 20-minutes cardio session as a cool-down. This has been shown to reduce your recovery time by 1-full day.
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Use moderate amounts of cardio to reduce levels of pain
In the days following your weight training session, you can do moderate amounts of cardio to reduce the level of pain you’re experiencing. While it’s only temporary pain relief, it’s relief nonetheless, and doing cardio will keep you on track with your overall fitness goals.
Don’t pre-medicate prior to doing cardio
You don’t want to take anti-inflammatory medication prior to your cardio session. If your pain is masked by medication, you won’t be able to assess how your muscle soreness is being impacted while doing cardio.
Eat foods high in protein before and after your cardio session
Protein is required to repair any muscle damage that was caused by your weight training session. Therefore, ensuring you have high amounts of protein before and after your cardio session will ensure your body is able to continue repairing your muscles.
Choose your cardio wisely
You don’t want to pick cardio activities that breakdown your muscles even more. For example, after a heavy leg day, if you have sore calves, quads, and glutes, you’ll want to do something low-impact like cycling or walking vs. running stairs.
What Else Can You Do Other Than Cardio To Reduce Muscle Soreness?
Cardio isn’t the only answer to reducing muscle soreness or alleviating sore muscles.
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Here are two tried and tested methods that have been backed by science:
Take caffeine before you work out
Researchers at the University of Rhode Island showed that ingesting caffeine 1-hour prior to weight training significantly reduced muscle soreness in the days that followed. The amount of caffeine prescribed was 5mg per kg of bodyweight. So if you want to get ahead of your muscle soreness, you could try to supplement with caffeine before working out.
Going for a massage
A review looking at massage therapy as an intervention to reduce delayed onset muscle soreness showed that there was promising evidence for this practice. However, the results varied widely. So try going for a massage, and if it works, great. If it doesn’t, don’t be surprised.
The only science-backed cardio method for reducing your recovery time is when you do it immediately after your weight training session. You can also consider doing cardio when you’re experiencing muscle soreness as it will make you temporarily less sore. In addition, doing cardio is better than not because it will allow you to stay consistent with your fitness goals rather than taking several days off.
About The Author
Avi Silverberg has a Master’s of Science from the University of Victoria where he researched strength training and exercise science. As an athlete, he fell in love with powerlifting, where his highest achievement was competing at three World Bench Press Championships and winning a bronze medal in 2010. Since 2012, he has been the Head Coach for Team Canada Powerlifting where he took the team from placing 30th in the World to top 3. In addition to writing for Fitbod, he writes about powerlifting technique and best practices on his own blog, powerliftingtechnique.com.