Oral NSAIDs (Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs)
Try them: Immediately after overexertion and for a few days afterward.
How they work: NSAIDs, such as aspirin (found in Bayer), ibuprofen (in Advil), and naproxen (in Aleve), block cyclooxygenase, an enzyme in the body that is responsible for causing inflammation and pain.
Bear in mind: Follow the prescribed doses on the label exactly. NSAIDs aren’t candy, and taking more will not alleviate aches better or faster. Also keep in mind that though NSAIDs are fine for short-term use, “they vary in effectiveness for delayed-onset muscle pain,” says Robert Hyldahl, an athletic trainer and a doctoral candidate in kinesiology at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. Tip: Liquid-filled capsules work faster than tablets.
Try it: In the hours after exercising. Apply ice for 20 to 30 minutes every two hours. Compress (wrap lightly in an elastic bandage) and elevate the area.
How it works: The cold slows blood flow and therefore decreases painful inflammation, explains Hyldahl.
Bear in mind: Use good old ice or a bag of frozen peas instead of a store-bought pack. “Ice melts and never gets colder than zero degrees Celsius, so you don’t risk frostbite,” says Hyldahl. “With a chemical bag, you can suffer frostbite if you leave it on too long.”
Try it: The next day, once inflammation has subsided.
How it works: “A walk or a swim does wonders,” says Amy Manson, a trainer in Boulder, Colorado. “By increasing circulation, you speed the healing process and flush out the lactic acid,” which is what makes you feel stiff. “Pain-masking endorphins are also released,” she says.
Bear in mind: Take it slow. The point is to eliminate lactic acid, not produce more. “Walk or use a stationary bike,” suggests Harley Pasternak, a trainer in Los Angeles and the author of The 5 Factor World Diet ($5, amazon.com).
Epsom Salts Bath
Try it: Over the next few days.
How it works: The salts (sold at drugstores) contain magnesium sulfate, a mineral that works as a subtle muscle relaxant. “The deep soak also helps get blood flowing to sore muscles,” says Ashley Borden, a personal trainer in Los Angeles. Sprinkle a cup of Epsom salts into the bathwater, which should be “as hot as you can stand it,” says Borden.
Bear in mind: To stay hydrated and not get overheated, try drinking a glass of cold water in the tub.
Try it: A day or two into your soreness, when you’re done with the ice. Apply it for 20 to 30 minutes every few hours.
How it works: “After the initial inflammation has been controlled,” says Hyldahl, “heat will help increase blood flow to the area and promote healing.”
Bear in mind: A hot-water bottle will work—fill it with water that is hot to the touch, not boiling—but moist heat is ideal for sore muscles because it penetrates more deeply than dry. Try a microwavable buckwheat pillow (like Bucky Brand Hotties Body Wrap; $40, badbackstore.com) or a cotton sock filled with rice. When the pillow or sock is microwaved, the natural moisture in the grains heats up.
Try it: Whenever you’re aching.
How it works: Like a DIY deep-tissue sports massage. Lie down with your sore area (say, your back, quadriceps, or iliotibial bands—also known as IT bands—which run along the outsides of the thighs) against the roller and roll back and forth. When you feel the most pain, stop, breathe, and focus on relaxing that muscle against the tube.
Bear in mind: Rollers (sold at sporting-goods stores) come in different sizes and densities. Borden recommends a 6-by-36-inch one in a color (like black or green), which will be harder and last longer than a less dense white one. Also, if you’re very sore, you probably won’t be able to tolerate a lot of pressure at first. “Expect a level of discomfort that will decrease as you get used to it,” says Borden.