Say I have done some exercise and the next few days I am rather sore in certain muscles.
What is the best thing to do about that? Let them rest (avoid using them)? Use them a lot? Exercise more? Rub them? Hot bath?
Prevent them from getting sore in the first place
Eat bananas after a workout. A healthy source of potassium is essential to prevent muscle soreness. If you have ever drank (alcohol) heavily you may have also experienced muscle soreness. This is due to losing a lot of electrolytes (salt, potassium) due to the diuretic effects of alcohol.
B vitamins are also important to eat after strenuous exercise. Especially B1 (thiamine) as a deficiency will cause sore muscles.
I don't have an official source to back this up but I find that a swim in cool water after a strenuous exercise helps to cut down on the after-workout soreness. The combination of cool water and non-strenuous workout to get a good supply of oxygen/blood to the taxed muscles works wonders.
When you do workouts that push your heart into the anaerobic range (think faster than a light jog) your body's oxygen intake will max out and it will start metabolizing anaerobically (without oxygen). The byproduct of anaerobic metabolism is still a controversial topic (due to traditional teaching vs current research) but it's basically what causes the 'burn' you feel from a hard workout. If you don't take the steps to process the byproduct of an anaerobic workout you'll feel more sore the next day. That's why going from a sprint to a dead stop is a bad idea.
So how do you recover after an anaerobic workout? Do a proper cool-down aerobic workout (like a light jog) to provide the oxygen and circulation your body needs to process those byproducts created through the anaerobic (or strenuous) exercise.
Stretch before you workout. Not static stretches (long hard stretches in a relaxed state) but dynamic stretches (short quick stretches where you flex the muscles) or else you'll elongate your muscles too much and increase your risk of ligament pain/injury.
Properly warm up your muscles. If you have ever worked out with a heart rate monitor you probably already know that your body doesn't go from 0-max very well. It takes some time for your circulatory system to fully adjust to the increased intensity.
The concept is pretty simple. The better your body can circulate and provide oxygen to muscles, the better it will be able to process the byproducts of the strenuous workout.
How you do so depends on what you're building up to. For instance:
If you are training for long distance running, then you'll want to do more workouts in the aerobic range mainly due to the fact that more Type II muscle means more weight to carry and more resources (energy) you'll need to sustain the pace. As you may see on this site, many people like to bring up the topic of 'runners high' where you feel like you can keep going forever without getting tired. This is mainly due to the fact that your body is completely warmed up and effectively metabolizing in the aerobic (and therefore not creating any nasty byproducts) as well as releasing endorphins. As long as you can keep going without any functional issues (muscle strain, ligament pain, boredom) and you can maintain a healthy energy level, theoretically you could go forever. Unfortunately, your body doesn't have the ability to properly maintain itself (digestion, recovery, etc) during exercise. This is due to your body focusing it's resources on the 'sympathetic nervous system' during exercise as opposed to the 'parasympathetic nervous system'.
If you're geared more toward weight lifting, higher intensity, short burst exercises, or other types of anaerobic activities like sprinting; The hard-and-fast rule is, 'the harder you workout the harder you will be able to workout'. This is mainly due to the fact that the more you push into the anaerobic range the better your body will adjust to be able to handle processing of the anaerobic byproducts. Fewer residual byproducts means less after-workout soreness.
If you want specifics on 'why' that rule holds true, google the term 'anaerobic threshold' and spend some time reading up on the topic. Most people (including myself) were brought up to believe 'no pain no gain'. That is only partially true. You will feel some soreness/stiffness when you first start no matter what you do but pain does not equal progress. If you focus on increasing fitness first before strength you will have a much less painful path to progress (and you will probably be more healthy overall).
If you're already sore, don't completely avoid activity. Moving around will help loosen up the muscles a bit and recover faster, just take it easy and let your body recover.
I just stumbled on a Recovery Guide by the USTA (United States Tennis Association) that covers all of these points and more in detail. Including CNS (Central Nervous System) and psychological fatigue - which I neglected to cover in my answer.
Muscle soreness after exercise is a very common symptom of a strenuous exercise, and is usually indicative of a "good" workout, i.e. one in which you've stressed the muscles to the point at which they will grow stronger. The cause of the soreness is currently unknown. Previous hypotheses involving lactic acid and muscle spasms have been demonstrated to be incorrect.
You can provide temporary relief using warm compresses and gentle massaging of the affected muscle, but the soreness will persist until about 72 hours. The best thing to do is to stick to a regular routine; soreness is notably worse the first time a muscle group is significantly stressed. Note that while continuing to exercise will stave off soreness, overstressing can lead to sprains and tears.
There are two major types of soreness
From a very good workout
Depending what is the cause of your soreness you have to take appropriate actions.
If its of type 1, give it rest for roughly 4 days(infact it depends on the muscle/muscle group that is/are sore) to recuperate, do not work the muscle and strain it again.
During the recuperation time, actual growth and adaptation(of the muscles to higher levels of stress and strain) takes place. So rest is very important. Which leads to not to train harder or more often.
Type 2 occurs when you work a muscle too often to allow it to fully recuperate, you have to consult a doctor, because he might prescribe a pain killer or some medicine. Take lot of rest, sometimes weeks of it.
One important factor: Trained muscles recover from fatigue faster than untrained muscles. So the better you get at exercising the faster your recovery rate will be and the more intense your training can become.
Keep working out according to your schedule (assuming there's a 48-72 hour recovery period after each session -- if not, get a new schedule). It's not harmful, and might even make the soreness go away sooner.
An ice bath may help against muscle soreness:
The ice bath is thought to:
- Constrict blood vessels and flush waste products, like lactic acid, out of the affected tissues
- Decrease metabolic activity and slow down physiological processes
- Reduce swelling and tissue breakdown
What to do depends on how sore your muscles are, how long they've been sore and your prior experience with sore muscles. The easy answer is to rest, but it may not be the best advice for your specific situation. I've always felt that you should continue exercising, but with the focus on areas not directly related to the 'sore' muscle area, this builds an exercise pattern that will provide long term benefit, help increase your pain threshold (pain management is key to any aggressive exercise program) and gives those 'sore' muscles time to heal.
Make sure you're hydrating enough and getting sufficient protein to help reduce the intensity and duration of muscle soreness.
I started with a trainer a few months ago and starting out, I would get SO sore. Using a foam roller really helped (before and after).
You can find different workouts with a foam roller here.
When I am sore I like to recover with a pool session. You only need to get in waist deep and you do a series of stretching exercises (quads, hamstrings, hip flexors, calves, etc.). The water resistance helps with the lactic acid build up. This works the best for me and hopefully may be a good option for your soreness as well.
I'm surprised no one's mentioned Epsom Salt bath soaks for the mineral content, as Epsom Salt is a dissolvable form of Magnesium. This really helps me with soreness.
Taking vitamin B6 orally may help with uptake, and Calcium works synergistically with the Magnesium.
Here's an article with overall information about minerals and bodybuilding, but you may wish to try and get more updated suggestions for how to take what you need from your doctor.