How To Speed Up Muscle Strain Recovery In 5 Proven Steps

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Running injuries are common and frustrating; they can drag on for longer than needed. You want to lace up your shoes, but a muscle strain is holding you back.

How long your recovery period will take is based on a lot of factors, and active participation in a solid rehabilitation routine will likely improve your recovery time.

With the right approach, you can effectively recover and get back to running.

Remember, everyone’s recovery process may vary, and it’s essential to consult with a healthcare professional, such as a physical therapist, for a personalized evaluation and guidance tailored to your specific injury.

In this article, we will provide a road to recovery for running injuries, specifically how to speed up muscle strain recovery.

We will discuss:

  • What Is A Muscle Strain?
  • Heat Or Ice For Muscle Strain?
  • How To Speed Up Muscle Strain Recovery: 5 Tips
  • How To Speed Up Muscle Strain Recovery: Summary

Let’s jump into it!

A runner holding his muscle strain in his quad.

What is a muscle Strain?

A muscle strain, commonly referred to as a pulled muscle, occurs when muscle fibers are stretched or torn beyond their normal capacity.

Muscle strains amongst runners often result from overuse or sudden excessive force applied to the muscle.

A muscle strain can be broken down into three levels of severity:

Grade 1 Muscle Strain:

A mild calf muscle strain involves minimal stretching or tearing of muscle fibers. It may cause slight discomfort or mild pain but typically doesn’t hinder your ability to run or engage in other activities.

Common symptoms include:

  • Sharp pain during or after physical activity
  • A sensation of tightness in the affected area
  • Ability to continue running, with or without mild discomfort
  • Post-activity tightness or aching

Recovery varies, but a return to running would be expected within 1 to 3 weeks.

A runner holding their calf.

Grade 2 Muscle Strain:

A moderate muscle strain occurs when a larger number of muscle fibers are stretched or torn.

This type of strain can cause more pain, swelling, and tenderness, and it may limit your ability to run or perform certain activities.

Common symptoms include:

  • Sharp pain during physical activity
  • Inability to continue the activity due to pain
  • Significant pain while putting weight on the affected area
  • Swelling in the affected muscle
  • Mild to moderate bruising around the affected area

Recovery generally takes about 3 to 6 weeks before you can resume running.

A runner holding their hamstring.

Grade 3 Muscle Strain:

A severe calf muscle strain involves a complete tear of the muscle. It leads to significant pain, swelling, and bruising, and it greatly limits your ability to run or engage in other activities.

Common symptoms include:

  • Severe and immediate pain at the musculotendinous junction of the muscle
  • Inability to continue the activity due to the pain
  • Notable bruising and swelling in the affected area within hours of the injury.

Recovery time for this type of strain varies greatly but can take up to 6 months.

Heat Or Ice For Muscle Strain?

Heat or ice for pulled muscle? A question that is hard to answer; in the clinic where I work, opinions differ, so let’s break down the science.

Ice has long been used and is an integral part of the popular RICE protocol. Practitioners will generally recommend the use of ice during the acute phase of a muscle strain, normally within the first 48-72 hours following the injury.

A person holding an ice pack on their shoulder.

The consensus in the literature is that ice acts as an analgesic, providing pain relief. It is an important and effective tool in this regard.

Contrary to the traditional belief that ice is beneficial in reducing swelling, recent clinical research challenges this notion.

Studies by Meeusen and Lievens have indicated that ice is not an effective approach for promoting tissue recovery and may even hinder the healing process, potentially causing further harm.

Findings from Tseng et al. suggest that topical cooling not only fails to expedite the restoration of normal levels of muscle damage markers and subjective fatigue following eccentric exercise but also appears to delay this recovery process.

So, heat or ice for pulled muscle? Let’s take a look at the benefits of heat.

The application of heat for muscle injuries has shown some benefits. According to scientific studies, heat therapy can provide pain relief and increases blood flow and elasticity of connective tissues.

That said, there is limited overall evidence to support the use of topical heat generally.

Similar to ice, it can be an effective tool in reducing pain experienced by muscle strains.

A person swimming.

How to speed up muscle strain recovery: 5 tips

Here we will look at the top 5 tips for how to heal muscle strains.

#1: Rest And Active Recovery

Immediately after experiencing a muscle strain, it’s important to rest and avoid any activities that may further aggravate the strain. Rest will give you time to accurately assess the damage that has been done and prevent further damage.

If the muscle strain is severe, i.e., grade II/III, then complete rest is needed. However, if an injury is minor, active recovery should start right away.

Too much rest can be detrimental. Instead, we should participate in active recovery.

Prolonged rest should be avoided as it can further compromise tissue strength by de-conditioning the muscles.

Pain signals should guide the duration of rest.

Active recovery refers to engaging in exercises or low-intensity physical activity that involves pain-free movements throughout a full range of motion. It encompasses various activities that contract the skeletal muscles previously affected by trauma.

In the case of minor injuries, rehabilitation can commence as early as the following day, provided that there is no pain associated with the intended movements.

By actively contracting the skeletal muscles surrounding the injured area, the body’s capacity to restore blood flow to the damaged tissue is improved.

This enhanced revascularization process contributes to the healing and recovery of the affected area.

A person on an elliptical machine.

#2: Utilize Crosstraining

So you’ve had to hang up your shoes for the time being. This doesn’t mean you should be sitting still.

Cross-training is an essential component of injury recovery for several reasons:

One of the biggest downsides to having to refrain from running is the decline of your cardiovascular fitness.

Cross-training will bridge this gap, allowing you to engage in alternative exercises that maintain your cardiovascular fitness.

Activities like cycling, swimming, or an elliptical machine at the gym will provide a low-impact workout that works your cardiovascular system without putting excessive strain on the injured muscles.

Cross-training is an ideal option for active recovery; engaging in low-impact activities through cross-training will help promote blood circulation, which aids in the delivery of nutrients and oxygen to the injured tissues.

If you have had to take time off from running before, then you’ll likely be all too familiar with the psychological cost of being unable to participate in something that you love to do.

Keeping active will serve to maintain an overall sense of well-being.

people doing squats.

#3: Incorporate A Progressive Strength & Conditioning Program

If you have suffered a muscle strain, part of rehabilitation will be gradually incorporating strengthening exercises into your routine.

By implementing a well-designed strength and conditioning program, you can enhance your body’s resilience and minimize the likelihood of sustaining injuries.

Resistance training will strengthen the muscles and connective tissues, thereby providing stability to the joints and reducing the risk of muscle and joint injuries.

If your muscle strain is severe, loading the muscle will initially be very gentle.

It is advisable to seek guidance from a physical therapist or qualified trainer who can assist you in performing exercises that target the muscles affected by the injury while ensuring proper form and technique.

As your body adapts and becomes stronger, its capacity to handle physical stress increases.

This improved load tolerance allows you to push yourself harder and cover longer distances with reduced risk of inflammation and subsequent soreness.

Additionally, strength training aids in addressing muscle imbalances. By engaging in targeted exercises, you can correct these imbalances and reduce discomfort.

It is important to note that the intensity of exercises should be adjusted as your strength progresses.

The recommended exercises should be challenging but not cause pain or discomfort around your muscle strain.

Gradual progression and listening to your body’s signals are essential to ensure a safe and effective strength training program.

A person smiling.

#4: Maintain An Optimistic Approach

Our expectations surrounding our road to recovery appear to be consistently associated with our clinical outcomes.

The exact mechanism behind this phenomenon isn’t exactly clear, although there are many theories in this exciting new field of research.

The bottom line is that optimistic patient expectations are associated with better clinical outcomes.

And the opposite is true; psychological factors like fear or catastrophization can undermine recovery, so nurturing a positive mindset with regard to recovery is important.

#5: Sleep, Sleep, And More Sleep

Studies have demonstrated that not getting enough sleep can significantly increase your risk of injury and overtraining syndrome.

Sleep is our bodies’ opportunity to recover; during sleep, the body undergoes various processes that are essential for repairing and rebuilding muscles.

Here are just a couple of the reasons why sleep is important for recovery:

  1. Muscle Protein Synthesis: When we sleep, the body undergoes a process of building new muscle proteins to repair and strengthen damaged muscle fibers.
  2. Growth Hormone Release: During sleep, our body releases growth hormone (GH), which enhances muscle tissue repair and stimulates the growth of new muscle cells.

How to speed up muscle strain recovery: Summary

There you have it, our five tips on how to heal muscle strains!

The bottom line is: A muscle strain will heal with time.

Although we ultimately have to wait for the body to repair the damaged tissue, there are ways in which we can facilitate an optimal environment for nurturing the process.

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Ben is a qualified Personal Trainer and Sports Massage Therapist with a particular interest in running performance and injury. He has spent the last 9 years working with runners at his clinic in Brighton. Ben is a keen runner and avid cyclist. Evenly splitting his time between trail running, road biking, and MTB.

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