Almost every runner has felt unduly sore after a workout at one time or another. Perhaps you finished your first marathon, nailed a 5k PR, or did a hard hill workout.
Either way, when you have delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS), it’s a sign that your body is trying to heal the damage from your workout to build back stronger.
The best muscle pain relief creams for runners have the potential to soothe achy and sore muscles and reduce pain. While there are tons of creams, balms, and rubs for sore muscles, we’ve chosen the best muscle pain relief creams for runners and reviewed them below.
The 9 Best Muscle Pain Relief Creams for Runners In 2023
Do Muscle Pain Relief Creams for Runners Work?
Some runners find that muscle pain relief creams provide significant pain relief, and can reduce recovery time and make it easier to sleep.
According to a 2019 study, topical analgesic muscle pain relief creams with active ingredients like menthol can reduce the intensity of the muscle soreness associated with DOMS after running.
Other studies have shown that muscle relief creams or topical analgesics with arnica may reduce muscle soreness in the 72 hours after exercise.
However, the scientific evidence surrounding the mechanisms by which most topical analgesics and muscle pain relief creams for runners reduce soreness is generally lacking.
Most researchers conclude that muscle pain relief creams primarily work through the “Gate Theory.”
Essentially, muscle rubs that tingle, or make the skin feel warm or cool, act as a counter-irritant and distract the brain from the soreness by presenting a “louder”, or more overt, discomfort.
The tingling sensation reaches the brain faster, and therefore the soreness feeling is less bothersome.
Whether it’s the placebo effect, a new stimulus to focus on, or actual compounds in the muscle pain relief creams working their magic, muscle pain relief creams for runners can be a helpful tool in your recovery tool bag.
The 9 Best Muscle Pain Relief Creams for Runners
Blended with all-natural ingredients
Creates a cooling sensation that may distract you from soreness
One of the best options for natural sore muscle rubs is Dr. Bronner’s Organic Magic Balm. If you have sensitive skin, this is the muscle cream for you.
Using all-natural ingredients, this muscle pain balm moisturizes the skin with organic coconut oil, jojoba, avocado oil, and hemp oil, while trying to soothe sore muscles with arnica, camphor, menthol, and peppermint oil.
These ingredients cause a tingly, warming, and then cooling sensation that acts like a counterirritant to distract your brain from muscle soreness (the aforementioned Gate Theory).
It’s a little greasy and slightly sticky because it contains beeswax, but it adheres well to the skin and leaves your skin feeling super nourished.
Best organic muscle cream for runners
If you prefer to go the natural route, you’ll love the Badger Sore Muscle Rub, which is our pick for the best organic sore muscle cream for runners.
Most muscle pain relief creams for runners smell bad, but this one is the complete opposite. It has a scent that leaves you wanting more.
Not only does this natural sore muscle balm for runners smell amazing—sort of like warm ginger—it also feels great when you rub it in.
It warms and soothes your muscles while nourishing your skin with antioxidants found in rosemary essential oil and extra virgin olive oil.
The ginger and cayenne pepper act to warm your skin and penetrate deep into the muscles to warm and soothe muscle soreness.
Best of all, this organic muscle pain relief balm is free from artificial ingredients, fragrances, dyes, parabens, GMOs, synthetic chemicals, and harsh ingredients. The product is certified gluten-free and is not tested on animals.
Contains a topical anti-inflammatory drug which is proven to reduce pain
Mainly designed for joint pain, but can aid with muscle soreness too
Most topical analgesics are merely various combinations of herbs, which isn’t to say that they can’t be effective, but they may not be as scientifically proven to reduce muscle soreness.
Voltaren Arthritis Pain Gel contains Diclofenac sodium 1%, an actual topical non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID). Like ibuprofen, Diclofenac sodium can reduce inflammation and pain.
For this reason, Voltaren Arthritis Pain Gel is one of the best topical joint pain relief creams for runners.
Note that while it’s geared toward joint pain and arthritis, it can also be used to ease muscle soreness.
Moreover, muscle soreness is often exacerbated by joint stiffness and swelling, so quelling the latter can help relieve muscle pain.
You do not need a prescription to order or use Voltaren Arthritis Pain Gel, but be sure to read the instructions before use because there are limitations to how much you should use in terms of surface area and frequency.
The formula is created around arnica which provides pain relief
Great choice for those sensitive to odor of other pain relief creams
Our pick for the best arnica pain relief cream for runners is Penetrex Joint & Muscle Therapy. It has a super smooth, non-greasy formula with minimal odor. It doesn’t stain, it’s vegan, and it is not tested on animals.
Penetrex Joint & Muscle Therapy contains arnica, a natural compound with active components like sesquiterpene lactones, known for their pain relief properties.
It is also infused with the essential oil thymol, flavonoids, inulin, carotenoids, and tannins, which can increase blood circulation.
This arnica muscle pain relief cream contains vitamin B6, which helps improve nerve function and helps regulate the body’s fluid balance.
Finally, MSM supports healthy muscles and connective tissues such as tendons, ligaments, and fascia.
Lastly, this sore muscle cream contains Boswellia Serrata which is a herb thought to support the health and function of connective tissues, blood vessels, and blood supply to joints.
Infused with hemp extract
Lightweight formula which absorbs quickly into skin
Our pick for the best muscle pain relief cream for runners with hemp is Hempactiv Joint & Muscle Relief Cream.
It does not contain CBD or THC, but this all-natural muscle balm is infused with hemp extract, which is thought to help relieve pain and promote healing.
It also contains cooling menthol, MSM for joint health and blood flow, and arnica.
We love the lightweight texture and smooth feel of the cream because it absorbs quickly into the skin, getting to work on sore muscles, without leaving a greasy residue.
The company uses high-quality ingredients, doesn’t test on animals, and backs the purchase with a 100% satisfaction guarantee.
The easiest pain relief cream for runners to apply
Many muscle pain relief creams for runners are messy, greasy, smelly, and difficult to put on.
Biofreeze Pain Relief Roll-On is not only our pick of the best cooling muscle pain relief cream for runners, but it’s also the easiest to apply.
It comes in a small, travel-sized convenient bottle with a roll-on applicator.
It contains cooling menthol to soothe sore muscles and achy joints and is free from parabens and propylene glycol.
Stood the test of time
Methyl Salicylate provides pain relief
If you prefer to use muscle pain relief creams for runners that have withstood the test of time, you can’t go wrong with Tiger Balm Muscle Rub. This classic muscle cream has been used for over 100 years.
The non-greasy muscle rub provides a warming sensation to reduce soreness.
It contains Methyl Salicylate for pain relief, menthol for cooling, and camphor for warming comfort.
A little bit goes a long way. Just be careful not to get any in your eyes because it can really burn and irritate your eyes and mucus membranes.
A trusted and long-standing brand
Highly potent formula
Bengay is perhaps one of the oldest and most trusted manufacturers of muscle pain relief creams, and the Ultra Strength Bengay Topical Pain Relief Cream is one of the best due to its potency.
With the active ingredients of Camphor 4%, Menthol 10%, and Methyl salicylate 30%, this ultra-strength muscle cream seems to actually penetrate your skin and reach the muscles where it can soothe and relieve soreness.
The formula is non-greasy and goes on smoothly, without staining your clothes.
We found the effects to set it quite rapidly, which is great when your muscle soreness is at an all-time high.
Contains lidocaine which provides effective pain relief
Best pain relief cream for runners overall
When you’ve tried an ice bath, massage gun, heating pad, and active recovery and still nothing is alleviating your DOMS, it’s time to try our pick for the best muscle pain relief cream for runners: Icy Hot Max Strength Pain Relief Cream with Lidocaine Plus Menthol.
Because this product contains lidocaine (4%), this sore muscle cream helps numb the skin and temporarily helps desensitize aggravated nerves for more effective pain relief.
You can definitely notice the difference between the numbing effect of the lidocaine in this cream versus the other muscle pain relief creams without numbing agents.
It is a pleasant, non-greasy formula that lasts far longer than the other joint and muscle pain relief creams we tried. You only need to apply it once or twice for 24-hour relief.
The menthol provides a refreshing and calming cooling sensation, which helps distract your mind and reduce the perception of discomfort.
The cream goes on easily and washes out of clothing. It does have a prominent menthol smell, but it fades after 20 minutes or so.
The Best Muscle Pain Relief Creams for Runners: Key Takeaways
Recovery after a marathon or other challenging workouts can be difficult. There are many means you can use to help you – and pain relief creams should certainly be in your toolbox.
Although they can’t replace rest, sleep, and food in your recovery, they will give you a momentary release. That may be great for the times when the pain is too much to bear or to aid you with sleep. We hope this list helped you find the perfect pain relief cream for your needs.
But… Should you keep running when you’re sore?
Whether it is running or any other workout – the debate about whether we should or shouldn’t keep pushing when we’re sore seems to be going on for ages.
The answer to that is – it depends – and to understand the topic in detail read our full explanation and guide here.