Relieving sore muscles

Nothing says it's been an active weekend more than showing up for work Monday morning and being bowled over by that unmistakable nasal-clearing odour of someone's attempt to chemically mask muscle aches.

Yup, rub that stuff onto your skin and the muscle soreness will be gone within a few days.

Guess what? Don't rub anything onto your skin and the soreness will be gone within a few days.

By its very nature, exercise stresses your muscles. Every time you pump iron, go for a run, or dig out your garden, you are subjecting your muscles to microscopic tears. Usually, you don't feel them. As they heal — within a day or so — they heal stronger. It's what makes you fitter. Even when you overdo it and feel sore for a few days.

I was stunned when I heard about a 17-year-old track star who died of an accidental overdose of methyl salicylate, the wintergreen-scented ingredient found in liniments like BenGay, Icy Hot and Tiger Balm.

You could be putting yourself at risk if you rub the stuff over 40 per cent or more of your body. The New York City girl put the muscle cream on her legs and used adhesive pads containing the anti-inflammatory. The theory is the warmth generated by the cream gets down into your muscles and helps relieve the pain.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn't think the stuff does that. The agency's over the counter review panel rejected claims that muscle creams containing ingredients like methyl salicylate penetrate the skin and bring warmth into the muscle. Using these kinds of creams is compared to scratching an itch, masking the underlying discomfort.

So what's a sore athlete to do? Take steps to avoid getting sore in the first place. Don't overdo it. If you're getting into a new exercise program, take it easy. Don't increase your exercise load by more than 10 per cent per week. Stretch, if you believe that helps — but only when your muscles have warmed up.

If you are sore, do some easy low-impact aerobic exercise — this will increase blood flow to the affected muscles, which may help reduce soreness. Ice the sore area but for no more than 20 minutes at a time for the first two or three days. After that, heat therapy — like wrapping a heating pad around your sore leg — is usually more effective.

A registered massage therapist may be an option. A session won't take care of the soreness right away, but it sure feels good. Gently massaging the sore areas yourself may also help relieve some of the pain.

But those creams? Unless you're chasing Hank Aaron's home run record, I'd think twice.