Oh, my aching shovel

It’s been a snowy winter here in the northeast of the U.S. Several days my workout has consisted of “shovelcizing”. This last bout of winter weather was what we in the ‘biz (medicine, cath lab to be exact) used to call a “cardiac snow”…heavy and wet. People who never exercise would grab a shovel and have at it. The cold, the exertion, lack of fitness, possibly undiagnosed artery disease would all conspire to create a lot of work for the cardiology folks after a snowfall like this.

Falls, breaks and sprains are another winter weather hazard, also best handled by the pros.

Sore, aching muscles are one snow-shoveling hazard that falls (pardon the pun) exactly into the realm of Natural Health. First, it’s very preventable. Weight / resistance training year round makes all those shovel reps a little easier. (A little flexibility and basic agility and coordination doesn’t hurt on the ice either. It goes without saying that aerobic exercise will help protect your heart from the sudden onslaught of driveway-clearing.)

So you followed the advice on the evening news and lifted with your legs. Your back is fine, but every other muscle you have is tired and stiff as a board. Now what do you do?

First, relaz. It will get better with time whether you do anything or not.

When I was taking Kung Fu classes, it was almost a rite of initiation. Everyone had a little of that workout ache as our training level increased. If anyone knows how to take care of the occasional sore mucles, it’s martial arts people. By and large they use topical aromatherapy, even though they never thought of it as that. Essential oils like eucalyptus, low cocentration clove, peppermint, and other oils are combined in traditional recipes (often with tiny amounts of mentol for cooling). Most often they are petrolium jelly or beeswax based ointments. Tiger Balm is a well know brand of essential oil based sore muscle remedy.

Then add to that a little topical herbology. Or add a little spice to life. Both really…

Capsaicin is the stuff that makes hot peppers hot. The dried, ground cayenne pepper in your kitchen is a quick, easy and cheap way to get your hands on some. One way to make your own essential oil based, capsaicin containing remedy is place a small screw-top container of cough and cold ointment (like Vicks vaporub) in hot water until it partially melts. Stir in about 1/2 tsp of cayenne pepper then allow the ointment to re-cool to room temperature before applying. Use sparingly on the affected sore muscle area, once or twice a day, and cover with old clothing or cloth…unlike commercial white tiger balm, it tends to stain cloth. Fortunately,  it also tends to help make you more comfortable.

There are non-staining commercial lotions that contain capsaicin, but I’ve not found any brands that contain the eucalyptus and other essential oils that are so nice in the ointment versions. One capsaicin lotion (no longer available) had lavendar oil in it. My martial arts coach at the time said it made me smell like a cup of chamomile tea. Thank you, I think….

One of my all time favorite remedies for shovel sore muscles is your basic soak in a hot bath with epsom salts. Sound like your grandmother’s remedy? It was. Because it works. There are some commercial blends of dead sea salts that also work very well. You can find them at health food stores.

The BEST of all is a soak in a hot tub near a swimming pool, if your gym or community canter has that set-up. It’s pure genius for this sort of thing! The warm water and humid air takes away the winter chill, at least for a time. After a soak in the hot water, go for a swim (or wade if you don’t swim)  in the cooler pool. Sure it’s going to feel like the North Atlantic after the Titanic sank after being in the spa, but that’s half the idea. Take a swim, then get back in the hot tub to warm up. Alternating between the warm vessel-dilating water, and the cool vessel-contricting water combined with the movement of swimming (or wading) will work out the lactic acid buildup in your muscles that is making you stiff and sore in the first place. Even if it doesn’t help you muscles, hot tubs are gauranteed stress-busters. With any luck, it would help both!

Even if you weren’t able to prevent sore shovel muscles, there are some easy (and fun) things you can do ease the ache, including ointments, lotions, warm baths, or some time at the pool.