Rolling out of bed with throbbing muscles proves yesterday’s workout was a challenge. Congrats! But what does that ache mean for today’s session? While it’s tempting to suck it up and power through the pain for the sake of a good sweat, exercising sore muscles could undermine that workout and might even lead to injury.
The Pleasure of Pain? — The Need-to-Know
Dull pain after a workout results from microscopic tears in muscle fibers caused by intense activity they’re not used to performing. Post-workout pain has earned the term Exercise Induced Muscle Damage (EIMD)”. That means we can thank those extra miles for achy quads or extra pounds on the bench press for a sore chest.
EIMD usually leads Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness, or “DOMS.” This occurs when muscle pain doesn’t completely set in until 24 to 48 hours after exercise. When the pain limits strength or range of motion, it’s best to take a hint from our bodies and give them a day or two off. Remember that even pros feel sore after a tough workout, or when returning to a training regime after the off-season.
Don’t fear, “hurting” doesn’t equal “weakness.” In fact, that pain means muscles have been pushed harder than normal, and the body just needs time to recover. When torn muscle fibers rebuild, they become stronger, but generally that process can take two to four days. Careful though, working out damaged muscles often opens the door for further injury and setbacks in a routine.
Even when attempting to work out while super sore, research suggests muscle damage can make the session less effective and harder to complete. For example, one study had seven recreational athletes complete a five-minute cycling time trial before and after a round of muscle-damaging, counter-movement jumping exercises. Researchers found the cyclists expended more energy and covered less distance during the second trial, all while pedaling on sore legs.
Walk It Off — Your Action Plan
However, some fitness aficionados do advocate for light exercise on sore muscles, with low-impact exercises like walking, easy cycling, or swimming. But be warned: Any pain-relief provided by the exercise will likely be short-lived. Researchers advise even elite athletes to reduce their training intensity and duration for a few days following a DOMS-inducing workout. And if the muscle hurts to the touch or is seriously limiting mobility, you may be a victim of overtraining. In this case, the safest option is to stay out of the gym for a bit longer.
Dead set on not dialing down a gym session? Try working different muscles than yesterday. A varied fitness routine helps to ensure all muscle groups get equal attention — and equal rest. To minimize DOMS, try upping intensity (whether mileage, speed, or resistance) gradually over several weeks. And remember to warm up before every session. While no hard evidence proves it will nix soreness, general warm-up exercises may prepare muscles for harder work and slightly lessen the post-workout ouch.
While there’s no single tried-and-true method for banishing soreness or speeding up recovery, some tactics may help alleviate DOMS and prevent future injury. Some athletes go for an ice-bath immersion after a competition, following the logic that cold temperatures will restrict blood vessels (reducing swelling) and slow down the process of tissue breakdown. Massage therapy has also been shown to downplay pain without hampering muscle function. Last but not least, some good old-fashioned stretching could do the body good. While stretching after a workout loosens the muscles up and can help them recover faster, it’s not always a surefire soreness cure.
- Muscle soreness occurs when intense exercise causes microscopic muscle tears.
- Working out lightly on a sore muscle can help reduce the pain and speed healing, but going too hard can increase risk for injury.
- But if the pain is intense, stay off it completely and let it heal!
- If you don’t want to take a day off, try mixing up your workout, targeting other muscles that aren’t sore.