Muscle soreness can be crippling, whether it’s caused by a long run or by a grueling weight room sesh (so. many. stairs). But how sore is too sore? And are there ways to reduce the pain? Find out in Muscle Soreness 101.
Why It Happens
“Soreness after exercise is mainly caused by tiny tears in the muscle fibers,” explains Jacque Crockford, exercise physiologist and education specialist at the American Council on Exercise (ACE), based in San Diego. “These tears cause an inflammatory response in the body, and as they heal, it can be slightly painful.” It’s 100 percent normal, but don’t think in terms of no pain, no gain. “Soreness isn’t a good gauge of the effectiveness of a workout,” she adds.
You Can Have Too Much of a Good Thing
Just like most of us, muscles whine when they’re asked to work harder than they’re accustomed to. “Muscles get sore when they’ve been stressed,” says Kyle Stull, MS, National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) faculty instructor in Dallas. “This stress is actually a great thing because it results in adaptation over time.” Still, “soreness shouldn’t be so severe that it forces you alter your normal activities,” he says.
It Doesn’t Need to Happen Right Away
“Delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS, is the common name for this type of 36-hours-later soreness,” Stull says. It’s most often felt after heavy strength training, especially if you’re concentrating on the eccentric (lengthening or negative) portion of a lift—for example, when you’re lowering your arms back to your body after curling a bar to your chest in a biceps curl. Calcium is released from the muscles, which sends a “WAKE UP!” message to pain receptors. “DOMS can occur any time you try something new or push harder than before, though,” Crockford says.
You Can Minimize the Pain
The concepts your high school gym teacher tried to instill in you ring true today, Crockford says. “Proper hydration, exercise nutrition, and a cool-down with static stretches can help.” Then it’s time to rock and roll. “Foam rolling [see a demo of foam rolling here] increases circulation and may help begin the repair process sooner. After a heavy resistance training workout, foam rolling doesn’t eliminate soreness, but it does limit it and decrease total recovery time,” Stull says. And it can’t hurt to pre-game with a cup of java. University of Georgia researchers found that consuming the caffeine equivalent of two cups of coffee an hour before exercise can reduce later soreness by almost 50 percent.
As much as you want to, don’t sit still! “Most of the time, the first ‘ouch’ comes after someone has been sedentary for a number of hours, whether that’s at the office or sleeping. Contractions of skeletal muscles—like those caused by walking—keep fluids moving and circulating, which can help with repair,” Stull says. The moment you sit still, your ticker is only body part pumping’ and all that repair is a lot of work for one muscle to handle! “The more you can get up and move in the 24 hours after an intense workout, the better,” he says.
You Don’t Need an Ice Bath
The jury is still out, but it might be better to skip the shivers (thank goodness). University of New Hampshire scientists say that it doesn’t assist in reducing pain or in improving future performance. So go ahead and clean up using whatever temperature you prefer.
It Could Be an Injury
If pain lasts longer than two days, it could be an injury rather than post-workout pain. “Some people like the sore feeling since it makes them feel like they accomplished something. And that’s fine. But for the average individual, pain is not a good thing. It could actually end up causing future injuries due to muscle imbalances and overcompensating,” Stull says. If you’re feeling achy on day three after a couple days of rest, ice, and recovery, try easing back in with your normal routine, as the American Council on Exercise recommends. But stop if your muscles don’t begin to loosen up or if they start to feel worse.
You Can Use It to Your Advantage
Essentially, this soreness is a sign that your body is adapting to the forces you placed on it and growing as a result. “Use this as your guide. If the pain is too severe, it’s a sign that you need to reduce the amount of weight you’re lifting or talk to a trainer about how to adjust your exercise program so it won’t leave you crippled,” Stull says. Another potential positive? Crockford says this is the perfect excuse to schedule your next massage. “Massage speeds up recovery and improves muscle efficiency post-exercise, since blood flow is increased to the areas in need,” Stull adds.
You Can Eat Away the Aches
We thought you’d never ask. Add these research-backed bites to your shopping cart to reduce muscle soreness.
Ginger: A supplement of the herb can cut muscle pain by 25 percent in just 11 days, according to University of Georgia research.
Watermelon juice: Grab a glass after class! Sipping the low-calorie juice, which is rich in the amino acid L-citrulline, helps to ease muscle aches, says the American Chemical Society.
Hot peppers or spicy sauces like sriracha: Capsaicin, a component in many spicy foods, offers pain relief by blocking pain messages to the brain, says the University of Maryland Medical Center.