Whether you’re just getting back into the swing of working out or you’re an avid exerciser, we all experience soreness after a workout at some point.
If you’re brand new to exercise, soreness is expected. After all, your muscles are used to inactivity and it will take a bit for them to adjust to a fitness routine. If you are active, changing up your fitness routine with something your body isn’t used to — like trying a new workout or increasing weight — uses your muscles in a different way and can lead to soreness.
Feeling a little bit sore after a workout can be totally normal. But it is also important to know the difference between normal muscle soreness and actual pain that may indicate an injury or overuse.
What’s the difference between being sore and being in pain?
There’s a big difference between the two. The soreness you feel creep up the few days after a workout is called delayed-onset muscle soreness, or DOMS. When we do exercise that the body is unaccustomed to, it causes temporary muscle damage and inflammation needed for the body to adapt and grow stronger. This may cause you to feel achiness, soreness and stiffness.
The main way to tell the difference between soreness and pain is when the discomfort starts and how long is lasts. Muscle soreness takes at least a few hours and sometimes a few days to develop and it can last anywhere from 1-3 days, sometimes longer, depending on the intensity of the exercise or how long it’s been since you last exercised. Pain is more likely to happen immediately while engaging in physical activity. And more often than not, the pain will linger for longer and affect your ability to perform daily activities.
Signs of muscle soreness:
- Muscles that are tender to the touch.
- Muscles that may have an achy or tight sensation.
- Normally starts after physical activity is over (and sometimes not until a day or two later).
Signs of pain or injury:
- Sharp pain at rest or while exercising.
- The pain may be more frequent when compared to muscle soreness.
- It starts during physical activity, occasionally after.
- Swelling or inflammation is a common sign of an injured muscle.
Why do I feel stiff and achy after my workout?
Everyone experiences soreness differently. Delayed onset muscle soreness not only causes the soreness that many are accustomed to experiencing after working out, but also stiffness and achy muscles, too. If your muscles aren’t accustomed to the intensity, duration or volume of exercise they experienced, they must adapt and get stronger. As your muscles repair and recover, these symptoms occur because of that injury and repair process.
For some, this can come in the form of an achy sensation in your muscles. Others may simply feel stiff. Muscle aches can last up to two days after a workout. Most of the time this is completely normal and a sign that your muscles are repairing and rebuilding stronger.
What to do if you’re feeling pain after a workout
Mild to moderate soreness after an intense workout is normal, extreme soreness or pain is not and may be a sign of injury. If the pain is severe or persists longer than a week, I recommend consulting a doctor. If the muscles are worked too hard or if they aren’t given enough time to recover, it can result in damaged muscles, joints or tissues. Your doctor may recommend ice or heat, rest from exercise, or other measures to help your body heal.
How to help your muscles recover faster
An effective way to reduce soreness is to incorporate a static stretching session after every workout. By holding a stretch, you are improving flexibility and supporting muscle recovery. Adding light movement on your rest days, like taking a walk or doing some yoga, can also encourage blood circulation to help muscles repair faster, lessening the duration and intensity of muscle soreness.
Drinking water to stay hydrated is an often overlooked way to prevent muscle soreness. Getting enough electrolytes (which can be consumed through a healthy balanced diet) can also drastically improve muscle recovery. If you spend a lot of time out in the summer heat, especially if you’re exercising and sweating, make a point to consume extra water as your chance of dehydration — and in turn, muscle cramps and soreness — increases.
Finally, foam rolling or massaging the muscles can help loosen them up and promote faster recovery.
The bottom line
Mild soreness and stiffness is normal, especially if you are new to exercise or upping the intensity of your current routine.
After a few weeks of doing an exercise consistently, your muscles should begin to acclimate as they grow stronger, and the stiffness and soreness you feel after every workout session should subside. If it isn’t, that’s a sign that you may need to add more rest days between your workouts or reduce the intensity or duration of your workout sessions until your body adjusts.
While you may not be able to avoid soreness completely (especially if you’re new to a fitness routine), the good news is that you can lessen the severity and duration by easing into it (and not doing too much, too soon), static stretching after each workout session, and incorporating rest days in between workouts.