Smart Ways to Soothe Sore Muscles
Decode, Treat and Prevent 5 Common Types of Post-Workout Pain
Pain is a real, well, pain! How many times have you been gung-ho to start a new workout routine only to feel like you’ve been hit by a ton of bricks on day two? Something as simple as walking down the stairs can feel like torture. Most of us have “been there, done that” when it comes to muscle soreness. However, did you know that there are many different causes for muscle soreness and that some of them are entirely preventable? Read on to learn what’s normal and what’s not when it comes to muscle soreness, and how to tell the difference between normal soreness and pain that requires time off from the gym (or even a doctor’s visit).
Many people confuse soreness with pain, but the two are very, very different. Soreness is more of a dull, slightly uncomfortable ache in your muscle, while pain is a very uncomfortable or sometimes sharp sensation in your bones, joints, or sometimes your muscles. While some muscle soreness is normal, pain is not. If you feel pain at any point during your workout, it is essential that you stop what you are doing. If you experience sudden pain, severe pain, swelling, extreme tenderness, extreme weakness in a limb, inability to place weight on a leg or foot, inability to move a joint through its full range of motion, visible dislocation or broken bone, numbness or tingling you should see a healthcare professional right away.
5 Types of Muscle Soreness
Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness
Called DOMS for short, this is the soreness you’re probably most familiar with. It’s what you feel when you get out of bed the next morning after a tough workout. This type of muscle soreness begins 24 to 48 hours after your workout and actually indicates a natural adaptive process that the body uses after an intense exercise session. When you do a new or particularly challenging workout, your muscle fibers tear on a microscopic level. It takes time for your body to repair that muscle, which is why you may feel this type of lingering soreness for up to 72 hours after that hard workout. Sometimes, you may even feel sorer on the second or third day after your tough workout than you did on the first. The good news? Once you get through this bout of soreness, that same activity shouldn’t make you that sore (or sore at all) because your muscles will have gotten stronger and will be better able to handle that particular challenge.
How to prevent it: For a long time, fitness professionals believed that stretching would prevent DOMS, but current research is mixed on that. Stretching is great for a myriad of reasons, and you should continue to stretch and properly cooldown, which is also believed to help prevent DOMS. But when it comes to avoiding DOMS entirely, your best bet is to progress slowly and steadily into your exercise program so that your muscles are gradually challenged and can build over time.
How to treat it: There are differing opinions and research on this topic, but a number of things may give you some relief from those post-workout muscle aches including massage, icing, gentle stretching, an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory (always consult your doctor), and yoga. Unfortunately, nothing has concretely been proven to reduce how long the soreness lasts, but try a few of those things to get some relief.
What not to do: Don’t be a couch potato! Sure, your body needs rest, but performing active recovery, such as walking or yoga, is better than just sitting on your duff. Active recovery is beneficial after a hard workout—just a little bit of physical activity will help increase circulation which, in turn, helps speed muscle recovery. Just be sure to keep it low-impact, low-intensity and pretty short—no longer than 30 minutes are needed to get the results.
Long-Term Muscle Soreness
Sometimes you might be sore for longer than 72 hours after a workout. If you are, this probably means that you really pushed yourself, did a completely new activity, or haven’t exercised in a long time. This muscular soreness feels much like DOMS, just more severe, and indicates that your body needs additional time to repair those muscles.
How to prevent it: Like DOMS, prevention comes by slowly easing into your workout frequency, intensity and duration.
How to treat it: Use the same treatment options as general DOMS, and engage in easy active recovery such as walking, light swimming or yoga. If the soreness lasts more than five days, consult your physician.
What not to do: Do not do a hard workout or skimp on sleep. Give your body ample time to repair itself with active recovery, and plenty of good sleep to recharge those batteries!
At one time or another, you’ve probably experienced a muscle cramp in your calf, foot or hamstring. Muscle cramps are basically sudden, involuntary contractions or spasms. They most commonly occur after exercise or at night and can last from a few seconds to several minutes. Muscle cramps can be caused by nerves that malfunction due to a health problem such as a spinal cord injury or a pinched nerve in the neck or back. Most muscle cramps have far less concerning causes like straining or overusing a muscle, dehydration, a lack of minerals in your diet, a depletion of minerals in your body, or low blood flow to your working muscles.
How to prevent it: Eating a healthy, nutritious diet and taking a multivitamin can help, as can making sure you’re drinking enough water. Regular stretching and not overdoing it in your workout will help prevent muscle cramps as well. Replacing lost electrolytes during prolonged (greater then 90 minutes) workout sessions is also helpful.
How to treat it: Cramps can be very painful, but stretching or gently massaging the muscle can relieve the pain. If you’re in the middle of a workout and a cramp comes on, stop if necessary until it subsides; just be sure to monitor how you’re feeling overall as suddenly stopping during exercise can cause lightheadedness or fainting.
What not to do: When your muscle is cramping, the worst thing you can do is flex it. Flexing that muscle only increases the strength of the cramp and causes you more pain. Instead, elongate the muscle to stretch it out. For example, when you get a cramp in your calf, your instinct may be to point your toes but instead, just pull the toes of your foot up, giving the calf muscle a nice stretch.
Ever have a great workout and then the next day you’re sore in an area that you didn’t really work? Or perhaps you are in the middle of a workout and are noticing pain or burning in muscles that shouldn’t be feeling the particular exercise, such as your lower back aching while doing an abs exercise. This may be a sign of improper form when lifting weights or performing an exercise. Unexplained aches in your back and neck, or general joint pain, can be signs that you have overstressed your joints or exercised in poor form, causing your body to overcompensate and recruit other muscles to help do the work.
How to prevent it: Always make sure that you’re exercising with perfect form. If you can’t perform an exercise with proper form, it’s a sign that you either need to decrease your weight or modify the exercise.
How to treat it: If you generally feel just sore, treat the same as you would DOMS, but pay special attention to where you’re sore to determine the cause of it—you can then avoid it the next time you hit the gym. Joint pain can indicate a more serious injury, so don’t use the affected joint in any way that causes it pain. Also, be sure to check with your doctor to rule out injury before exercising again.
What not to do: Do not work the area that is sore—especially if you have back, spine or neck aches. Be cautious of any activity that increases the soreness and consider RICE (rest, ice, compression and elevation) for relief.
Burning Sensations in Muscles
When people say “no pain, no gain” in the gym, the pain they’re talking about is actually the burn you feel in your muscles when you really push into and past fatigue. (As you’ve already learned, real pain is no gain to anyone.) This burn is an unpleasant—but normal—sign that you are working. See, when our muscles use energy, they release hydrogen ions or protons. When doing heavy or prolonged exercise, the protons in your muscles actually accumulate faster than your body can release them, making your muscles burn. This burn is a sign that you’ve reached muscular fatigue or “overload,” which is a necessity if you hope to build stronger muscles.
How to prevent it: You can prevent this by working out at a lower-intensity, although every few days it’s good to “feel the burn” because you know that you’re really working those muscles in a way that will help them get stronger!
How to treat it: Stopping “the burn” is as simple as stopping the exercise you’re doing. Rest a minute or two and try again if you feel up to it. The feeling should subside in a matter of seconds or minutes, although you may experience DOMS in the following days as a result of your hard work.
What not to do: Don’t feel like you have to feel the burn every time to have a good workout. The best exercise plan is one that switches high-intensity workout with easier, lower-intensity workouts to prevent over-training. Keep workouts fresh and give the body adequate rest.
By Jennifer Walters, CPT