Have your workouts become a sore subject? A Baylor College of Medicine sports medicine expert offers advice on what’s normal and what’s not when it comes to soreness after exercise.
Soreness after working out is thought to be caused by microtrauma to the muscles and is sometimes a normal response, explained Dr. Theodore Shybut, assistant professor of orthopedic surgery at Baylor.
“We think the soreness you get after activity reflects the body’s healing response,” Shybut said. “Not all inflammation is bad -- it can reflect the body mobilizing healing elements, almost like repair work. Strenuous activity, especially eccentric loading of muscle causes microtears in the muscles of the body, but the healing response is what makes muscles stronger and able to handle greater workloads.”
After a new or hard workout, you may expect a delayed onset of muscle soreness that happens 48 to 72 hours after the activity. If you are training properly you will likely experience a ‘repeated-bout’ effect in which you have less soreness as your body adapts to exercise.
While some soreness and inflammation may be important for how the body recovers, it can be counterproductive if you are going to extremes, Shybut said.
Persistent soreness may reflect overtraining, in which workouts do not achieve desired gains in fitness and ultimately can lead to injury.
“No pain no gain is not always true,” he said. “You should not be hurting after every workout and if you are, you might be overtraining.”
He suggests building in recovery workouts – the day after a hard, strenuous workout, try a lighter activity. For example, if you run a long distance one day, the next day should include a light workout such as the exercise bike.
“Use the activity to help get the blood flowing through the muscles. There is an analgesic effect from aerobic exercise,” he said.
Shybut cautions against using anti-inflammatories to mask prolonged soreness.
“It’s not appropriate to regularly take medication so that you can work out. You are masking what your body is trying to tell you, which is that your level of activity is not appropriate. You could be hurting yourself or making an injury worse,” he said.
Many athletes have a structured workout plan where they vary workouts. Athletes focused on strength training, for example by weight lifting, will often emphasize different muscle groups on different days. Endurance athletes will vary between intense interval training days, endurance days, recovery days, etc. Periodic scheduled rest days are key as well to optimizing fitness gains.