Recently, a client asked me if she can work out even though she’s still sore from her last session. The answer is: it depends.
If you’re wondering whether to workout more or take a rest when your body aches, read on. I’ll explain how the type of pain you’re feeling can be your guide and show you how to read your body’s signs and pick the best activity for your recovery.
What is muscle soreness?
When we talk about muscle soreness from our workouts, we’re generally talking about two kinds of pain: immediate onset soreness or DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness).
If you feel stiff and sore during or immediately after your workout, that’s immediate onset soreness. It’s caused by a build-up of lactic acid that happens in your muscle when it is trying to metabolize and release energy quickly. Immediate onset soreness resolves itself quickly as your body flushes out the acid and your normal metabolism catches up with the muscle demand.
DOMS, on the other hand, doesn’t peak until 24 to 72 hours after your workout. It feels like stiffness, soreness, and sometimes tightness or even noticeable swelling in the muscles you’ve been working.
You feel the discomfort of DOMS because our workout has caused micro tears in your muscle fibers and connective tissues. This muscle breakdown is normal, and it’s by repairing these tiny rips that your muscles become stronger. However, it takes a certain amount of inflammation to bring nutrients to the muscle for healing, and it feels uncomfortable.
Is soreness after a workout good or bad?
You can’t always avoid soreness after training, and you actually don’t want to. Moderate soreness after your workout is a sign that you worked hard enough to increase your fitness. Your body needs to be challenged and stressed, otherwise it won’t improve.
It doesn’t always have to hurt, though. Soreness is most common after you’ve done exercise that your body wasn’t used to or when you’ve increased the duration or intensity of your workout. Whether you’re starting a new type of training or returning from a long break, this change forces your muscles to quickly adapt, and you’re going to feel more of that achy stiffness. As your body gets more used to a certain workout, you’ll notice that it stops bothering you.
Immediate and delayed onset soreness are both normal signs that your body is adapting to your training. They’re no cause for alarm, and you can manage them with a smart regime. On the other hand, certain other types of pain can be a sign that you’re getting injured and it’s important not to work through them.
Some signs you’re in trouble are:
- Sharp, sudden pain during your workout, especially in your joints
- Extreme soreness after your workout that interferes with daily life
- Intense soreness that lasts more than 72 hours
If you feel like something isn’t right, bring it up with your doctor or physiotherapist. It’s also smart to speak to a qualified trainer to learn better form or alternative exercises so you can keep your training goals on track without further injury.
How can you ease post-workout soreness?
There are a few things you can do to reduce soreness and recover faster from your workouts:
1. Drink plenty of water
Staying hydrated helps your body flush out lactic acid that builds up during your workout, as well as the byproducts of the muscle breakdown and rebuilding processes. It also helps bring more nutrients to your muscles to speed up repair and recovery.
2. Warm up and cool down
Warming up your joints and getting the blood flowing to your muscles with mobility work can help prevent injuries during your workout and may reduce the soreness you experience afterward. Cooling down with light aerobic activity like a walk, jog, or stationary bike is also very important, as it helps flush accumulated lactic acid to limit your post-training tenderness.
3. Train with proper form and with gradual and safe progressions
While intentional, gradual increases in your weights, reps, or intensity can help you reach the next level of your fitness, overdoing it can leave you too stiff to train properly for days after. Always work with a trained coach when you’re picking up new moves to make sure you’re performing them correctly so you don’t get injured.
4. Foam rolling
Foam rolling is a method of self-massage using a long cylinder made of foam. As you roll your body parts over the roller, it stimulates your circulation which helps flush waste products from your muscles and bring nutrients for quicker rebuilding.
5. Supplements: curcumin, fish oil, and whey
Curcumin is a compound found in turmeric which is known to be anti-inflammatory and can help athletes recover more quickly from their training. The same can be said for fish oil (which is rich in Omega-3 fatty acids) and whey protein.
6. TLC like getting massage or hot bath, Epsom salt bath
Massage, heat, and Epsom salts can all help you recover more quickly from your workouts. As with many of the other tips, these increase circulation to help remove the byproducts of your workout from your muscles and bring in the nutrients needed to repair them smoothly.
7. More exercise
One of the most effective ways to ease stiff muscles is to get them moving again. Just make sure to adjust the intensity of the exercise based on the level of your soreness so you can benefit from the increased circulation without causing more problems.
8. Adequate rest in between sessions
The amount of rest you need between each workout depends on you: how your body tends to respond to workouts, how much you’re challenging your muscles, and how much you’re supporting your recovery with hydration, nutrition, and intentional movement. Pay attention to how well you’re sleeping and notice an especially slow recovery or changes in your mood. Talk to an experienced coach to learn ways to adapt your routine so you can continue making progress while giving yourself enough rest.
In the end, remember that soreness is part of your body getting stronger. It happens to all of us, not just beginners, and you don’t have to give up or fight through it. Work with your body to support its recovery and you won’t get shut down by the aches.
So, should you train while being sore?
Knowing that a small or medium amount of stiffness and soreness is normal after you train, you can gauge what type of recovery you need.
If your soreness is no big deal, go ahead and work out. The movement will increase the blood flow to your muscles and bring lots of nutrients to heal the micro damage faster.
If you’re so stiff and sore that you can’t perform normal movements, it’s a good idea to aim for a light recovery activity. Walking, swimming, or training non-sore body parts will help pump up your circulation without overly stressing your sore area.
In all, soreness is nothing to be afraid of in your training, but that doesn’t mean you need to believe in, “no pain, no gain”.
Use your post-workout soreness as a gauge of how well your body is adapting to your training. Don’t be surprised if it pops up when you change up your routine or start building intensity. Watch out for signs that your body is feeling more than just the discomfort of muscle growth, and make active recovery and smart post-workout care a loving part of your training plan.
Your body is capable of so much! It’s okay to enjoy your strength.