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How To Tell If Your Post-Workout Soreness Is A Problem

There’s a special kind of satisfaction that comes with that sore feeling you get after a great workout. For the most part, a little soreness is a completely normal part of the muscle-strengthening process.

“Your body is telling you that you pushed yourself hard and that your muscles are working to create a stronger, healthier you,” explains Faisal Alam, C.S.C.S., owner of Catalyst Fitness & Performance training studio in Cambridge, MA.

Delayed-onset muscle soreness (a.k.a. DOMS) can kick in as soon as a few hours after your workout and peak around two to three days post-workout. How long the hobble lasts, though, can vary greatly.

If you can’t walk up the stairs following a workout, you may wonder if you went too far. Here, fitness experts break down everything you need to know about post-workout muscle soreness: why it happens, when you should worry, and what to do to ease your pain and start working out (er, walking) again. 

First Things First: Why Am I So Sore?

In short, exercise creates micro-tears in muscle fibers and tissues, which, in turn, can lead to inflammation and soreness. 

Another contributor to that hurts-so-good burn: lactic acid. A byproduct of the chemical process your muscle cells use to turn sugar into energy during high-intensity exercise, lactic acid makes your cells more acidic. When your body can’t flush lactic acid out as quickly as it produces it, you burn, explains Scott Weiss, C.S.C.S., a New York-based physical therapist.

Basically, you feel sore until your body flushes out all of the byproducts produced during your workout—and workout-induced inflammation subsides, explains Weiss. The more byproducts in your tissues, the more soreness you have to deal with.

Eccentric exercises (downward movements like running downhill or lowering into squats) are especially good at making you sore. You use fewer nerve cells in these types of movements, so those you do use get overloaded, explains Weiss. Plus, your muscles can handle greater loads in eccentric movements than concentric movements. (You can lower a heavier weight to the ground than you can lift up off of the ground.)

Another big DOMS culprit: any exercise your muscles aren’t accustomed to, which puts them under more stress than usual.

And while muscle soreness generally does not discriminate, you’re more likely to be sore after doing large, compound (multi-joint) exercises, such as squats, deadlifts, lunges, or chin-ups, says Alam. These movements put more stress on the body than small, isolated movements like biceps curls.

How Sore Is Too Sore? 

If DOMS lingers on for more than two or three days, you may have done more notable damage to your muscles, ligaments, or tendons, says Weiss.

Avoiding the gym or struggling to carry out day-to-day tasks for days post-workout indicates that you probably overdid it.

If you struggle to get in and out of chairs for more than three days or experience any sharp, shooting pains, call your doc. You may have actually injured yourself.

In extreme (and rare) cases, severe muscle breakdown can trigger a release of a protein called myoglobin into the bloodstream—a condition called rhabdomyolysis, or rhabdo. Usually, your kidneys can process and eliminate myoglobin through urine. However, in the case of rhabdo, they become dangerously overloaded. 

Extreme workouts like ultramarathon running or extra-heavy weightlifting are most likely to trigger rhabdo. The condition is typically marked by dark-colored urine, weakness, soreness, extreme muscle tightness, and difficulty moving. Since rhabdo can be life-threatening, seek medical attention ASAP if you think you have it.

6 Ways To Ease Soreness

Otherwise, try to be patient with your recovering muscles. You can also help your body bounce back with the following six strategies.

1. Get Moving

While it might seem counterintuitive, low-impact exercise can help ease your DOMS, says Alam. To get your blood pumping, go for a walk, hop on the bike, or do some yoga.

Related: 8 Things To Do On An Active Recovery Day

This is especially important after an endurance race. “Stopping abruptly shocks the system, encourages muscles to lock up, and can make your blood pool in your legs, giving you that ‘heavy’ feeling,” explains Alam. “Try to walk for 10 minutes post-race to allow your body to return to its normal resting state.”

2. Refuel Appropriately

After exercise, especially if you’re sore, load up on carbs, protein, and electrolytes. “A 3:1 or 4:1 carbohydrate-to-protein ratio has been shown to be the sweet spot for recovery,” Alam says. Chocolate milk or whole-grain toast with turkey are good options.

3. Stretch It Out

Quads dying after a tough squat or lower-body session? Try a kneeling hip flexor and quadriceps stretch, suggests Alam. Get down on one knee (put a pillow or mat beneath it if you get knee pain) and lean forward to stretch your back hip flexor. As you lean in, intensify the quad stretch by grabbing and pulling your back foot towards you. Hold for at least 60 seconds. 

Having a hard time moving your arms after a tough bench press day? Try this chest stretch: Stand in an open doorway with your arms like goal posts (elbows bent at 90-degree angles) and palms facing forward. Rest your palms on the door frame and press your torso forward for at least 60 seconds.

Or, try this 10-minute, full-body stretch sequence.

4. Massage Your Muscles

Whether you foam roll yourself or opt for a massage from a professional, massaging your muscles can help ease tension and stiffness, boost circulation, and warm you up—all of which can help dial down DOMS. 

A review published in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy suggests a 10- to 20-minute foam-rolling session seems to do the trick.

5. Try Tart Cherries

Add some flavor (and recovery power) to your post-workout protein shake with tart cherry juice. Emerging research suggests the antioxidants in tart cherry juice help fight DOMS.

At the very least, it’ll switch up the flavor of your protein shake. 

6. Wear Compression Gear

Anything you can do to get your blood pumping (and pumping lactic acid out of your muscles) combats DOMS, says Weiss. Though research on compression garments is mixed, one small Journal of Exercise and Rehabilitation study suggests they help speed up recovery.

Slide on compression sleeves immediately after your workout and let them hug your muscles for 24 hours.

Resources & Further Reading

  1. European Journal of Sports Science: Montmorency tart cherry (Prunus cerasus L.) supplementation accelerates recovery from exercise-induced muscle damage in females.
  2. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance: The Efficacy of Tart Cherry Juice in Aiding Recovery After Intermittent Exercise.
  3. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports: Influence of tart cherry juice on indices of recovery following marathon running.

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