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How To Tell If You Have A Strained Muscle—And What To Do About It

Before this year’s New York City Marathon, I’d crossed a 26.2-mile finish line six times. All six times, I was able to run a few easy miles here and there about a week post-race. This November was different, though: About a mile into a post-race jog, I felt an intense pain in my right hamstring that worsened as the activity continued. Three days later I tried again and the pain was still there. So, I called up my physical therapist.

“It’s probably a strained muscle,” he said. But what exactly did that mean? And when would I be okay to run again? I wanted to get back in the game—so I turned to the experts and did my homework. Here’s what I learned.

What Exactly Is A Strained Muscle?

When we exercise, our muscles undergo small micro-tears or traumas, which is why we often feel sore in the day or two afterwards. After our workout, our body repairs these traumas so that our muscles can grow stronger. To avoid placing too much stress on any particular region, conventional science suggests waiting a minimum of 48 hours between training the same muscle group.

While these micro-tears are normal, “a strain is when we overload a muscle too much and create tears that take some time to heal,” explains Elizabeth Barchi, M.D., a sports medicine physician at NYU Langone Health. (Both ‘strained’ and ‘pulled’ muscles refer to this same issue.) According to Barchi, hamstring, calve, bicep, and lower back strains are some of the most common.

How To Tell If You Have A Strained Muscle

Your average sore muscles tend to feel better over the course of a workout once your body warms up, and usually heal within 24 to 48 hours. However, that’s not the case with a strained muscle. Generally, when a muscle is strained, pain increases as activity continues.

“Ideally, you should monitor pain during activity that does not go away in the first 10 minutes or after stopping,” says Tyler Nightingale, D.P.T. at Bespoke Treatments in New York City. When pain is sharp, shooting, or escalating in intensity, you’ve probably got a strain and should stop working out.

How To Care For A Strained Muscle

While you can work through everyday soreness, a strained muscle requires taking some time off the workout wagon. “You’ll want to avoid putting excess mechanical pressure or too much strain on the tissues during the first 7 to 10 days to allow healing to happen,” advises Nightingale.

In addition to getting as much rest as possible, it’s important that you provide your muscle with the nutrients it needs to heal. First and foremost, load up on all of your basic vitamins and minerals by eating plenty of whole plant foods (take a multivitamin to fill any gaps), advises Brian Tanzer, M.S., C.N.S., Manager of Scientific Affairs at The Vitamin Shoppe. Beyond that, eat plenty of protein, which provides the amino acids your muscle tissue needs to repair. You can also boost your intake of the important protein-building aminos by taking an essential amino acid (EAA) supplement.

How To Get Back In the Swing of Things

Once you’ve taken the time to recover and feel a bit better, keep the following tips in mind as you ease back into your routine.

1. Start Off Slow

Considering I was dealing with a hamstring strain, jumping right back into running wasn’t ideal. Once I knew about the injury, I took about three weeks off and eased back into activity with one or two miles here and there.

“Whenever you’re dealing with an injured muscle that you’re trying to rehab, come back into activity with light cardio, or moves that use just your bodyweight or resistance bands,” says Barchi. “You should not be weighting your movements because that overloads the muscle and could bring you back to square one.”

While it may be tempting to get right back into the swing of things once you’ve tested the waters, don’t rush it. Nightingale recommends easing back into activity and strengthening sans weights for about a month.

2. Emphasize Warm-Ups & Cool-Downs

Whether you’re rehabbing a strained muscle or not, jumping straight into activity with tight muscles (whether from sitting at a desk or sleeping) is a recipe for disaster. Making a concerted effort to warm up is crucial as you bounce back. “It gets muscles ready for the increased workload that’s about to happen,” says Barchi.

Barchi suggests keeping things fluid and dynamic prior to activity. Generally, you’ll want to spend five to 15 minutes warming up and incorporate moves that mirror the ranges of motion you’ll be using during your actual workout. For example, if you’re going to run, you’ll want to focus on moves that warm up your legs and core, like lunges, butt kicks, squats, and knee pulls. A good dynamic warm-up will leave you feeling physically warm and slightly sweaty.

Related: The Post-Workout Stretch Routine You’ll Never Want To Skip

Once you’re done, cool down with static stretching, holding each stretch for 30 seconds at a time.

3. Talk To A Physical Therapist

Often times, a strained muscle reflects other wonkiness throughout the body. Even if you’re feeling better, it’s worth checking in with an expert. “If someone is really sore from a workout, it can change how they walk,” says Barchi. “This can then lead to soreness and strains elsewhere, and even joint issues.”

To minimize your risk of re-injuring your rehabbed muscle and prevent other future issues, check in with a physical therapist to get a movement assessment. As they evaluate your movement patterns and range of motion, they’ll be able to diagnose any discrepancies and, in turn, prescribe an exercise plan to strengthen any areas of weakness.

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