It’s no secret that muscles go through a lot of stress when we work out. Especially if we’re starting a new type of workout or working new muscles, soreness and tightness can occur both immediately after or 24-48 hours after a workout.
There are two types of muscle soreness: (1) pain during or immediately after a workout and (2) delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
Pain and soreness during or immediately following a workout are usually caused by a build-up of lactic acid, which is a normal result of muscle use. It can irritate the muscles, causing pain and discomfort, but subsides usually within a couple of hours post-workout.
When most people say they are sore post-workout, they’re usually referring to DOMS, which occurs 24-48 hours after a workout. It’s characterized by loss of strength and reduced range of motion, not to mention tightness. Unlike the symptoms of lactic acid buildup, DOMS comes with days of soreness and tightness, coupled with lower levels of swelling and inflammation. DOMS is the result of microscopic muscle damage caused by the stress of a tough workout. Muscles repair themselves during recovery, which is why recovery is so important to proper training. The symptoms of DOMS usually subside within four days.
Is Muscle Stiffness Normal?
You’re probably no stranger to the phrase “no pain, no gain”, but there comes a point when there really is nothing to gain by the amount pain. It is normal to feel some amount stiffness after a workout. This is particularly true if you’re starting a new training program with new exercises or you’ve upped the ante in your training.
However, depending on the degree of soreness and pain, it could be a sign of bad things to come. It could mean you’re training the wrong way, either overtraining or undertraining. It could also be a symptom of oncoming sickness or, worse yet, an oncoming injury.
How can you tell when normal stiffness is abnormal? More to the point, how do you know when enough is enough?
The short answer is listening to your body. You know better than anyone else your physical limits. Pushing those limits will help you improve your fitness level, but at some point, it could be overtraining. There are certain signs and symptoms you should always be on the lookout for when it comes determining whether you’re simply sore or pushing yourself too hard:
- Your performance is not improving, but in fact, going downhill no matter what you do.
- You hurt even when you’re resting.
- You have persistent soreness or localized pain that doesn’t subside after 2-3 days of rest or active recovery.
- You’re feeling other symptoms of overtraining.
There are multiple stages to overtraining so it’s important to catch it early on before it starts setting back your hard work. Persistent muscle soreness and feeling run down are the early signs. Although stiffness can be a normal side effect of working your body, especially in ways it’s not used to, it’s important to recognize the difference between normal muscle soreness and an oncoming injury or overtraining. Furthermore, it’s important to remember that muscle soreness does not always indicate muscle growth.
Tips To Prevent Muscle Soreness
The best way to avoid muscle soreness and limit it’s impact is to take preventative measure during and immediately after your workout.
- Pace yourself throughout your workout. You should certainly be challenging yourself, but pushing yourself too hard too soon could not only result in muscle soreness but also injury and fatigue. Give your muscles time to adjust to the changing challenges.
- Rest between sets and exercises. Short breaks between sets coupled with deep breathing can help give your muscles relief from stress and allow them to shortly recover before using them again.
- Hydrate adequately. Many times, stiffness and soreness comes from inadequate hydration. Your muscles need water, especially to recover properly; so make sure you’re drinking enough water during your workouts, post-workout and throughout the day.
- Warm up and cool down properly. A proper warm up including dynamic stretching and gradual intensity increase can never be underestimated. Likewise, a cool down should include gradually decreasing intensity and stretching.
- Foam rolling is an effective prevention technique for muscle soreness. However, it’s important that you do it properly to avoid pain and causing an injury.
Post-Workout Stiffness Relief
Two prevailing theories of fitness wisdom are to take a break if you’re sore or, on the other end, continue to exercise. Either piece of advice is fine to follow as long as you’re listening to your body. If you feel like you should take a recovery day then take a recovery day. However, if you feel up to your next scheduled workout then you should continue with your set training program. There are also ways of combining the two sets of advice and take an active recovery day or cross-training day, which would rest the sore muscles but allow you to continue working out.
Even so, whether you decide to take a rest day or exercise, here are some tips for getting relief.
- Topical ointments such as over-the-counter can provide immediate although temporary relief for muscle soreness.
- Hot compresses or ice can also help. It’s important though to use heat and ice properly.
- Light stretching after getting your blood flowing with a quick warm-up can be effective for providing relief as blood circulation improves recovery speed.
- Getting a deep tissue massage can also relieve soreness and tightness.
- While foam rolling can prevent soreness it can also help relieve it.
- Epson salt baths are backed by science in helping muscle restoration, which can not only provide relief and prevent soreness.
In the end, if your soreness doesn’t decrease within a week or there’s persistent and localized pain, you should get yourself checked for an injury. Because, although muscles soreness can be a normal part of working out, it can also be an indication of an oncoming injury.