When you finish a grueling workout (we love you, “End on a High Note”!), do you say “I am going to be SO sore tomorrow!” in anticipation or agony? It’s no secret that we all crave the good feeling a demanding routine provides, but muscle soreness in the aftermath is a totally different story.
Depending on your fitness surroundings and experiences, you might have a slightly (or largely) skewed view on being sore. If you’ve ever considered muscle soreness a sort of validation, you’re not alone. If you’ve ever thought that your workout wasn’t effective because you didn’t “feel it” the following morning, you’re also not alone.
Whether you look forward to that all-too-familiar ache or keep your pre- and post-workout routines consistent to prevent it, we’re here to settle that. We tapped April Oury, founder, president, and physical therapist at Body Gears Physical Therapy in San Diego, St. Louis, and Illinois to answer all our pressing muscle soreness questions.
Grab your foam rollers and read on.
Where does soreness come from?
“Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness, or DOMS, used to be attributed to a lactic acid build-up,” says Oury about the soreness you might suddenly feel hours after a workout. More recently, though, new theories suggest soreness is due to calcium stored in the muscle where microtrauma, or micro-tears in the muscles, from the workout occurs. It sounds awful, but no reason to panic. It’s completely normal. This causes inflammation, which leads to that sore feeling.
Is being sore a good or bad result of working out?
In a word: both. “In my physical therapy practice, I think that being sore—particularly in a portion of a muscle that feels new—is a great result, because that means those dormant fibers have been called on to work and are responding,” Oury explains. Basically, if you’re achy after trying a new routine or focusing on a new set of muscles, there’s little to worry about. Cue the collective sigh of relief.
On the other hand, if you’re uncommonly sore in a part of the body that doesn’t usually experience muscle soreness, take note. If it still feels that way 72 hours later (the longest DOMS typically lasts), contact a physical therapist.
Was my workout effective if I don’t feel sore the next day?
To go off of that last bit, we have to wonder if not feeling sore means anything of significance, too. “If you aren’t sore the day following a workout, you’ve likely already conditioned your body into that workout routine, pattern, or movement,” says Oury. “Soreness shouldn’t be the determining factor of whether or not you had an effective workout. As long as you know you did the reps, you did the time, and you did the full motion, you had an effective workout.”
Should I workout if I’m sore from the day before?
We know that allowing our body to rest and rebuild is a crucial. But sometimes we just want to keep the momentum going. You should allow yourself at least one active-recovery day a week, but what should you do if you feel sore before your rest day? “Acute soreness where you simply have a dull ache 12 to 72 hours post-workout should be a sign to do a workout where you move the muscles slowly and without much resistance,” says Oury. “Getting fresh blood flow to the sore muscles via gentle exercise is key to returning them to a more normal resting sensation.”
In other words, speeding up the blood flow to your muscles can aid in faster recovery—and less pain. Focusing on another muscle group and including gentle workouts like stretching and yoga will do the trick.
Is there such thing as being too sore?
“As a physical therapist, my general advice is that if you have 1-2 weeks of the same soreness, you should get physical therapist to determine if there is mechanical or neuromuscular damage,” explains Oury. “A good PT will evaluate you first and determine how serious the issue is. Depending on the state, her or she can administer treatment on that first session. Some injuries will spontaneously resolve, and many others won’t.”
Oury also emphasizes that chronic soreness shouldn’t be ignored. “It’s often a symptom that a muscle isn’t firing appropriately within the chain, and tendonitis or muscle strain can result.” Always, always enlist a professional’s guidance if you relate to any of these symptoms.
What can we do before and after a workout to prevent too much muscle soreness?
We’re foam rolling and stretching champs. Is there anything else we can do? “As old fashioned as it sounds, a good old Epsom salt bath can do wonders to decrease inflammation,” suggests Oury. “Plus, who doesn’t like to relax in a warm tub for a bit?” We can’t argue with that.
“Calf soreness is a big one after a long or hilly terrain run,” she includes. “Doing seated calf raises can get the tissues moving and blood flowing without excessive weight of the entire body. Think gentle motion and slowly going through the full range of muscle firing as key.”
What if I wake up and feel almost too sore to move?
We’ve all been there. And we don’t know what to do…short of groaning in agony, of course. “If you wake up and feel almost too sore to move, I recommend doing gentle stretches in bed prior to getting up),” says Oury.
For hip or back DOMS, try lying on your back with knees bent and gently rock back forth. For lower body, pain, lay on your back with your leg extended toward the ceiling and perform ankle circles. This will help mobilize all of the lower leg compartments and the sciatic nerve.
“What doesn’t help is being sedentary,” says Oury. Apologies to those who’re tempted to sleep it off; it’s for your own good. “As many in the physical therapy community now say, ‘motion is lotion.’ So if you want to feel more fluid and gently work through DOMS, measured motions are the way to go.”