When Should I Worry About...

Muscle Soreness After a Workout: Can It Be Prevented?

Sep. 8, 2021 - Katie McCallum

No pain, no gain...no thank you?

We know the benefits of exercise. Cardio burns fat and improves our heart health. Strength training builds muscle, boosts metabolism, prevents injury and is good for our bones.

We need these benefits to live active, healthy lives.

But does putting in the work have to mean putting up with sore muscles?

"Unfortunately, if your goal is to challenge your muscles — which it should be regardless of your age or gender — muscle soreness can't be prevented," says Lauren Murray, health fitness coordinator and personal trainer at Houston Methodist. "But the good news is that there are ways to lessen the severity of the soreness you experience."

What causes sore muscles after a workout?

The first thing to know about muscle soreness is that anyone can experience it — regardless of whether you're new to exercise or if you work out regularly but recently increased the type, intensity or duration of your routine.

That's because we all build muscle the same way: by breaking it down first.

"The extra load placed on your body during exercise creates tiny microtears in your working muscle," explains Murray. "These microtears are normal. In fact, they're necessary for muscle growth. But these microtears are also what lead to soreness."

As the body heals and repairs these tiny tears, muscle builds back stronger and healthier than before — but at an uncomfortable cost.

"The sore muscles you feel after a workout are a byproduct of the muscle healing process, and this soreness is called delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS, since it doesn't happen immediately," says Murray.

Delayed onset muscle soreness isn't to be confused with the acute soreness that can happen during or immediately after completing an exercise — which is related to muscle fatigue, not muscle repair and strengthening.

Delayed onset muscle soreness: How soon does it set in and how long can it last?

"Typically, delayed onset muscle soreness begins about 12 to 24 hours post-exercise and can peak anywhere between one to three days," says Murray.

As to why there's a delay in muscle soreness, there's not a clear answer to that yet. Murray does point out, however, that the duration of your soreness very likely depends on how intense your workout was.

"The more intense the workout, the longer the muscle healing and rebuilding process may take," Murray adds.

How to relieve sore muscles after a workout

So, if the goal is to build muscle and gain strength, some soreness is inevitable.

But is there anything you need to do to relieve it? Or are sore muscles really just about riding out the pain?

"Delayed onset muscle soreness is a completely natural process that indicates your muscles are getting stronger — so there's no danger in just riding it out. But, it can be uncomfortable," Murray points out. "Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to help ease the pain."

Here are Murray's seven tips for relieving sore muscles:

  1. Get moving. Believe it or not, one of the best ways to reduce muscle soreness is to get them moving. You can do this through light cardio or active recovery, which includes stretching, foam rolling or yoga.

  2. Be sure to warm up. An important part of protecting your muscles is making sure they're primed for use before you challenge them. Make time for several minutes of warm up before every workout.

  3. Progress slowly into a new exercise program. Going from 0 to 60 doesn't do your muscles any favors. Giving them time to adapt can help limit the severity of your soreness. When starting a new workout routine or when upping the intensity, just be sure to do so slowly over the course of several days or weeks.

  4. Soak in a salt bath. Soaking in warm water with Epsom salts can help relax your muscles and relieve pain.

  5. Take a pain reliever. This won't speed up the muscle-healing process, but it can help you put up with the discomfort associated with it.

  6. Make time for recovery. If you're not giving your muscles adequate time to rest (and repair), they become overworked — leading to more intense soreness. Be sure you're building in rest days where you focus on active recovery. More generally, don't forget that actual rest (aka, sleep) and hydration are important for recovery, too. (Related: Exercise Recovery: Why It's Important & 3 Tips for Doing It Right)

  7. Try a split-day routine. If you like to exercise every day, consider splitting your workouts by muscle group. For instance, one day is legs and the next is arms. This will help ensure that you're giving each muscle group enough time to recover before you train it again.

How sore is too sore?

Sometimes, sore feels really sore. Like, too-sore-to-exercise sore.

"As mentioned, movement is actually a great way to help relieve sore muscles, so you don't need to skip your workout just because you're sore. In fact, light exercise will actually help get your blood flowing and reduce your symptoms," says Murray.

But what about when sore feels too sore? Is there even such a thing?

"Typically, muscle soreness peaks around day three and starts diminishing afterwards. If your soreness persists beyond three days, it means you overdid it — you pushed your muscles a little too hard. But, prolonged muscle soreness can also be a sign of an injury," warns Murray.

If your soreness persists beyond three days and is accompanied by pain that's sharp, limits your range of mobility or affects your gait, it might be more than muscle soreness and warrant evaluation by a sports medicine doctor.

"The only time soreness means that you should approach exercise with caution is if your pain is more indicative of a serious injury than it is of exercise-induced soreness," says Murray. "And if that's the case, it's also a sign that you should see a doctor about your pain."

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