A hard workout is likely to leave a lasting impression in the form of muscle soreness. You might wake up the next morning and find it hard to swing your legs over the side of the bed, thanks to those deadlifts or that intense HIIT workout.
If you're feeling a little soreness or muscle heaviness after a workout, that's usually normal, says Katie Hake, RDN, CPT, a registered dietitian nutritionist and certified personal trainer. Soreness in the day or two following a workout, called delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), indicates that your body worked hard, and it's trying to rebuild and strengthen itself, she explains.
"During exercise, your body is breaking down. Your muscles are tearing and breaking down to rebuild and get stronger," she says. "It's OK to be uncomfortable."
But when you're feeling extra sore either immediately, or in the days following a workout, it could be indicative that something needs to change.
"Extra" sore, Hake explains, is any soreness that keeps you from moving normally. If you're limping up the stairs or have trouble sitting onto the toilet, that's extra. Also, if you'd describe what you're feeling as painful rather than just uncomfortable, that's also extra.
Here are seven reasons you're dealing with excessive muscle soreness after exercise — and how to fix them for better, safer and far more comfortable results.
1. Your Workout Was Too Intense
Take the mantra, "no pain, no gain" with a grain of salt. As Hake points out, some soreness is normal and means your body is rebuilding and getting stronger. But when you're in legit pain, it's time to look at how hard you pushed.
For example, did you go from living the couch life to busting out a half-marathon or lifting heavy weights? Too much too fast, Hake says, can overly stress the body.
It's worth mentioning that, while rare, a condition called rhabdomyolysis can result from extreme overexertion. Rhabdomyolysis happens when the proteins from the breakdown of muscle fibers leak into your bloodstream, leading to potential heart issues and kidney failure, says Paul M. Gallo, EdD, a fellow at the American College of Sports Medicine and director of exercise science and wellness at Norwalk Community College.
The rare condition can happen following a very rapid onset of intense training.
Over the short term, Hake recommends gently moving your body through the soreness.
Moving forward, to reduce the risk of future excessive muscle soreness, it's important to slow things down when you're getting into a workout or training program.
"Instead of jumping into lifting 15 pounds or running 13 miles, work your way up slowly," she says. "Really focus on gradual progression."
Also, if you notice orange- or rust-colored urine following an extremely intense, new-to-you workout, immediately go to the emergency room, Gallo says. You may be experiencing signs of rhabdomyolysis.
2. You're Overtraining
There are hard workout days that are necessary to get stronger, and there are too many hard workout days that can lead to decreased performance and muscle loss, says Gallo.
Symptoms of overtraining include extremely fatigued muscles, poor sleep, disrupted hormones and depleted energy stores.
"Soreness after a hard workout isn't necessarily a bad thing," Gallo says. "It's a bad thing if we take these heavy, heavy days and intense workout and keep nailing ourselves with them."
Without time to properly recover — physically and nutritionally — you head into the territory of overtraining and excessive muscle soreness, Gallo explains.
"At that point, there's a drop-off in performance, and you might see a drop-off in lean body mass, which is a very negative sign," he says.
Other signs that you might be overdoing it is a feeling of "brain fog," loss of motivation, and chronic fatigue. In other words: burnout.
Gallo recommends cutting back on the volume of your hard workouts to see if you experience any signs of improvement. If not, your body might be telling you it's ready for a week-long break.
These breaks, Gallo says, can be very effective in helping you come back stronger.
3. You're Injured
If excessive muscle soreness continues for more than three days after your workouts, it's a strong sign of potential injury, Hake says. That could be acute, like a strain or sprain, or chronic, like the gradual wear and tear that can happen with overtraining and poor exercise form.
If you're feeling pain after a workout, it's important to consult your doctor, Hake says. Often, treatment includes ice, heat, rest and massage, to reduce the inflammation in the muscle and connective tissue that's causing the soreness, she says.
4. You Have Muscle Knots
Ever feel like you just can't massage your muscles enough? Muscle knots, as we lovingly call them, can happen for two reasons, Gallo explains: You're overtraining and not stretching, which leads to tight connective tissue, or it's basic muscle damage as your muscles get used to higher-intensity workouts.
"If the cause for your muscle knots is related to muscle damage, which is common in high-intense exercise, they usually heal on their own," Gallo says.
To help that process along, Gallo recommends gentle movement like riding a bike or brisk walking. Those activities can get blood and nutrients moving to sore and damaged tissues without adding stress to them.
If your muscle knots are due to tight connective tissue, Gallo says it's time to stretch and reach for the foam roller.
5. You're Not Fueling Correctly
Yes, what and how much you eat and drink can affect your performance and your recovery. Not only does your body need enough calories to perform its basic functions and fuel a workout, it has to be the right kind of calories, Hake says.
Without proper intake of carbohydrates, protein and fat, for example, your body can't rebuild muscle and recover, making you feel extra sore. Gallo explains that without protein, for example, there is nothing your body can use to stop muscle breakdown and start building it back up.
"Fuel in the form of carbohydrates will replenish [glycogen stores in the muscle], and protein will help with recovery and to rebuild muscle," Hake says.
Hydration is super important, too. Gallo says that dehydration can cause muscle cramping that may feel like your muscles are knotted. Water and fluids with electrolytes will help keep your muscles functioning properly, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
Your best bet, Hake says, is to work with a registered dietitian because nutritional needs are so individual.
But generally speaking, make sure to eat a meal or snack one to four hours before a workout that includes carbohydrates and a little bit of protein, per the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Foods that can help fuel a workout include:
- Peanut butter with banana or apple
- Greek yogurt with berries
- Oatmeal with milk and fruit
- A small handful of nuts and raisins
And after a workout, Hake recommends refueling sooner rather than later. "Refueling within a few hours after a workout can help speed recovery and decrease soreness," she says.
Foods that can help kick start recovery, according to the AND, include:
When it comes to hydrating, keep a water bottle with you throughout the day. While the general rule of thumb is for people to drink 32 ounces of water per day, it really depends on the person and activity level.
6. You're Stressed Out
Exercise, Hake reminds us, is a form of physical stress (exercise can also reduce levels of emotional stress). On its own, that stress is generally good: It spurs your body to become stronger after a workout.
But when the physical stress from exercise comes with the baggage of a global pandemic, for example, it can become excessive, Hake says.
"People don't really make that correlation," she says. "They go for a workout and say, 'I don't understand why it was so hard today,' and they're thinking about just the workout, not what else is going on in life that feels — literally and figuratively — heavy."
What helps you deal with stress?
"Sometimes someone might feel stressed out and need to lift weights, to feel powerful and strong," she says. Meanwhile, others might benefit from going in a walk in nature or doing gentle yoga.
And don't ignore non-exercise activities like journaling, talking with friends and meditating can do to help you manage your stress levels.
7. You're Not Getting Enough Quality Sleep
Sleep is incredibly important when it comes to recovery after physical activity, Hake says.
"So much happens when we sleep as far as rejuvenation in the body," she says. "If we're not sleeping well or long enough, there's a disruption in hormones and our overall function."
If the body loses out on the sleep it needs to recover from your workouts, excessive muscle soreness can result. Your strength, endurance and exercise performance can also suffer, according to a July 2019 review in the International Journal of Sports Medicine.
Treat sleep as part of training because it is. Just as you would factor in a rest day, work seven to nine hours of sleep into your schedule, per recommendations from the National Sleep Foundation.
One way to do that is to be consistent: Go to bed the same time every night and wake up the same time every morning, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
In order to get better quality sleep, the CDC recommends keeping your bedroom dark and quiet, and nixing electronic devices (no doom-scrolling before bed!). Avoid large meals, caffeine and, yes, alcohol before bed, which can all impair sleep.
If you prefer to work out in the evening, just make sure to keep it low-intensity and avoid squeezing it in too close to your bedtime — an hour or two before lights out is a good benchmark. Doing an intense workout right before bed can make it difficult to fall asleep.
Ready to nix soreness? This 10-minute stretching session feels amazing on tight, tired muscles.
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: "Fluid and Electrolyte Balance"
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: "Timing Your Pre- and Post-Workout Nutrition"
- National Sleep Foundation: "How Much Sleep Do We Really Need?"
- International Journal of Sports Medicine: "Sleep Hygiene for Optimizing Recovery in Athletes: Review and Recommendations"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Tips for Better Sleep"
- American Psychological Association: "Stress Effects on the Body"