Whether or not being sore the day after a workout is truly good is up for debate. From an exercise science standpoint, having mildly sore muscles the day after you work out is at least normal, and if you're just starting a new exercise program, you might feel more than mild soreness. But if you routinely experience severe or debilitating soreness after your workouts, that is not normal, and it's a sign that something needs to change.
While feeling some mild soreness the day after you work out is normal, frequent severe soreness is not. Extreme soreness after your workouts isn't a badge of honor; it's a sign that you need to dial back your intensity, change some lifestyle factors that affect your exercise recovery or perhaps both.
A Profile of DOMS
DOMS, or delayed-onset muscle soreness, usually comes on within 12 to 24 hours after your workout and fades after three to five days or, in more extreme cases, up to seven days after your workout. A certain amount of mild or even moderate soreness from DOMS is typical after tough workouts, but there's no need to work out to the point of severe, debilitating soreness.
If your DOMS is debilitating and lasts longer than seven days or if it's accompanied by very dark urine or swelling of your limbs, these are signals that you might have a more severe form of rhabdomyolysis. "Rhabdo," as it's often called, can be life-threatening, so if any of these symptoms are present, seek immediate medical attention.
Tips for Preventing DOMS
DOMS can be triggered by unaccustomed levels of exertion, so if you're just starting or resuming a fitness routine, it's typical to experience a certain amount of soreness in the days just after your workout. But that doesn't mean soreness is inevitable — and in fact, there's a lot you can do to prevent it.
Warm Up and Cool Down
The warmup and cool-down are underappreciated parts of any workout, whether you're doing cardio, lifting weights or stretching. The term warmup means just that: Those five to 10 minutes of warmup time give your body the opportunity to increase blood flow to your muscles and elevate your body temperature, both of which can help you be less sore after a workout.
Cooling down also helps your body regulate blood flow as it returns gradually to preexercise levels of heart rate and blood pressure. Although there isn't yet scientific proof of whether cooling down reduces soreness after your workout, it certainly doesn't hurt.
To warm up, spend five to 10 minutes doing a gentle version of the exercise you have in mind. So, if you're going to run, you might warm up with a slow jog or brisk walk. Or, if you're going to work your chest muscles, you might use the moving handlebars on an elliptical trainer to get that part of your body moving.
Stay Hydrated at All Times
Staying hydrated offers many benefits, especially when you work out. Having enough water in your body helps regulate your body temperature and your blood pressure.
Water is an essential part of the body fluids that are responsible for delivering nutrients throughout your body and eliminating metabolic waste. Proper hydration also helps prevent muscle strain, which is one possible cause of extreme post-workout soreness.
Eat Well and Sleep Well
Eating right after you work out can help your body replenish its energy stores and get straight to the business of recovery. Don't skimp on post-workout meals; the Mayo Clinic recommends incorporating both healthy carbs and protein into your post-workout meals to help your body recover more quickly.
Likewise, not getting enough sleep can impair both your workout performance and your recovery afterward.
Stretch After You Work Out
Stretching feels good, but it hasn't been scientifically proven to aid with soreness. In fact, a 2011 research paper published in The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews showed only one study that demonstrated statistically significant (but very small) reductions in soreness from post-exercise stretching.
With that said, stretching is helpful in preventing injury. After your workout — when your muscles are still warm — is the perfect time to sneak in a quick stretch for your major muscle groups.
Moderate Your Intensity
One of the best ways to prevent excessive soreness is to moderate your workout intensity. After all, if you go from zero to one hundred in short order — figuratively speaking — then you can expect to be pretty sore afterward.
But contrary to popular belief, you don't have to get sore to enjoy the benefits of having worked out. If you're starting a new fitness routine or adapting to new exercises, start relatively gently and then slowly increase workout intensity and duration as your body adapts.
If you're not sore after one workout, it may be tempting to go whole hog on the next one. Sometimes you can — and sometimes you'll end up hobbling around sore as a result. Let experience and your body be your guide.
Another useful trick is to adjust just one variable of your workout at a time: duration, intensity or frequency. That helps you quickly discern how well your body does (or doesn't) handle each sort of change.
Take Adequate Breaks
You should also space your workouts enough to let your body recover and rid itself of soreness between bouts. If you're just getting started, that might mean giving yourself a two- or three-day break between workouts, although you can reduce that time as your body adapts to the new level of exertion.
The one hard and fast exception to this is resistance training: You should always leave at least one rest day between resistance workouts for a given muscle group. That's because your muscles actually get stronger as they rebuild during the rest period between workouts, not during the workouts themselves.
Don't Forget the Rest Day
If your workouts are going well, it may be tempting to keep hitting the gym every day of the week. But it's vital to keep at least one day of the week for rest and recovery — sometimes even two or three, depending on how your body is (or isn't) handling the workouts. This helps you avoid the chronic fatigue, malaise and nagging injuries that can be symptoms of overtraining.
Treatments Once You're Sore
As already stated, soreness after your workout really isn't necessary to reap the benefits of exercise. But as long as the soreness fades within a few days, isn't debilitating and isn't accompanied by sharp pain, it's still a fairly typical part of working out.
There are also some things you can do to reduce the duration of DOMS and the general inflammation and soreness that may come from taking up a new workout regimen.
Work Out — Lightly
If you're experiencing mild soreness, a light workout can sometimes help speed that on its way by increasing blood flow to the affected muscles. Each person has his own definition of "light," so let your body be your guide as you seek a gentle level of intensity that doesn't make the soreness worse.
Consider RICE for Faster Recovery
If you're feeling very sore within the first 48 hours after your workout, the "RICE" method (rest, ice, compression, elevation) may help reduce muscle inflammation. This standard treatment for sports injuries consists of four steps:
Rest: Rest the affected area and take a break from whatever workout is causing or exacerbating the soreness.
Ice: Apply a zip-lock bag filled with ice or a cold pack to the affected area for 10 to 20 minutes per hour, three or more times per day. Don't apply ice directly to your skin; place a towel between your skin and the ice pack or bag of ice.
Note: Don't apply ice if your muscles are cramping because that can make it worse.
Compression: Consider applying a compression wrap or elastic bandage for mild compression to help reduce swelling. Note that the compression shouldn't be enough to impair your circulation.
Elevation: Elevate the sore limb above your heart if you can. Again, this reduces swelling to the affected limb or body part.
Apply Heat to Your Muscles
If your sore muscles aren't inflamed, applying heat instead of ice can help improve circulation and help stiff muscles relax. Expert recommendations vary, although most agree that you can apply heat packs for up to 20 minutes, several times a day.
However, a 2013 study published in the Journal of Clinical Medicine Research found that applying moist heat packs for two hours and dry heat packs for eight hours was beneficial in speeding recovery from exercise-induced DOMS.
Alternate Ice and Heat
You can also apply alternating heat and cold packs to the sore area or alternate between warm and cold baths (a technique called contrast water therapy) to increase circulation and ease soreness.
Consider Massage Therapy
When to Be Concerned
Although a certain amount of mild to moderate soreness is typical after a tough workout, sharp pain is a signal that you may be injured. Likewise, if your soreness is extreme, debilitating or constant, something's not right. You might be injured, or you might be overdoing your workouts to the point that you're harming yourself.
Constant pain and soreness might also indicate that you're using improper form, which in turn makes it much easier to injure yourself.
Other reasons for alarm include extreme muscle soreness that lasts for more than five to seven days and soreness that's accompanied by dark urine or swelling of your limbs. All of these might indicate a serious case of rhabdomyolysis, which can be life-threatening — so seek medical attention right away.
- Mayo Clinic: Aerobic Exercise: How to Warm Up and Cool Down
- Cleveland Clinic: When Is It OK to Push Through Pain During Exercise?
- American Council on Exercise: How Hydration Affects Performance
- ACSM's Health and Fitness Journal: Sore and More
- Sports Medicine: Perspectives on Exertional Rhabdomyolysis
- Mayo Clinic: The Best Ways to Bounce Back After a Tough Workout
- American Council of Sports Medicine: Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness
- Cleveland Clinic: Should You Use Ice or Heat for Pain?
- Michigan Medicine: Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation
- Medical News Today: Heat and Cold Treatment: Which Is Best?
- Journal of Clinical Medicine Research: Moist Heat or Dry Heat for Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness
- Frontiers in Physiology: An Evidence-Based Approach for Choosing Post-Exercise Recovery Techniques to Reduce Markers of Muscle Damage, Soreness, Fatigue, and Inflammation
- Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews: Stretching to Prevent or Reduce Muscle Soreness After Exercise
- International Sports Sciences Association: Is DOMs Cramping Your Client's Style?