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 contrary to popular belief, you don't have to get sore to enjoy the benefits of having worked out, according to May 2017 article published in the Academy of Sports Medicine's Health and Fitness Journal.
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On the other hand, 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.
What Is DOMS?
Delayed-onset muscle soreness (aka DOMS), is that feeling of muscle achiness, tightness or pain. It usually occurs 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, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
"Soreness happens, especially if you change a variable to your training routine like adding a new exercise or a change in external load, volume or velocity of an exercise," says Blake Dircksen, CSCS, physical therapist at Bespoke Treatments.
Theories abound about exactly what mechanism causes DOMS, although a March 2017 paper published in the New Zealand journal Sports Medicine notes that it's actually a very mild form of rhabdomyolysis, or the breakdown of skeletal muscle that releases muscle protein into your blood.
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.
Read more: Sore Muscles? 8 Tips to Ease the Pain
When to Be Concerned About DOMS
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. For instance, if you can't straighten your arms after a workout, you've likely pushed too hard and caused excessive muscle damage.
"DOMS usually follows a pattern where pain will begin roughly 24 hours after training, peak around 48 hours, and should be almost completely resolved by one week," says Cameron Yuen, CSCS, also a physical therapist at Bespoke Treatments. "If you have immediate pain during or after training that does not improve or follow this pattern, you might be looking at more of a muscle strain rather than DOMS."
This is why it's especially important to be mindful of where the pain is coming from, says Yuen. "If you are experiencing pain that is either located at the joint or tendon, and steady for greater than two weeks with bruising, consider seeing a sports medicine doctor, physiatrist or physical therapist," he says.
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.
5 Ways to Help Prevent (or Lessen) DOMS
DOMS can be triggered by levels of exertion that you're unaccustomed to, 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.
1. Always Warm Up First
The warm-up is probably the most under-appreciated part of any workout, whether you're doing cardio or lifting weights. The term warm-up means just that — those five to 10 minutes 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, according to the Mayo Clinic.
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 begin with a slow jog or brisk walk. Or if you're going to work your chest muscles, you might start with a few incline push-ups or use the moving handlebars on an elliptical trainer to get that part of your body moving.
Read more: How to Ease Muscle Soreness With a Foam Roller
2. Stay Hydrated and Avoid Alcohol
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, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE).
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.
While you're at it, go ahead and skip the after-workout happy hour, as alcohol can impair your body's ability to repair the muscles, according to the Mayo Clinic.
3. Refuel Post-Workout
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.
4. Adjust Your Workout Intensity
One of the best ways to prevent excessive soreness is to moderate your workout intensity. After all, if you go from zero to 100 in short order — figuratively speaking — you can expect to be pretty sore afterward.
When you're starting a new fitness routine or adapting to new exercises, start gently and then slowly 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.
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.
5. Don't Forget Rest Days
If your workouts are going well, it may be tempting to hit 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 lets your body recover and rid itself of soreness between bouts and helps you avoid the chronic fatigue and nagging injuries that can be symptoms of overtraining.
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.
But regardless of your fitness level, 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.
How to Ease Muscle Soreness
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.
Consider Massage Therapy
Massage also increases circulation to the treated areas, so it's no big surprise that in an April 2018 meta-analysis published in Frontiers in Physiology, massage was found to be the most effective treatment for reducing DOMS.
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, says Yuen, who suggests an activity like light cycling. 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, according to the University of Michigan Health Department. 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 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.
Read more: The Dangers of Working Out Too Much
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. A December 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.
What About Post-Workout Stretching?
Stretching feels good, but it hasn't been scientifically proven to aid with soreness. In fact, a July 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.
- 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
- 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?