This Is What You Need To Know About Post-Workout Muscle Soreness

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By Korin Miller

Are you working out too hard?

Sore muscles are one of those things that everyone reacts to differently: Some people swear it “proves” they had a hard workout, while others think sore muscles just kind of suck. And, depending on how sore you are, you could fall into both camps at any given point.

According to the , what most of us think of when we get sore is actually called “delayed-onset muscle soreness” in the medical community and it’s different from “acute soreness,” which happens when you’re actually working out. Delayed-onset muscle soreness is caused by “any time of activity that places unaccustomed loads on muscle,” i.e. working out hard or working muscle you don’t usually use, the ACSM says.

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Doctors aren’t totally sure why people get sore after workouts, the ACSM says, but most think it happens as a result of microscopic damage to your muscle fibres. Once your muscles tear they have to repair themselves. “Your body sends white blood cells … fluid, and other nutrients to help repair the muscle,” explains Albert Matheny, a certified strength and conditioning coach at registered dietician for SoHo Strength Lab and Promix Nutrition, respectively. “This leads to swelling, inflammation, and soreness.” While it sounds bad, those micro-tears aren’t harmful and are part of the process of building new muscle, Matheny says. And typically you’ll be the most sore for 24 to 48 hours after a workout, but soreness can last up to five days if you really went all out, Matheny says.

Experts have even come up with a way to measure muscle soreness: Research published in the found that thermal imaging can help detect changes in temperature in the skin above muscles that were worked hard (although most doctors just use a pain scale, where you basically tell them how much it hurts).

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You can actually get too sore. Signs you overdid it are pain in your tendons or ligaments (so, your joints, versus your muscles, where you should experience soreness), constant soreness, and a very high level of pain, which can be a warning sign of something serious, like exercise-induced rhabdomyolysis, a rare condition that causes your muscles to rapidly break down and stresses your kidneys.

While some people actually like being sore, Matheny says you really shouldn’t try to make soreness your goal. “If you are exercising regularly, you should not be getting significantly sore very often if you are taking care of yourself with nutrition, movement, stretching, mobility, and sleep,” he says. Of course, soreness happens, and Dr. Casey Batten, a double board-certified physician and director of Primary Care Sports Medicine at Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic in Los Angeles, says some soreness is to be expected. But if you find that it’s so bad it’s keeping you up at night, you’ve probably pushed it too far. Another red flag: You’re sore after every workout (and you’ve been working out for more than a month). Then, it’s time to rethink how hard you’re going and how you’re approaching your recovery, which includes what you’re eating, how you’re stretching, and how much sleep you’re getting, Matheny says.

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To try to stave off soreness, Batten recommends ramping up your workouts slowly and doing a good warmup (which can include a short pedal on a stationary bike or light jog) and cool down (ditto, with light stretching thrown in). Matheny also recommends fuelling up properly before you work out, drinking plenty of water, and making sure you also eat well after you’re done working out. Also, don’t forget to stretch and move around after you work out—going 100 percent on a stationary bike and then immediately sitting at your desk isn’t going to do you any favours.

If you get sore here and there, it’s no biggie. But if you feel like you’re getting sore more often than most people, it doesn’t hurt to flag it to your doctor.

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