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Rolling out of bed with throbbing muscles proves yesterday’s workout was a challenge. Congrats! But what does that ache mean for today’s session? While it’s tempting to suck it up and power through the pain for the sake of a good sweat, exercising sore muscles could undermine that workout and might even lead to injury.

The Pleasure of Pain? The Need-to-Know

Dull pain after a workout results from microscopic tears in muscle fibers caused by intense activity they’re not used to performing. Post-workout pain has earned the term Exercise Induced Muscle Damage (EIMD)" Exercise Induced Muscle Damage in Humans. Clarkson, P.M., Hubal, M.J. Department of Exercise Science, Totman Building, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA 01003, USA. American Journal of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. 2002 Nov;81(11 Suppl):S52-69.. That means we can thank those extra miles for achy quads or extra pounds on the bench press for a sore chest.

EIMD usually leads Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness, or "DOMS." This occurs when muscle pain doesn’t completely set in until 24 to 48 hours after exercise Delayed onset muscle soreness: treatment strategies and performance factors. Cheung, K., Hume, P., Maxwell, L. School of Community Health and Sports Studies, Auckland University of Technology, Auckland, New Zealand. Sports Medicine. 2003;33(2):145-64.. When the pain limits strength or range of motion, it’s best to take a hint from our bodies and give them a day or two off. Remember that even pros feel sore after a tough workout, or when returning to a training regime after the off-season.

Don't fear, "hurting" doesn’t equal "weakness." In fact, that pain means muscles have been pushed harder than normal, and the body just needs time to recover. When torn muscle fibers rebuild, they become stronger, but generally that process can take two to four days. Careful though, working out damaged muscles often opens the door for further injury and setbacks in a routine.

Even when attempting to work out while super sore, research suggests muscle damage can make the session less effective and harder to complete Neuromuscular function after exercise-induced muscle damage: theoretical and applied implications. Byrne, C., Twist, C., Eston, R. Centre for Human Performance, Defence Medical and Environmental Research Institute, DSO National Laboratories, Republic of Singapore. Sports Medicine. 2004;34(1):49-69. The effect of exercise-induced muscle damage on perceived exertion and cycling endurance performance. Twist, C., Eston, R.G. Department of Sport and Exercise Sciences, University of Chester, Chester CH1 4BJ, UK. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 2009 Mar;105(4):559-67. Epub 2008 Nov 20. Effect of exercise-induced muscle damage on endurance running performance in humans. Marcora, S.M., Bosio, A. School of Sport, Health and Exercise Sciences, University of Wales-Bangor, Bangor, UK. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports. 2007 Dec;17(6):662-71. Epub 2007 Mar 5. The effects of exercise-induced muscle damage on cycling time-trial performance. Burt, D.G., Twist, C. Department of Sport and Exercise Sciences, University of Chester, Chester, United Kingdom. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2011 Aug;25(8):2185-92.. For example, one study had seven recreational athletes complete a five-minute cycling time trial before and after a round of muscle-damaging, counter-movement jumping exercises The effect of exercise-induced muscle damage on perceived exertion and cycling endurance performance. Twist, C., Eston, R.G. Department of Sport and Exercise Sciences, University of Chester, Chester CH1 4BJ, UK. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 2009 Mar;105(4):559-67. Epub 2008 Nov 20.. Researchers found the cyclists expended more energy and covered less distance during the second trial, all while pedaling on sore legs.

Walk It Off—Your Action Plan

Sore muscles
However some fitness aficionados do advocate for light exercise on sore muscles, with low-impact exercises like walking, easy cycling, or swimming. But be warned: Any pain-relief provided by the exercise will likely be short-lived. Researchers advise even elite athletes to reduce their training intensity and duration for a few days following a DOMS-inducing workout Delayed onset muscle soreness: treatment strategies and performance factors. Cheung, K., Hume, P., Maxwell, L. School of Community Health and Sports Studies, Auckland University of Technology, Auckland, New Zealand. Sports Medicine. 2003;33(2):145-64.. And if the muscle hurts to the touch or is seriously limiting mobility, you may be a victim of overtraining. In this case, the safest option is to stay out of the gym for a bit longer.

Dead set on not dialing down a gym session? Try working different muscles than yesterday. A varied fitness routine helps to ensure all muscle groups get equal attention—and equal rest. To minimize DOMS, try upping intensity (whether mileage, speed, or resistance) gradually over several weeks Delayed onset muscle soreness: treatment strategies and performance factors. Cheung, K., Hume, P., Maxwell, L. School of Community Health and Sports Studies, Auckland University of Technology, Auckland, New Zealand. Sports Medicine. 2003;33(2):145-64.. And remember to warm up before every session. While no hard evidence proves it will nix soreness, general warm-up exercises may prepare muscles for harder work and slightly lessen the post-workout ouch The effects of static stretching and warm-up on prevention of delayed-onset muscle soreness. High, D.M, Howley, E.T., Franks, B.D. University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Res Q Exerc Sport. 1989 Dec;60(4):357-61..

While there’s no single tried-and-true method for banishing soreness or speeding up recovery, some tactics may help alleviate DOMS and prevent future injury. Some athletes go for an ice-bath immersion after a competition, following the logic that cold temperatures will restrict blood vessels (reducing swelling) and slow down the process of tissue breakdown Post exercise ice water immersion: Is it a form of active recovery? Fatimah Lateef. National Athletic Trainers' Association, Inc. Journal of Emergencies, Trauma, and Shock, 2010 Jul-Sep; 3(3): 302.. Massage therapy has also been shown to downplay pain without hampering muscle function Effects of Massage on Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness, Swelling, and Recovery of Muscle Function. Zainal, Z., Newton, M., Paul Sacco, P., et al. Journal of Athletic Training. 2005 Jul-Sep; 40(3): 174–180.. Last but not least, some good old-fashioned stretching could do the body good Stretching Before and After Exercise: Effect on Muscle Soreness and Injury Risk. Andersen, J.C. National Athletic Trainers' Association, Inc. Journal of Athletic Training. 2005 Jul-Sep; 40(3): 218–220.. While stretching after a workout loosens the muscles up and can help them recover faster, it's not always a surefire soreness cure.

The Takeaway

  • Muscle soreness occurs when intense exercise causes microscopic muscle tears.
  • Working out lightly on a sore muscle can help reduce the pain and speed healing, but going too hard can increase risk for injury.
  • But if the pain is intense, stay off it completely and let it heal!
  • If you don’t want to take a day off, try mixing up your workout, targeting other muscles that aren't sore.
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