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 exerciseDelayed 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.
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 workoutDelayed 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.