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Understanding Post Workout Muscle Soreness: When Is It Too Much?

Updated 
August 31, 2020
Written by 
Jai

Muscle Soreness: A badge of honor or a warning that you’re pushing yourself too hard?

You just crushed the heck out of a really tough workout. You increased your training load, broke out of your routine and sweated through a couple of new activities. Overall, you stepped out of the gym feeling great. That is until you wake up the next day, barely able to do anything but think you’re about to die.

   

Photo of a man with shoulder length blonde hair looking at the camera with a pained expression.

Post workout muscle soreness is usually not a bad thing. It’s simply a sign that your muscles are stressed. Physical activities cause microscopic muscle fiber breakdowns, which result in a tight and sore feeling. However, certain activities or exercises cause you to feel more sore, such as lowering weights when doing hamstring curls or running downhill, simply because these types of activities put more strain on your muscle.

So, when does post workout soreness become serious enough for medical attention? And what can you do and use to help with the even more dreaded delayed onset of muscle soreness?

Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness: What is it? What causes it?

We’ve already mentioned that it’s normal to feel tightening and some pain in your muscles after a workout. But have you ever felt an increased soreness and pain during the second or third day after a tough workout? If you answer yes, you’ve experienced Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness or simply, DOMS.

For athletes and fitness enthusiasts, this is an all-too-familiar feeling. Whether they are going back to the gym after a break, trying a new workout or increasing the intensity of their training. DOMS is characterised by localized pain and soreness, limited range of movement and lower muscle function.

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But why does it happen?

Generally, DOMS happen as a result of doing unfamiliar physical activities or workouts: running uphill and downhill, lifting weights for the first time, going for a spin cycle class for the first time. It can actually occur after doing non-sports related activities, too: lifting heavy boxes while moving into a new apartment; doing spring cleaning - DOMS occurs after any physical activity that your body is not used to.

For athletes and fitness enthusiasts, DOMS occur after long bouts of intense exercise. Eccentric exercises - like squats and pull-ups - cause micro tearing in the muscle fibres. After the workout, the body starts to repair itself and soreness and tightness sets in.

Good Muscle Pain vs Bad Muscle Pain: When should you holler for your doctor?

Fitness buffs, athletes, first time gym goers understand the saying “No Pain, No Gain” all too well. And this is true, to some extent.

Increasing the intensity of a workout is essential to building strength and endurance. Athletes in particular constantly push their limits because there is no other way to be stronger, faster, better. But while pushing physical boundaries boosts athletic performance, the process comes at a literally painful cost.

The question now is, what is good muscle pain and what is bad muscle pain? How can you tell when the pain and soreness aren’t normal anymore and that you might already require medical attention?

Cartoon image of a man with orange hair


First, let’s identify what good muscle pain is

The most common type of “good” muscle pain is the slight to moderate burning kind of pain that you get after let’s say - lifting weights. This pain goes away almost immediately after you stop lifting or whatever it is you’re doing. The burning sensation you feel is caused by lactic acid build up, which is the body’s normal reaction when you go beyond your exertion “comfort zone”.

Believe it or not, DOMS is another common type of pain. It’s your body’s normal reaction from excessive physical activity. The delayed onset is just a tad annoying but usually resolves itself in a few days. While it does not impede one’s ability to do daily tasks or even light exercises, going through it is still very uncomfortable, to say the least.

However, DOMS is considered “good pain” because it is a sign that your body is healing itself. And muscles become stronger after this healing process.


So, what is bad muscle pain then?

While it is normal to expect some pain from exercise, never ignore any kind of pain that comes on while you’re in the middle of your workout. The same goes for intense pain that doesn’t go away after the activity. Stress fractures and other serious injuries may be causing this and you should go see a doctor. Some other types of pain conditions you’d need medical attention for include:

  • Piercing pain in areas where you have had surgery or a previous injury.
  • Sharp, stabbing pain that stops you from moving any part of your body.
  • Pain that comes with bad swelling and redness.
  • Super intense pain that causes vomiting, dizziness and breathlessness
  • Pain around a bruised area
  • Pain that doesn’t go away even after taking meds, resting, or applying an ice pack/warm compress
  • Pain that increases in severity and causes chills and fever

Additionally, if you noticed that your urine has turned a darker color, or you realized you have not felt the need to pee in a long time, or if the pain and soreness isn’t going away after three days (and just getting worse), go and see your doctor right away. You may be suffering from symptoms of Rhabdomyolysis or as the athletic community calls it, Rhabdo.


Rhabdo, what?

The muscle tissues produce an enzyme called creatine kinase or CK, as a reaction to the micro tearing and breakdown that happens during workouts or any tough physical activity. This is normal and producing a certain amount of CK into your system is harmless. BUT there are instances when muscle tissues release a high amount of CK and this causes Rhabdo, which affects the kidneys and may even lead to kidney failure.

Unlike DOMS, Rhabdo is a very serious condition and one that requires immediate medical attention. The problem is usually caused by jumping straight into intense workout without first building one’s strength and endurance. Whether you’re a first time gym goer or a trained athlete, it’s important to start a new training routine gradually, to avoid “shocking” your muscle tissues into producing too much CK enzyme that can cause Rhabdo.



DOMS - albeit a sign of “good pain” is STILL pain. Here’s how you can ease discomfort AND avoid it.

Move those sore muscles. Yes, move them

It is tempting to just lay down, rest and not move at all when muscle soreness sets in. But unless you’re in really bad pain, staying in bed all day would just make the stiffness and pain worse, not ease it at all. The point is, listen to what your body is telling you. If the delayed onset of soreness is THAT bad, then go for that complete day of rest.

At the very least, avoid intense cardio and lifting weights while you’re feeling sore. Putting your muscles through more strain as they are healing, will only make things worse. Go instead for gentle movements throughout the day. It won’t speed up recovery, true. But it helps with blood flow which then eases swelling and soreness.Do some very light stretching, light to moderate walks or go for a relaxed swim but again, do not push yourself.


Get a massage

Studies have been done to review the effects of post workout massages in preventing AND easing DOMS. Research showed that participants who received body massages hours after intense workouts had reported feeling less sore than participants that didn’t get post workout massages.  But what if you work out every day and can’t possibly schedule a massage treatment?

Photo of black Hydragun massage gun against a red background


Using products like a massage gun is one way to self-massage your calves, arms, thighs, lower and upper back and shoulders. These devices use percussive force to create vibrations deep into your muscle tissue to ease the build up of lactic acid. The result is improved blood flow, reduced swelling and pain.

Massage guns have a modular design, so you can take it with you to the gym or anywhere, really. It’s easy to use but do remember that these are powerful devices - think deep tissue massage. So, don’t overuse it and avoid focusing on one problem area for too long. Move it around your body to keep that blood flow going. A limit of 10- 15 minutes per use is usually enough to help with the pain and soreness.


Try analgesic creams / ointments

Analgesic creams and ointments help to tone down pain. A popular choice are menthol-based analgesic creams that you apply directly to the area where you feel sore. Check the label for the recommended amount and how often you should use it. Apply using a circular motion so your skin absorbs the medication well.


Take Ice baths/Cold shower

We can literally feel you cringing as you read the words. But yeah - ice baths.

Photo of 5 male athletes wearing white shirts soaking in tubs full of ice

For years, ice baths have been the go-to, post-workout treatment of athletes. The cold not only effectively lessens the discomfort of DOMS, it actually has many health benefits and speeds up recovery.  If you don’t have a tub at home or your gym doesn’t have ice bath facilities, taking a cold shower also helps to reduce soreness and swelling.


What can you do to avoid DOMS?

To be honest, there isn’t really anything you can do to COMPLETELY avoid DOMS. But there are things you can do to lessen the amount of muscle soreness and pain. These can also help your body to recover faster:

  1. Hydrate - This is a no-brainer. It doesn’t matter if you’re a professional athlete or an occasional gym goer, you must stay hydrated.
  2. Warm up properly - Don’t think that a few seconds of stretching is going to cut it. Spend at least 10 minutes doing dynamic stretches and some cardio to increase your core temperature. This preps your body from the beating you’re about to give it.
  3. Cool downs are just as important - Spend 15 - 20 minutes doing low intensity cardio and static stretching. This helps improve joints and muscle flexibility, so you won’t be prone to really intense soreness post workout.
  4. Pace yourself - Don’t just jump in and deadlift 200 lbs on your first workout day. Even trained athletes know the value of taking their training sessions slowly. Safely build your strength and listen to what your body is telling you.



Don’t let post workout muscle soreness sideline you from being a better version of yourself

It takes a lot of work to make the most out of every exercise routine. So, don’t let the delayed onset of muscle soreness stop you from striving to be better physically and mentally. Take steps to lessen the negative impact of DOMS by slowly building your strength and progressively increasing the intensity of your workouts.

Photo of two men lying in hospital beds next to each other

Most importantly, you need to be patient. As your body gets stronger, you would find that DOMS happen less frequently as your body gets used to the training you do.

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