When I was an athlete in high school, I used to love the burn after a hard workout. I knew that it was a necessary outcome of the workouts I was doing. I also knew it signified that some part of me had been pushing harder (or different) than it had been pushed before and that I was becoming stronger for it.
Now, older and wiser, I don’t wear the pain as a badge of honor anymore—well, not as much. I know that more post-workout pain doesn’t necessarily mean I had a better or more effective workout, and I’m not as likely to simply brush off the next-day-soreness with a flippant “Dude, I’m so sore from leg day last night,” and stagger on with my day.
I have a life outside my gym, and that life requires me to work, chase around kids, and to dress and brush my teeth without it all being interrupted by stretching sore muscles or discomfort from the gnawing pain. That means I needed to settle in and learn my stuff: What does muscle soreness after a workout mean? At what point should I worry about how sore I am after a workout? How do I keep from being too sore on day 2 and 3 after a hard workout? Is it better to work through the pain or take a rest day?
Post-workout pain: a badge of honor, a necessity, or a sign you’re doing something wrong?
Here are 6 common myths of muscles soreness after a workout:
Myth 1: “If I’m sore after a workout, that means I pushed too hard.”
When you start a new workout or push yourself harder than usual, change your exercise routine, increase the amount of time you work out, or increase your workout intensity, you’re probably going to feel sore the next day.
But don’t worry, this is completely normal! Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is the technical term for your muscles feeling sore and fatigued on day 2 and 3 (and sometimes as long as a week) after your muscles experience something different from what they’re used to.
Delayed onset muscle soreness is thought to be caused by microscopic damage to the muscle fibers. These microscopic tears are typical when your muscle is doing something isn’t used to doing on a regular basis. The good news is that these microcsopic tears are part of the process of building stronger muscles.
However, there are some warning signs to look for. If the pain doesn’t change or begin to alleviate after a few days, if you see significant bruising or swelling in the area, or if you suspect a tear, strain, break, or sprain, always consult your physician.
Myth 2: “I got sore after this workout—it clearly isn’t for me.”
Please, please don’t let the muscle soreness get you down. You’ll likely be sore anytime you try a new, grueling workout. But each time your body experiences DOMS, those muscles are getting stronger and will be better able to handle the physical activity the next time it comes around. When your body heals from DOMS, it is also repairing with some adaptations that will help cause less damage, less soreness, and faster recovery for a few weeks up to a few months.
Myth 3: “It’s best to work through the pain.”
This is a tough myth, because sometimes it’s true, and sometimes it’s not true.
One of the most common causes of injury during workouts are the subtle (or not-so-subtle) compromises our body makes to our form when we are overly sore or injured. By favoring a sore calf or changing a weight lifting motion, you’re at greater risk for injury.
It’s also important to remember that the recovery process is one of the most important stages of muscle building, repair, and strengthening. Some trainers will even say that the recovery process is as important as if not more important than the workout itself.
While some DOMS will subside with a light warm-up; if your muscle soreness doesn’t ease up through the warm-up, it might be a sign that you should give that muscle group a rest for the day.
Myth 4: “It’s not safe to work out when I’m sore.”
Just like the above myth, there are some cases when this is true and some cases when this is not true. If you cringe when you touch a sore muscle or change your gate or movements even after a light warmup, then you should probably let your body rest a day or two.
According to the American Council on Exercise, extreme soreness can impair your body’s ability to absorb shock, making your risk for injury greater.
However, most standard DOMS doesn’t have to confine you to the couch for a week. DOMS only affects the muscles you were working during a particular workout, which typically leaves you free and clear to work out another muscle group.
Most professionally-designed workout plans include rotating muscle groups so one muscle group can recover while you’re working out a different muscle group. If you choose your own workouts, choose to alternate muscle groups so your body has a chance to heal.
Myth 5: “Warming up will prevent muscle soreness.”
While there is no evidence that warming up will prevent DOMS, it can help reduce the risk of injury and improve your performance. If you are currently experiencing DOMS, warming up can also help temporarily relieve muscle soreness.
Myth 6: “Post-workout pain is due to a buildup of lactic acid.”
Lactic acid buildup occurs when the oxygen demands of the muscle fibers exceed what your blood can reasonably deliver. Muscle fibers will initiate another process that can work without the higher levels of oxygen, but a byproduct of that process is lactic acid which causes a burning sensation in the muscles. However, lactic acid will be completely washed out of your system within a couple hours and will not cause soreness the next day like DOMS will.
Myth 7: “There’s a magical cure to post-workout muscle soreness; I just have to find it.”
There is no special cure to magically heal sore muscles after a workout—your muscles are rebuilding themselves, and that process simply takes time.
However, there are treatments that can help ease the symptoms or even help you heal more quickly. These include ice, anti-inflammatory drugs (we often recommend not relying on anti-inflammatories for regular exercise and to find more natural remedies instead), or topical creams and muscle balms like WOD Relief.