Muscle Soreness and Exercise: What Gives?

Sore muscles post workout got you wondering if you did something wrong? Or something right? We explain Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) and some tips to help relieve it.

5 minute read

Ever finish a work out and thought, "I cannot blow dry my hair because my arms may literally fall off." OR "I am going to take the elevator up one flight of stairs because ...leg day." 

We know we are not alone here.  There is an actual term for the muscle soreness that occurs after a work out. Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) occurs 6-8 hours after a new program or increased intensity in your activity and can linger for 24-48 hours. It is not due to a build up of lactic acid. The cause of the soreness is microscopic tears in the muscle fibers during the eccentric (lengthening motion) of the workout, which causes inflammation in the muscle.

But is it a good thing? 

Mild to moderate muscle soreness is not something to be alarmed about. It is normal and can happen to anyone, both new and experienced athletes alike. This is a sign that you have put stress on muscle fibers, which in turn breaks down the fibers so that they can rebuild larger and stronger. Over time that same exercise or intensity won't cause soreness because your muscles will be used to it. BUT if the muscle soreness prevents you from carrying out normal daily activities or lasts more than 72 hours -- YOU HAVE PUSHED IT TOO FAR MAMA.

There is a difference between soreness and pain. We have all experienced pain at some point. Pain is your body yelling "OW stop that," as opposed to " ooooh this makes me a little uncomfortable." If you feel pain during an exercise or activity, then don't be stubborn. Listen to your body and stop.  If the workout makes you a bit uncomfortable, then marinade in that discomfort just a bit. THAT. IS. WHERE. THE. GROWTH. HAPPENS.  

So how do you relieve DOMS? 

First and foremost, remember mild to moderate muscle soreness is different from pain. If you are in pain, your muscle swelling doesn't subside, or you notice dark urine, seek help from a doctor or medical professional immediately. Dark urine or low urine output could be a sign of kidney injury from muscle breakdown.

There is no magical fix for DOMS, but if you are feeling slightly achey and inflamed these are some methods that are thought to help reduce inflammation.

  1. Rest. This is crucial to recovery. Your muscles cannot grow if you constantly put stress on them and don't allow rest and recovery.
  2. Low intensity movement. A light walk or stretch may help you feel better. Do not underestimate the importance of stretching. We should all stretch more often.
  3. Ice, ice baby. A warm bath may feel good initially, but since the root cause is inflammation icing the area will be more beneficial. This is why athletes are prescribed ice baths! 
  4. Non-Steroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs. These over-the-counter pain relievers can provide some relief, but always check with your doctor if you aren't sure whether you should be taking them.

But can I still workout? 

Let's be honest, at least a few are thinking it, "I can power through the soreness." OR "I don't know how to do rest days." If little to no rest is working for you, then you do you. But ultimately resting the inflamed muscle group will help. To be fair, you can still exercise and workout. Chances are that your DOMS symptoms will improve during the workout after you warm up, but you likely won't hit your best reps, max weight load, or fastest sprint. Oh and your DOMS will likely  return once you have cooled down. An alternative option is to workout a different muscle group or body focus i.e. alternate leg day with upper body.

In the end, do NOT feel discouraged if you feel sore after a workout. We all experience DOMS at some point and most often when we are trying something new. This means you pushed the intensity or worked your body in a new way and that is okay. Muscle soreness shouldn't be the goal of your workout either. It's not healthy nor sustainable to live in a constant state of inflammation.

Ives Hot, PharmD, BCACP, Certified Fitness Instructor