Understanding Muscle Soreness

“The challenge is figuring out when enough is enough and when it’s just too much.”

Doesn’t it always happen so, your first workout usually goes great, you’re happy with your new fitness regime until the next morning when you’re so sore that you can barely move. While we anticipate the soreness and cramps, it is also important to recognize the signs for when to put the pedal to the metal and when to pump the brakes—and actually do it.

Individual Activity Threshold

The good news is that our bodies already know the answer. We just need to train our brains.

The first and foremost thing to understand is that every person’s body has a different threshold. The major factors that contribute to this are baseline strength and age. It’s only natural to expect that exercises when done properly, will progressively increase the threshold and result in better fitness.

However, they may also result in muscle soreness and it is important to be realistic about how much your body can take and be able to differentiate between moderate muscle soreness and pain.

When it comes to muscle soreness, there are two basic types:

  • Acute muscle soreness
  • Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS)

Acute Muscle Soreness

Acute muscle soreness is felt during or immediately after workouts/exercise. This is often a result of lactic acid building up in the muscles but tends to go away quickly.

Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness or DOMS

The side effect resulting from the stress put on muscles post-exercise is commonly called Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness, or DOMS, and it is completely normal. DOMS usually begins within 6-8 hours after a new activity or a change in activity and can last up to 24-48 hours after the exercise. The muscle pain is due to inflammation within the muscle, which is one of the main triggers for this type of muscle soreness.

Seeing the Signs:

Signs like overtraining, injuries and disordered sleep may compromise your performance in the gym or in everyday life. Hence it is important to look out for any such warnings. This is when your body is telling you to go easy on yourself.

  1. While frequent intense workouts really pump your energy levels and put forth a challenge, not giving your body enough time to recover from them may potentially result in prolonged periods of fatigue, soreness, insomnia, cold or even heart rate fluctuations. This is the first sign of your body telling you, you’ve been over trained. In this case, it’s time to take a break from your workouts to focus on recovery. Take some days off to rest and focus on getting quality sleep and eating nutritious whole foods.
  2. Just because you’re on a fitness spree, it doesn’t mean that you should let your body suffer from pain and injuries thinking it is a part of the process. It is important to recognize the warnings no matter how faint they might be. Keep an eye open for any ongoing pains and take a break from your fitness regime long enough for the body to heal.
  3. How many of us actually get a proper night’s sleep? While some may take pride in being a night owl, sleep can wreak havoc on the body, productivity, fitness routines, and overall sense of well-being. This, in turn, increases the stress hormones and promotes poor eating habits. The one common mistake people make is turning to caffeine, sugar and energy drinks to combat fatigue when in reality, they should just sleep well! Not sleeping well invites long term illnesses like depression and chronic fatigue and it’s not until the problem becomes noticeable, is when we realise something’s not right. The main warning signs for being sleep deprived are being unusually hungry, increasingly frequent bad moods, problems concentrating, trouble staying awake and alert despite pounding caffeine and energy drinks, and even poor motor function. If you notice these, you might be suffering from a sleep problem that requires intervention. Try setting a bedtime routine. Extending your sleep every night by a few extra minutes/hours over the course of a month will help restore natural sleep patterns. Once you feel a bit more well-rested, turn your attention to fuel that provides lasting energy: Nutritious foods (protein instead of sugar, for example), plenty of water, and snacks when you need them.

Treating Muscle Soreness After Exercise

There is no one way to treat DOMs. However, some of the methods commonly used by athletes include:

  1. Ice bath – An ice bath for a quick 10-minute soak after a tough workout session employs a “quick-fix” cooldown of inflamed or overexerted muscles.
  2. Heating Pad – As muscle tightness can be a cause of increased pain for some, loosening those tight knots using heat has proven to speed up the healing process.
  3. Self-massage – Using self-massage you can control the pressure applied to your sore muscles. This increases the blood flow to the muscles and may lessen the severity of stiffness and swelling.
  4. Active recovery – This is a technique that involves using low-impact aerobic exercise immediately after a workout to increase the blood flow to overworked muscles which may also help alleviate the swelling.
  5. Rest and Recovery – Rest and recovery will allow the body to heal itself in its own time. However, if the pain worsens or persists more than seven days, consult your doctor and have it checked out.

For more tips, you may wish to read one of our articles explaining Rest and Recovery Post a Workout


One thing we definitely know: Exercise is good. But, the right amount of exercise at the right intensity is even better.

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