Maybe you've just started working out again, or maybe you got a little too enthusiastic during your most recent workout - whatever the case, you woke up this morning feeling like someone beat you up in your sleep. Your muscles are really sore, and you feel like you're barely able to move. What in the world happened? Did you do something wrong? For that matter, should you even try working out again?
No need to panic--you're experiencing a very common condition known as "delayed onset muscle soreness," or DOMS. No matter your level of fitness, everyone is subject to experiencing DOMS from time to time. The soreness that you feel is actually the result of chemical irritants that are produced by the muscles when an abnormal amount of stress or demand is placed on them. Believe it or not, this is a necessary process; it helps your muscles adapt to these new demands, so that they can become stronger and perform better the next time.
Although extremely common, DOMS can sometimes be intimidating, especially to people who are just starting out on a new fitness program. It typically begins to emerge around 6 to 8 hours after you work out, and then peaks about 24 to 48 hours later. Although it can feel pretty intense for a while, the soreness will usually go away within 72 hours.
DOMS mainly occurs when you've pushed your muscles out of their comfort zone, which will be different for every person. Once your muscles have been required to exert force and energy beyond their normal limits, DOMS kicks in as a way to recover from the "microtrauma" that has occurred to your muscle fibers. As your muscles begin to repair themselves, they get stronger, more resilient, and better able to prevent the same thing from happening again.
Is It Soreness or Injury?
DOMS can definitely make you feel like you've injured something, but there is a significant difference between soreness and injury. As mentioned earlier, the soreness that comes with DOMS usually dissipates around 72 hours after activity, but if you're still feeling significant pain after about 96 hours (roughly 4 days), you may need to consult with your physician.
Also look out for any heavy swelling or bruising in your limbs. Another thing to keep in mind is that soreness usually comes on gradually after you exercise, but an injury will normally be felt immediately while you're working out. If you are experiencing any heavy swelling, bruising, debilitating pain, or a severely limited range of motion, a trip to the doctor might be in order.
So Can You Still Work Out When You're Sore?
The answer is yes, but there are some things to keep in mind. First of all, if you do decide to work out, keep it light while your muscles adjust. Numerous studies have shown that working out lightly on sore muscles can actually help ease the pain and speed up the healing process, but the key word here is "lightly." You will really need to feel it out first and see how your muscles respond to a very limited amount of light exercise. If the pain is just too intense, leave it alone and let your muscles heal before cranking it up again.
If you fear that you'll lose your momentum by skipping a workout, try targeting the muscles that aren't sore. For example, if your chest and shoulders met their fate on the incline bench press machine yesterday, consider doing squats and leg extensions today. This will still enable you to burn calories while giving those sore upper body muscles a rest.
How to Soothe Those Aching Muscles
While there is no outright "cure" for DOMS, there are some things you can do to help alleviate muscle soreness. A sports massage is a great option, as it will move and shift blood and fluid around in your body, which will stimulate your muscle fibers and facilitate faster recovery. Also, simply getting in a quality stretching session can do wonders for alleviating stiffness and soreness.
Taking a hot Epsom salt bath is an age-old but highly effective recommendation as well. Supplements can also aid in your recovery; try Omega-3 fish oil to reduce inflammation, and protein shakes to help boost protein synthesis.
And finally, get some sleep! Many people have a hard time recovering from workouts because they're simply underslept. Many of the repair and maintenance tasks that your body performs happen while you're sleeping, so don't forget to get your Zs!
One common exercise mantra is "No pain, no gain," and to a certain extent that's true. If you think you're too sore to work out, just keep the above tips in mind to maintain a balanced approach to exercising when your muscles are still in recovery mode.