Do you gauge the success of your workout based on your soreness level? Some people wear their postworkout muscular discomfort like a badge of honor. Here’s what’s really happening, why it’s happening, and when enough is enough.
When you participate in physical activity, particularly a new activity, it is common to experience some muscle soreness or discomfort. Any type of activity that places a new stress or load on a muscle may lead to delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS). As its name implies, DOMS is delayed soreness that is different from the discomfort you may experience during exercise. When the muscle is asked to do too much too soon, small microtears occur in the muscle fiber. This is quite normal as long as the soreness is minor. This is how muscles adapt to increased demands.
WHAT TO EXPECT
Delayed soreness is unique to each individual, but most individuals experience symptoms 12 to 24 hours after the exercise was performed, and it may continue for up to 72 hours after exercise. It is helpful to understand how your body manages this process, and it is vital to start out slowly when embracing a new exercise regime. Activities that involve a high number of repetitions will produce more soreness than a low number of repetitions. Choose quality over quantity, and avoid the temptation to overdo it until your body has adapted to the activity. Certain activities like plyometrics and running downhill are well known for producing DOMS because the muscle is stressed during its lengthening phase (eccentric contraction), and that will cause more soreness.
STRATEGY FOR SUCCESS
When starting a new activity, less is more. Progress slowly. Try small bouts of exercise at first. Make sure you give your body 2 or 3 days of rest before repeating the same exercise. You can do other exercises but avoid repeating the same exercises day after day. Take extra time to warm up and spend time cooling down. Perform flexibility exercises that stretch the muscles used during exercise. Understand that you don’t need to be sore to benefit from exercise. In fact, too much soreness can be damaging and debilitating. Work under the guidance of an ACSM certified fitness professional.
WHEN ENOUGH IS ENOUGH
If you are perpetually sore, that is a sign that you are overdoing it. Reduce the frequency of your workouts and allow more rest between sessions. If the pain becomes unbearable, if your urine is dark, or if there is swelling of the arms and legs, you should seek medical attention.
As the national group fitness director for Optum, Grace T. DeSimone, B.A., and her group fitness teams manage group exercise classes in worksite wellness programs across the country. She serves on the executive council of ACSM’s Committee on Certification and Registry Boards. She also is the editor for ACSM’s Resource Manual for Group Exercise Instructors (2011) and is the 2016 IDEA Health & Fitness Association Program Director of the Year. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in dance from Hunter College, City University of New York, in New York, NY and is certified by ACSM as a group exercise instructor and personal trainer.