Why do my muscles get sore?
Exercise is an important part of a healthy, active lifestyle. Exercising keeps your joints, ligaments, and tendons flexible and increases your muscle strength. However, if you try a new exercise or exercise at a higher level of intensity, your muscles may be sore in the days after your workout. This is because the increased intensity puts a strain on the muscles you used, causing very small tears in the muscle fibers. As the muscles heal, they grow back stronger and better able to work at a higher level of intensity.
Why do my muscles seem to hurt the most a few days after exercising?
You may notice some muscle aches while you are exercising. This is called acute soreness. More often, you may begin to feel sore about 12 hours after exercising, and the discomfort usually peaks at 48 to 72 hours after exercise. This is called delayed-onset muscle soreness. It is thought that, during this time, your body is repairing the muscle, making it stronger and bigger. You may also notice the muscles feel better if you exercise lightly. This is normal.
What can I do to ease the pain?
There are some things you can do to help relieve muscle soreness. Remedies can include:
- Gentle stretching
- Muscle massage
- Ice to help reduce inflammation
- Heat to help stimulate blood flow to the muscle
- Over-the-counter pain medicine, such as a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID)
How do I know this is a sore muscle and not an injury?
If you feel pain or soreness while working out and it doesn’t start to go away after 72 hours, you may have an injury such as a strained or pulled muscle. If you think you have a strain or a sprain, try the RICE approach: rest, ice, compression, and elevation.
Rest: You may need to rest the injured area, either completely or partly, depending on how serious your injury is.
Ice: Using ice packs, ice slush baths, or ice massages can decrease the swelling, pain, bruising, and muscle spasms. Keep using ice for up to 3 days after the injury.
Compression: Wrapping the injured area may be the best way to avoid swelling and bruising. You'll probably need to keep it wrapped for 1 or 2 days after the injury and perhaps for up to a week or more.
Elevation: Raising the injured area to or above the level of your heart will help prevent the swelling from getting worse and will help reduce bruising. Try to keep it elevated for about 2 to 3 hours a day if possible.
Call your doctor or seek medical attention if you have:
- Muscle soreness that lasts more than a week
- Severe pain that gets worse with exercise
- Redness, swelling, or warmth to the touch in the affected joint or muscle
- Difficulty breathing
What can I do to avoid muscle soreness?
Unfortunately, getting stronger and more fit will almost always involve some muscle soreness. However, there are some things you can do to minimize the discomfort.
Warm up. Studies have shown that stretching before you exercise may not be as beneficial for your muscles as a warm-up. A warm-up is an exercise done at a lower intensity, such as slow jogging, jumping rope, or lifting lighter weights. This helps to get your muscles ready by slowly increasing the blood flow to them.
Drink water. Water regulates your body temperature, lubricates joints, and helps transport nutrients for energy and health. If you’re not properly hydrated, your body will be unable to perform at its highest level, and you may experience fatigue, muscle cramps, dizziness, or more serious symptoms.
Rest. Allow yourself 48 hours between working the same muscle groups. For example, if you go for a run, you will mostly use the muscles in your lower body. Give yourself 2 days to rest those muscles so they have a chance to heal before you exercise them again. Not giving your muscles enough time to rest can cause muscle damage, rather than muscle development.
Use proper technique. If you belong to a gym or health club, ask a trainer or instructor to show you the proper way to lift weights, use cardiovascular machines (such as a treadmill or elliptical machine), or use the equipment on the workout floor. Using the proper techniques will help protect you from joint and muscle strain.
Cool down. When you are finished working out, it’s important to remember to stretch. Your muscles are more capable of stretching when they are warm. Stretching increases your flexibility and helps to circulate the blood away from the muscles and back to your heart.
Stay within your limits. You may be tempted to push yourself, but remember to progress slowly with exercise. Over time, you can increase the amount of weight you lift or the length of time you run. If you try to increase your intensity too quickly, you may injure yourself.
American College of Sports Medicine. Delayed-onset muscle soreness. Accessed September 26, 2012
Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.