Nearly anyone who has worked up a sweat through exercise, or any strenuous activity, has probably dealt with some level of pain. During exercise, lactic acid builds up in the muscles, causing that burning feeling. As soon as you stop, the pain diminishes slightly, only to return when you start the exercise again. Arms, legs, back, abs, butt…every part of your body can feel this way. It’s perfectly normal when exerting any sort of force on a muscle – whether through strength training, cardiovascular activity, carrying the groceries up five flights of stairs or laughing “until it hurts.”
Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness
Delayed onset muscles soreness (DOMS) is exactly what it sounds like. It’s muscular pain associated with a workout completed, usually in the last 24 hours. When I work with a client – and we’ve done a new exercise, something their body hasn’t done in a while, or if they’re just starting a workout regime, I let them know that they might be a little sore the next day. Sometimes the pain is mild, leaving muscles tight, but with that feeling that you know you’ve done something. Sometimes the pain is severe, making it challenging to walk down the stairs, stand up from a chair or turn over in bed.
I’ve had clients who are in agony the day after doing a series of body weight only exercises, such as lunges or push ups. They’ve called me saying they think “something is really wrong.” I’m not a doctor and I can’t diagnose, but I do ask them to describe the pain. When they tell me that they’re legs burn just to sit down on the toilet, I let them know that it’s probably just DOMS.
If You Have DOMS
- Drink lots of water: expect that you’ll be sore after a workout, so start right away
- Keep moving: you’ll get the blood flowing through the muscles, pushing the build up of lactic acid out of the tissue
- Get back in the saddle: it may sound crazy to workout with sore muscles, but the pain will diminish significantly shortly after you start your workout
- Work muscle groups on non-consecutive days: If your legs are sore today because you did lunges until they came out your ears, then don’t do lunges today. Even though you might be a little sore tomorrow, you’re probably ok to do lunges again. I always recommend that my clients work any given muscle group on non-consecutive days. (applies to strength training only, not cardio)
- Eat protein: Whether you’ll develop DOMS or not, your window of opportunity for protein after a hard strength training workout is 15 to 30 minutes. Eat or drink something with plenty of high quality protein.
- Don’t freak out: DOMS is common and happens to everyone who exercises at some point or another.
When It’s Not DOMS
If you have unusual joint pain, chest pain, neck pain, low back pain, bruising or feel something pull (or tear), seek medical attention immediately. This isn’t DOMS, and could be something much more serious. Sometimes in cases like this, waiting can make the situation worse.
Cardiovascular Exercise-Related Pain
Conditioning our bodies, muscles, lunges, joints and brain is an important part of any form of exercise. Cardio exercise, when pushing hard enough, can cause a burning feeling in the lungs, too. Respirations are higher and people generally have a hard time catching their breath. Anyone who has run a 5K , 10K or some other shorter endurance race can probably relate to this. This feeling of discomfort is normal, and probably can’t be sustained for too long (less than a minute to 45 minutes or so – depending on previous training).
Personally, I think mental conditioning is half the battle. Longer runs, bike rides, swims, or stints on the elliptical machine, etc., require patience and self discipline. I’m not a big fan of long, slow workouts, nor do I think people should spend too much time doing them, but developing the ability to not just tolerate longer workouts, and actually enjoy them, will make getting into great shape that much easier.
I have dozens of workouts on my website that are free and available for anyone to do. Check them out!
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Traci is a nationally recognized health and fitness expert who has been featured on The TODAY Show and Dr. Oz. Traci is available for corporate speaking events and wellness coaching, as well as private training. Contact Traci here.