That old adage, “No pain, no gain”? Don’t buy it.
“If you’re in pain, you need to listen to your body,” says Jennifer Hockemeyer, an exercise physiologist with the UW Health Research Park Fitness Center. “It’s trying to tell you something.”
At the same time, some soreness or stiffness is normal after a rigorous workout. Here’s what to know about when to push through and when to hit pause — and how to reduce exercise-related discomfort in the first place.
Identify the sensation. An all-over ache in your quads or glutes is less worrisome than a sharp pain in your knee or ankle. “Try to differentiate between pain and soreness or stiffness,” Hockemeyer suggests. “If you ever feel any sharp pain or if it’s localized to a certain area, then that might be a sign that you need to back off and take some rest. If it just feels like some stiffness, you can keep working through it and see if it feels better with movement.”
If you’re experiencing a sudden stabbing pain in your side during a run — otherwise known as the dreaded “side stitch” — know that it is temporary, even though the exact cause isn’t known. “The diaphragm is a muscle that helps you expand your lungs, so when we start to exercise more intensely it’s getting its own little workout,” she explains. To ease the pain, try slowing down and stretching your arm on the cramping side overhead to the opposite side.
Sometimes you might feel your muscles burn before your workout is even over, while other times you can develop what’s called delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS, a day or two after exercise. While DOMS might cause you to curse your workout, it’s usually not a cause for concern. “You can get this response from the muscles after damaging the muscle fibers, which is part of the muscle-building process,” Hockemeyer says.
Consider the cause. “Obviously, injury can be a big one — if you hurt the muscles or tendons, that can cause more of that sharp, localized pain,” she says. “If it’s severe enough, you may need to wait before exercising again. If it’s stiffness, it might get better as you do some movement and your body warms up. Some conditions like arthritis can actually feel better with more movement.”
If you’re a regular exerciser and develop new aches and pains in your feet, it might be time to replace your shoes. Worn-out soles and cushioning can make high-impact exercise even harder on your body. “Shoes can wear out more quickly than you realize,” she says. “If you’re a serious runner, you could be turning over your shoes a couple times a year.”
Take it easy if you’re sore. “It’s good to take a few days off if you have a lot of soreness,” she says. In the meantime, try heat, massage, stretching and some gentle movement to increase blood flow to your sore muscles. “It could be as simple as a walk,” Hockemeyer notes.
But sometimes self-care isn’t enough. “It’s normal to be sore 24 to 72 hours after exercise if you did a more intense activity than you normally do,” she says. “But if it’s sharp or lingering for more than a week, then you probably should see your doctor.”
How to Prevent Pain After Exercise
Of course, the best bet for treating exercise-related pain is to prevent it in the first place. Hockemeyer shares these tips:
Warm up. A good warm-up is essential to preventing pain, she notes. “It could be walking, it could be jogging, or it could be lower weights if you’re doing some strength training,” she says. “The goal of a warm-up is to physically warm up muscles and help them stretch and become more elastic.”
Go slow. Doing too much, too soon, is a sure-fire recipe for post-workout pain. “You want to build up the intensity of your workout, especially if you’re new to exercise,” she says. “Make sure you’re gradually increasing your time or mileage, or resistance if you’re strength training.”
Give your muscles a break. “If you’ve really been pushing hard for weeks or months, you may need to take a week off to reset your body,” she suggests. “Or it could be a good time to change your type of exercise because overuse can also be a factor that causes pain.” Strength training can help prevent muscle imbalances that can lead to injuries, but it’s important to build rest into your strength-training routine, too — for example, lift weights on alternate days, or focus on your arms one day and then legs another, she says.
Not every workout will feel great, but with the right routine, you can maximize your gain while minimizing any pain.