Aches and Pains: Sizing Up Soreness After Exercise

When is it good to hurt a little, and when is it bad?

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I hit the gym on Saturday and lifted weights for 45 minutes. On Sunday my arms ached. By Monday I wondered if I'd be able to lift the spoon to my mouth to eat my morning oatmeal. You might say I was sore. But how do you tell if you're just achy from ramping up an exercise routine or if you've actually injured yourself?

There are two kinds of people who get sore: those who expect to and those who are surprised by it, says Chuck Kimmel, president of the National Athletic Trainers' Association. In the first category are people (like me) who are just getting back to heavy weights as well as those setting out to do a hard workout or race, like marathoners who plan their postrace week to avoid the quad pain that comes with going downstairs. In the back of my mind, I knew that lifting weights until my arms trembled was probably not going to do me any favors in the subsequent 48 hours.

In the second category, says Kimmel, are those who overdid it without realizing it but who will still recover just fine—and there are also those who have really hurt themselves. Anyone who is new to exercise or is trying something different may not be accustomed to using muscles in that particular way. The result can be what's officially called delayed-onset muscle soreness. If it's a pretty general ache that isn't confined to a specific spot and if it hits you only when you move your arm a specific way or lift your leg high, that's probably what you've got, says Kimmel. It should disappear within 24 or 48 hours.

Though it's not likely an injury, it may set you back in your workout plans. That's why Kimmel recommends you adjust your routine the next time. The ache, he says, "shouldn't be at such a level that it discourages the next workout." Fine-tuning the workout has to be a trial-and-error process, especially if you're new to the activity. "Just use it as a guide for next time," he says.

Simple achiness is distinct from an injury. Pay attention if you're sore and also experiencing swelling, says Kimmel. If you get a sharp pain that prevents you from moving a body part in its usual range of motion (forcing you to limp, say, or keeping you from turning your head), that's no good either. And be vigilant with body parts you've injured before; pain there should put you on alert. Rest, apply ice, and if things don't get better, seek medical help, he advises. I'll add that if a body part looks deformed, you definitely need medical help. (Sounds obvious, but I waited two weeks after I caught a Nerf football the wrong way before I went to an orthopedist about my bent pinkie; I ended up having surgery to repair what might have been fixed with a splint if I'd gone in quickly.)

Can you prevent the normal aches and pains from a workout? Perhaps. Kimmel recommends a warmup just to elevate your heart rate and get the blood flowing to the muscles. A more elaborate prescription comes from Jackson Davis, a professor emeritus of biology at the University of California-Santa Cruz and former strength and conditioning coach for that school's athletic department, who suggests there are ways around even the normal postworkout soreness.

He was an author of one small study, published in February in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, that found that soreness from a progressive weightlifting program can be avoided by a vigorous 20-minute treadmill run before the strength workout, then a quick (30- to 60-second) burst of vigorous aerobic activity before every set. Mixing weights and aerobic exercise this way not only cuts soreness, it also boosts strength and aerobic gains, he says, adding that studies supporting those contentions are due to be published this summer.