Pump more iron. Run a little longer.
Those are recognized ways to improve your fitness level. But you might feel the payback in a day or two—about the length of time it takes for muscle soreness to develop.
What causes soreness?
Soreness is a natural reaction to muscle or other tissue damage due to a change in your fitness regimen or when you begin a new exercise activity. Most often, your aches and pains will pass in about three days, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE).
In most cases, sore muscles shouldn't be an obstacle to exercise, says Carol Torgan, PhD, a fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine.
"Some people think they have no business exercising because exercise is 'painful,'" Dr. Torgan says. "That's not the case. The soreness is there simply because your muscle is learning something new. And the benefits of exercise far outweigh any initial discomfort."
Best of all—once the muscle has been stressed to a certain point, you shouldn't experience the sensation again until you step up to another level of intensity, according to the ACE.
How not to be a sore loser
While muscle soreness may be natural—even anticipated when you try a new activity or increase your intensity level—you can take steps to relieve the pain. Dr. Torgan recommends:
- Gentle stretching to help loosen muscles and restore flexibility.
- Application of balms, creams or ice.
- Soaking in warm water.
- Medications, such as ibuprofen or another NSAID (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug).
- Light exercise to keep the muscle in motion.
To prevent soreness, the ACE advocates gradual and conservative increases in intensity, frequency and duration of exercise.
Seek help when necessary
In some cases, soreness will occur right after exercise, rather than a day or so later. This may be because of cramping caused by muscle fatigue or due to dehydration.
It could also be because of injury.
If you're concerned about muscle pain and soreness—regardless of the circumstances—talk to your health and fitness instructor or your healthcare provider.