If you’re a beginner runner or have increased the volume or intensity of your training, you might wake up a day or two after a hard workout or race and realize your legs feel sore and achy.
In some ways, sore legs from running is a badge of honor, indicating that you pushed your body and did a challenging workout.
However, sore legs after running can be concerning. Is it just normal muscle soreness from exercise or the start of an injury?
Plus, running with sore legs can be uncomfortable and limiting, so you may worry it won’t go well if you have a workout scheduled on your training program. More importantly, you may wonder if you should go running with sore legs or stay in and rest.
Nearly every runner deals with sore legs at one point or another, and knowing the best course of action as to whether or not to go running, can ease the mind, if not potentially the physical discomfort as well.
Arm yourself with the answers and our guidance for running with sore legs below.
What Causes Sore Muscles From Running?
If your legs are sore a day or two after a race or hard workout, you are most likely experiencing what is known as delayed onset muscle soreness—referred to as DOMS for short.
The causes of DOMS are usually multifactorial but usually result from microscopic damage to muscle fibers and connective tissues and the subsequent inflammatory response.1Cheung, K., Hume, P. A., & Maxwell, L. (2012). Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness. Sports Medicine, 33(2), 145–164. https://doi.org/10.2165/00007256-200333020-00005
Should You Go Running With Sore Legs Or Rest?
Ultimately, there are potential benefits and drawbacks to running with sore legs. There are instances where it’s fine, or even beneficial, to go running with sore legs and other circumstances where it is counterproductive and best to rest.
Running can sometimes actually ease DOMS because it warms up the muscles, increases blood flow, stretches tight and stiff connective tissue and muscle fibers, and accelerates the removal of inflammatory cellular debris, enzymes, and other metabolic waste products.
When to Go Running With Sore Legs
Whether you should go running with sore legs or rest is largely a matter of how sore you are, what made your legs sore, and how running with sore legs actually feels.
For example, if your leg muscles are only mildly sore, maybe a 1-2 on a discomfort scale of 1-10, running should be fine, especially if you take it easy.
It’s also helpful to consider what made your legs sore. Did you do a hill workout? Have you rapidly increased your mileage? Are you a new runner?
More experienced runners can usually handle running on sore legs better than a beginner because the body is accustomed to the impact of running.
On the other hand, beginners should err on the side of caution when it comes to running on sore legs, as it takes time for your bones, muscles, and connective tissues to adapt to the impact of running.
Deciding to run with sore legs can set a beginner back more than progress them. It will increase the risk of overuse injuries and likely exacerbate the soreness.
Lastly, if easy running feels good and starts to loosen up your legs, or running usually helps your soreness, it’s probably a good idea to try an easy run in hopes of the same therapeutic response and muscle recovery.
You can always turn back and walk home if running seems to be making your legs sorer.
When to Rest When Your Legs Are Sore From Running
Though most runners hate having to take an unplanned day off or extra rest day when they’re in the thick of marathon training, there are times when the answer to whether you should run with sore legs is a resounding—or at least highly advisable—no.
Here are three circumstances when running with sore legs is not the best choice:
#1: Do Not Run When You Have Pain
There are definitely times when you should not go running with sore legs, most notably, when your legs teeter more into the “painful” rather than “sore” category.
A good rule of thumb is that if you’d rate the soreness in your legs as anything higher than a 2, or possibly a soft 3, on a scale of 1-10, you’ve ventured into “pain” territory, and you’d be better served with rest or some other form of active recovery other than running.
Muscle soreness is normal, but pain is not. Pain is indicative of more significant tissue damage, and choosing to run with really sore legs can greatly increase your risk of running injuries.
#2: Do Not Run If the Leg Soreness Is Localized
On a related note to pain, if the soreness in your legs is isolated to one area, particularly if it’s unilateral, it may be best to rest. For example, if your right Achilles tendon is sore, it’s wiser to take a rest day or try low-impact cross-training.
Localized discomfort can be an early warning sign of an injury. Catching niggles early and giving your body a chance to rest, resolve any inflammation, and repair damaged tissues can prevent full-fledged injuries from cropping up.
While an extra few days off or on the elliptical or bike may feel like a step back in your training, it beats having to take several weeks off if you develop full-blown shin splints or worse, a stress injury.
#3: Do Not Run If Your Body Feels Tired
Sometimes, when your legs are sore after running, the rest of your body feels perfectly fine and raring to go.
However, if you also feel tired and depleted, especially if you slept poorly or your resting heart rate is elevated, your body may be screaming for rest.
Prevent overtraining and help your body conserve resources to recover from your workouts by listening to the signals your body sends that you need a rest day.
What to Do About Sore Legs From Running
If your legs are sore and you decide you should not go running, here are four other things you can do to reduce the muscle soreness.
#1: Try Active Recovery
If running has caused your muscle soreness, it makes sense that doing another type of physical activity other than running may be more effective at easing soreness than doing more running.
Studies demonstrate that increasing circulation to your sore muscles can help facilitate the recovery process because blood flow delivers more oxygen and nutrients to the damaged muscles and shuttles away inflammatory waste products.2Dupuy, O., Douzi, W., Theurot, D., Bosquet, L., & Dugué, B. (2018). An Evidence-Based Approach for Choosing Post-exercise Recovery Techniques to Reduce Markers of Muscle Damage, Soreness, Fatigue, and Inflammation: A Systematic Review With Meta-Analysis. Frontiers in Physiology, 9(403). https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2018.00403
Choosing low-impact active recovery methods like walking, aqua jogging, swimming, stretching, yoga, and light cycling can promote healing blood flow and flush out metabolic and cellular waste to speed recovery without further stressing muscles, bones, and connective tissues.
#2: Ice Your Legs
Whether you choose to soak in an ice bath or just apply cold packs, studies have found that cryotherapy can potentially reduce the muscle soreness associated with DOMS from running.3Kwiecien, S. Y., Kwiecien, S. Y., McHugh, M. P., McHugh, M. P., Howatson, G., & Howatson, G. (2020). Don’t Lose Your Cool With Cryotherapy: The Application of Phase Change Material for Prolonged Cooling in Athletic Recovery and Beyond. Frontiers in Sports and Active Living, 2. https://doi.org/10.3389/fspor.2020.00118
#3: Massage Sore Legs
Research shows that massage can alleviate muscle soreness. Massage increases circulation and can potentially break up knots and adhesions in your muscles.4Andersen, L. L., Jay, K., Andersen, C. H., Jakobsen, M. D., Sundstrup, E., Topp, R., & Behm, D. G. (2013). Acute Effects of Massage or Active Exercise in Relieving Muscle Soreness. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 27(12), 3352–3359. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0b013e3182908610
Even if you don’t have access to a physical therapist, you can massage your sore legs with your hands or a massage gun.
#4: Use a Foam Roller
Foam rolling is a manual myofascial release technique that helps increase your range of motion and massages muscles and connective tissues.
Foam rolling sore legs can signal your nervous system to relax tight muscles, which may ease sore legs from running.5Romero-Moraleda, B., González-García, J., Cuéllar-Rayo, Á., Balsalobre-Fernández, C., Muñoz-García, D., & Morencos, E. (2019). Effects of Vibration and Non-Vibration Foam Rolling on Recovery after Exercise with Induced Muscle Damage. Journal of Sports Science & Medicine, 18(1), 172–180. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6370959/
If your legs are just mildly sore, as we mentioned above, and you can still run on them, there are some steps you can take to alleviate some of the soreness before you run.
Performing a warm up before every workout is important, but especially if you feel some soreness or stiffness in your legs.
Include dynamic stretches to warm up your running muscle groups, including your hamstrings, quads, glutes, and calf muscles.
Also, post-run, make sure that you cool down with some easy jogging for 5-10 minutes and then stretch out those muscles with static stretches to try and prevent muscle soreness.
Whether or not to take a day off is always a difficult one for runners. We never want to, but sometimes it’s the best decision to stay healthy and come back strong and ready for the next workout on your training plan.
If you enjoyed this article, check out this next guide:
- 1Cheung, K., Hume, P. A., & Maxwell, L. (2012). Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness. Sports Medicine, 33(2), 145–164. https://doi.org/10.2165/00007256-200333020-00005
- 2Dupuy, O., Douzi, W., Theurot, D., Bosquet, L., & Dugué, B. (2018). An Evidence-Based Approach for Choosing Post-exercise Recovery Techniques to Reduce Markers of Muscle Damage, Soreness, Fatigue, and Inflammation: A Systematic Review With Meta-Analysis. Frontiers in Physiology, 9(403). https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2018.00403
- 3Kwiecien, S. Y., Kwiecien, S. Y., McHugh, M. P., McHugh, M. P., Howatson, G., & Howatson, G. (2020). Don’t Lose Your Cool With Cryotherapy: The Application of Phase Change Material for Prolonged Cooling in Athletic Recovery and Beyond. Frontiers in Sports and Active Living, 2. https://doi.org/10.3389/fspor.2020.00118
- 4Andersen, L. L., Jay, K., Andersen, C. H., Jakobsen, M. D., Sundstrup, E., Topp, R., & Behm, D. G. (2013). Acute Effects of Massage or Active Exercise in Relieving Muscle Soreness. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 27(12), 3352–3359. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0b013e3182908610
- 5Romero-Moraleda, B., González-García, J., Cuéllar-Rayo, Á., Balsalobre-Fernández, C., Muñoz-García, D., & Morencos, E. (2019). Effects of Vibration and Non-Vibration Foam Rolling on Recovery after Exercise with Induced Muscle Damage. Journal of Sports Science & Medicine, 18(1), 172–180. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6370959/