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Should You Go Running With Sore Legs, Or Rest? 

Plus, how to help alleviate the DOMS.

As a certified running coach, I work with many beginners just starting a training program. One of the biggest challenges with starting running is dealing with sore muscles.

Even experienced runners can have sore legs with high-mileage marathon training plans or the day after a hard workout.

Generally, running with normal delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is okay as long as your range of motion and running stride aren’t compromised. 

But rest days should be considered if you are concerned about more significant running injuries.

In this guide, we will discuss the most common causes of sore muscles, whether or not you should go running with sore legs, and what you can do to relieve muscles soreness.

A runner holding her calf.

Why Are My Legs Sore After Running?

Before examining whether recovery runs help reduce sore leg muscles or whether rest is better, I want to state that I am not a physical therapist or sports medicine doctor. I am a certified running coach and personal trainer.

You should work with a physical therapist if you are concerned about pain or soreness after running.

If your legs are sore a day or two after a race or hard workout, you are most likely experiencing delayed-onset muscle soreness, or DOMS for short.

There are several causes of DOMS,1Cheung, K., Hume, P. A., & Maxwell, L. (2012). Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness. Sports Medicine33(2), 145–164. https://doi.org/10.2165/00007256-200333020-00005 but sore muscles after hard workouts, strength training, or other unaccustomed exercises result from microscopic damage to muscle fibers and tendons and discomfort from the subsequent inflammatory response.

A runner holding his quad.

Should You Go Running With Sore Legs Or Rest?

There are potential benefits of running with sore legs, but also circumstances where running with sore leg muscles is counterproductive, so it is best to rest. 

Running can sometimes ease DOMS because it warms up the muscles, increases blood flow, stretches tight and stiff connective tissues and muscle fibers, and accelerates the removal of inflammatory cellular debris, enzymes, and other metabolic waste products.

Whether you should run with sore legs or wait until the next day to see if the muscle soreness has subsided depends on how sore you are, what made your leg muscles sore, and how running with sore legs feels. 

#1: How Sore Are You?

If your legs are only mildly sore, maybe a 1-2 on a discomfort scale of 1-10, running should be fine, especially if you do an easy run.

#2: Why Are Your Legs Sore After Running?

It’s also helpful to consider why you have sore legs after running. 

Did you do a hard workout like hills or run a race? Have you rapidly increased your mileage or just started a training plan with speed workouts? 

Are you a beginner runner unaccustomed to running or physical activity in general? Did you run a lot further than usual?  

More experienced runners can usually handle running on sore legs better than beginners because their bodies are accustomed to the impact of running. 

On the other hand, beginners should err on the side of caution when running with sore legs. It takes time for your bones, muscles, and connective tissues to adapt to the impact of running. 

Deciding to go running with sore legs can set a beginner back more than it will progress them forward. They will increase your risk of injury and likely exacerbate the soreness.

A day off or a low-impact workout for active recovery can be a wiser choice.

Does It Hurt to Run With Sore Muscles?

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. 

You can always turn back and walk home if running seems to be making your legs more sore.

A runner in pain.

When Is It Better to Take a Day Off When I’m Sore from Running? 

Though most runners hate having to take an unplanned day off or extra rest day when they’re in the middle of a training plan for a big race, there are times when the answer to whether you should run with sore legs is a resounding—or at least highly advisable—no.

#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 rate the soreness or discomfort 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 indicates more significant tissue damage, and running with really sore legs can greatly increase your risk of injury.

#2: Do Not Run If the Leg Muscle Soreness Is Localized

If soreness in your legs is isolated to one area, mainly if it’s unilateral, it may be best to rest. For example, if your right Achilles tendon is sore, 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. 

#3: Do Not Run If Your Body Feels Tired

Sometimes, when your legs are sore after running, the rest of your body feels 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 signaling the need for a rest day.

Taking rest days is essential for preventing overtraining and helping your body conserve limited resources if you’re worn down so that you can recover. 

A person getting a massage.

What Can I Do to Reduce Muscle Soreness After Running?

Here are a few tips for reducing delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) discomfort after running:

#1: Do an Active Recovery Workout

If running has caused muscle soreness, it makes sense that doing a form of physical activity other than running may be more effective at reducing muscle soreness than doing more running. 

Studies2Dupuy, 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 Physiology9(403). https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2018.00403 demonstrate that increasing circulation to sore muscles can help heal muscle damage. This is because blood flow delivers more oxygen and nutrients to the damaged muscle fibers and flushes away inflammatory waste products.

If you want to run but your legs are sore, I suggest trying a low-impact active recovery workout like walking, aqua jogging, swimming, stretching, yoga, or light cycling,

These activities 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 soak in an ice bath or apply cold packs, studies3Kwiecien, 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 Living2. https://doi.org/10.3389/fspor.2020.00118 have found that cryotherapy can potentially reduce the muscle soreness associated with DOMS from running.

#3: Apply Heat

There’s also evidence to suggest that moist and dry heat therapy4Petrofsky. (2013). Moist Heat or Dry Heat for Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness. Journal of Clinical Medicine Research5(6). https://doi.org/10.4021/jocmr1521w can also reduce the severity of DOMS. 

Heat therapy for sore muscles includes warm bath soaks, infrared saunas, hot tubs or spas, and heating pads.

A person foam rolling their calves.

#4: Massage Sore Legs

Research shows5Andersen, 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 Research27(12), 3352–3359. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0b013e3182908610 that massage can reduce muscle soreness after exercise such as running or weight training. 

Massage increases circulation and can potentially break up knots and adhesions in your muscles. 

In fact, one review6Dupuy, 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 Physiology9(403). https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2018.00403 that compared the effectiveness of several common techniques to relieve DOMS found that massage was the most effective modality for reducing muscle soreness after exercise.

Even if you don’t have access to a sports masseuse, you can massage your sore legs with your hands or use a massage gun.

#5: Use a Foam Roller

A foam roller is a self-myofascial release (SMR) tool used to release tension and increase mobility of your muscles, fascia, and other connective tissue surrounding a joint. 

Foam rolling doesn’t physically break up knots in muscles; rather, it stimulates the nervous system to relax tension in the surrounding tissues. Essentially, foam rolling works by sending an input to the nervous system via receptors in the muscles, tendons, and fascia. 

As you roll over these soft tissues, the receptors send signals to the spinal cord, and the parasympathetic nervous system responds by sending signals back to the muscles or tissues to relax.

In doing so, foam rolling increases the range of motion in muscles and tendons and around joints.

Foam rolling also increases blood flow, aiding the delivery of oxygen and other nutrients to muscles. This can improve the effectiveness of a warmup routine and enhance recovery and removal of metabolic waste products accumulated in muscles after exercise.

I find that using a foam roller after hard workouts seems to make my legs less sore the next day. If I have sore muscles or tight Achilles tendons, the foam roller can help loosen me up.7Pearcey, G. E. P., Bradbury-Squires, D. J., Kawamoto, J.-E., Drinkwater, E. J., Behm, D. G., & Button, D. C. (2015). Foam Rolling for Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness and Recovery of Dynamic Performance Measures. Journal of Athletic Training50(1), 5–13. https://doi.org/10.4085/1062-6050-50.1.01 

#6: Use Recovery Boots

Recovery boots, such as Therabody Recovery Air, provide rhythmic inflation and deflation of the sleeve to promote circulation and muscle recovery. Many elite distance runners swear by these types of recovery boots for managing muscle soreness.

#7: Try Natural Anti-Inflammatories

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)8Parisien, M., Lima, L. V., Dagostino, C., El-Hachem, N., Drury, G. L., Grant, A. V., Huising, J., Verma, V., Meloto, C. B., Silva, J. R., Dutra, G. G. S., Markova, T., Dang, H., Tessier, P. A., Slade, G. D., Nackley, A. G., Ghasemlou, N., Mogil, J. S., Allegri, M., & Diatchenko, L. (2022). Acute inflammatory response via neutrophil activation protects against the development of chronic pain. Science Translational Medicine14(644). https://doi.org/10.1126/scitranslmed.abj9954 like ibuprofen, are tempting analgesics for post-run aches, but they may compromise the recovery process.

However, natural anti-inflammatory supplements such as tart cherry juice, ginger,9Cd, B., Mp, H., Dj, H., & Pj, O. (2010, September 1). Ginger (Zingiber Officinale) Reduces Muscle Pain Caused by Eccentric Exercise. The Journal of Pain : Official Journal of the American Pain Society. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20418184/ and curcumin, the active compound in the spice turmeric, may be useful10Rawson, E. S., Miles, M. P., & Larson-Meyer, D. E. (2018). Dietary Supplements for Health, Adaptation, and Recovery in Athletes. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism28(2), 188–199. https://doi.org/10.1123/ijsnem.2017-0340 in relieving sore muscles.

I am also a huge fan of Austra’s ​​Recovery Roll-On and Pain Relief Body Butter for surprisingly effective muscle soreness relief

One final thing to remember: depending on which leg muscle groups are sore—glutes, quads, calf muscles, hamstrings, or everything—you might not be able to run with your normal running form. 

If you have a limited range of motion or seem to be limping, you might increase your risk of running injuries because you’ll be running in an awkward way that your feet and legs aren’t used to.

I usually encourage runners with moderate to severe sore legs to swap the run for low-impact cross-training.

You’ll get the aerobic benefits of running and increase circulation to aid muscle recovery, while using your muscles differently to prevent overuse injuries like stress fractures. Win, win, win!

If you enjoyed this article, check out the following guide:

References

  • 1
    Cheung, K., Hume, P. A., & Maxwell, L. (2012). Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness. Sports Medicine33(2), 145–164. https://doi.org/10.2165/00007256-200333020-00005
  • 2
    Dupuy, 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 Physiology9(403). https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2018.00403
  • 3
    Kwiecien, 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 Living2. https://doi.org/10.3389/fspor.2020.00118
  • 4
    Petrofsky. (2013). Moist Heat or Dry Heat for Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness. Journal of Clinical Medicine Research5(6). https://doi.org/10.4021/jocmr1521w
  • 5
    Andersen, 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 Research27(12), 3352–3359. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0b013e3182908610
  • 6
    Dupuy, 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 Physiology9(403). https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2018.00403
  • 7
    Pearcey, G. E. P., Bradbury-Squires, D. J., Kawamoto, J.-E., Drinkwater, E. J., Behm, D. G., & Button, D. C. (2015). Foam Rolling for Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness and Recovery of Dynamic Performance Measures. Journal of Athletic Training50(1), 5–13. https://doi.org/10.4085/1062-6050-50.1.01
  • 8
    Parisien, M., Lima, L. V., Dagostino, C., El-Hachem, N., Drury, G. L., Grant, A. V., Huising, J., Verma, V., Meloto, C. B., Silva, J. R., Dutra, G. G. S., Markova, T., Dang, H., Tessier, P. A., Slade, G. D., Nackley, A. G., Ghasemlou, N., Mogil, J. S., Allegri, M., & Diatchenko, L. (2022). Acute inflammatory response via neutrophil activation protects against the development of chronic pain. Science Translational Medicine14(644). https://doi.org/10.1126/scitranslmed.abj9954
  • 9
    Cd, B., Mp, H., Dj, H., & Pj, O. (2010, September 1). Ginger (Zingiber Officinale) Reduces Muscle Pain Caused by Eccentric Exercise. The Journal of Pain : Official Journal of the American Pain Society. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20418184/
  • 10
    Rawson, E. S., Miles, M. P., & Larson-Meyer, D. E. (2018). Dietary Supplements for Health, Adaptation, and Recovery in Athletes. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism28(2), 188–199. https://doi.org/10.1123/ijsnem.2017-0340
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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