Growth happens under stress—as long as you recover well. That’s a rule in life—and in exercise. When you challenge your body in new ways, it breaks down a little bit and becomes sore. When it has time to heal, it builds back stronger. This process begs the question: should you workout when sore?
If you are working out with sore muscles, are you impeding the recovery process? Are you not allowing your muscles, bones, and connective tissues to heal and strengthen? Or, are you allowing for further adaptation by introducing more stress to your body?
In this article, we are going to answer the questions: should you workout when sore, or should you exercise when sore, by taking a look at new research:
- Why am I sore after working out?
- Does muscle soreness mean muscle growth?
- Should you workout when sore?
- What is active recovery?
- How sore is too sore to workout?
- Ways to improve muscle soreness without hindering muscle growth
- Plus, tips for planning your workouts to avoid non-productive training
So, let’s go!
Why am I sore after working out?
Muscle soreness after working out is the result of stress on your muscles.
Your muscles are sore because they have micro-tears in them, waste products like lactic acid, and carbon dioxide buildup in the blood. In panic mode to protect your health, your smart body floods the injured areas with oxygen-rich blood to recover and strengthen your cells to be ready for the next assault.
The end game is stronger muscles.
If you are sore days after your workout, you are experiencing Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness (or DOMS). Most people experience DOMS 24-72 hours after exertion with the feeling of sore, tight, stiff, and painful muscle aches. The muscle soreness usually lasts between 3-5 days. So, should you workout when sore and feeling the DOMS?
Related: DOMS Explained: A Runner’s Guide to Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness
Does muscle soreness mean muscle growth?
Muscle soreness means your muscles are primed for growth—but it hasn’t happened yet. The soreness is because of the damage done to your muscles during the workout.
When you’ve given your body what it needs to recover, including time, sleep, and nutrition, your muscles will get stronger.
This may lead recreational athletes to believe that the sorer, the better. However, that’s not necessarily true.
If you workout so hard that you’re constantly sore, you’re either not recovering well enough in between workout sessions and not allowing your body enough time to build back stronger, or you’re having to take more rest days than workout days, robbing yourself of productive exercise.
Related: Is the 10% Rule a Valid Way to Increase Mileage
Should You workout When sore?
Yes, you should work out if you’re sore IF the workout is easy. Your heart rate should be slightly elevated (between 120 and 140 for most people), and your breath rate should be even (you can hold a conversation).
There is mounting research that working out with sore muscles in what is called an active recovery can improve performance.
Active recovery is a low-intensity workout that improves circulation without further damaging the healing muscles. Active recovery exercises include:
- Light resistance training
- Light cycling
One study found that a light 15-minute jog after a high-intensity interval training session reduces lactic acid (making you less sore), improves circulation, and increases anaerobic capacity resulting in improved recovery and performance.
An active recovery session is typically done within 24 hours of the strenuous workout.
How sore is too sore to workout?
If you’re so sore that you can’t perform daily functions, then the answer to your question, should you workout when sore, is no. Taking a complete rest day (also known as a passive recovery day) may be best for you. At most, you can try a gentle walk to get your blood flowing.
If you’re very sore for more than 72 hours without improvement or are experiencing acute pain in an isolated spot, the exercise was too much, and you may be facing an injury.
In this case, it’s likely best to see a medical professional.
Muscle soreness should peak and improve within 72 hours and feel like a dull ache, not a sharp, acute, and/or radiating pain. This sort of pain signals injury.
What are the best ways to reduce muscle soreness after a workout?
Some people thrive on muscle soreness because they see it as a sign that they are changing their bodies, while other athletes are annoyed because they want to get on with their lives!
The good news is there are ways to reduce muscle soreness so that you recover faster and grow stronger.
Sleep is where your body recovers by releasing hormones such as the Human Growth Hormone (HGH) to help build muscle. People who don’t sleep enough are also prone to increased inflammation, increased pain perception, decreased immunity, and reduced performance. So, get that shuteye!
Give your body the fuel it needs to repair the damage you’ve done to your muscles.
- Eat leucine-rich protein after your workouts like chicken, fish, or beef (about .4g per kg of body weight).
- Stay away from alcohol which inhibits muscle repair.
- Have creatine after your workout to reduce damage while improving long-term gains.
- Early research shows cannabidiol or CBD can decrease muscle inflammation after a hard workout without blocking muscle building.
Foam rolling and massage may increase circulation, which can help muscles repair themselves faster. There isn’t a lot of research that proves the benefits of foam rolling and massage, but the evidence is there.
Engage in light exercise that raises the heart rate a little to promote blood flow and rid exercise byproducts has been shown to reduce muscle soreness while improving performance.
What not to do to reduce muscle soreness
Contrary to popular belief, icing and anti-inflammatories can inhibit muscle recovery and growth.
Don’t Take Ice Baths
Ice baths where you fully immerse your body in cold water are a popular recovery tool for athletes. However, research indicates that while ice baths may help your muscles feel better, they could hinder muscle growth.
Researchers believe that the reduction in blood flow from the cold may reduce muscle synthesis, which is key to muscle growth.
Unless you have a competition or race and need to feel better fast, omit cold water immersion from your recovery routine!
Don’t Take Pain Meds
Another popular recovery tool for athletes is to take nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines (or NSAIDs) to reduce inflammation and muscle soreness. However, studies show that regular use of anti-inflammatories like Advil or Motrin can reduce muscle strength and size in weight-lifters.
Again, unless you have an immediate need to reduce muscle soreness, avoid taking pain meds after your workouts.
How do I plan my workouts to avoid non-productive training?
Being a successful athlete, whether it involves lifting weights or running or swimming, etc., is to master this equation: stress + rest = success.
An athlete’s goal is to maximize their workouts so that they break down their muscles the right amount, then optimize recovery so they can turn around and do it again. This cycle builds upon itself, leading to mounting muscle growth.
What an athlete wants to avoid is:
- Working out so hard they can’t recover in between workout sessions
- Working out so hard, they need extra recovery days
- Not working out hard enough that muscles don’t grow
To avoid these scenarios, athletes should do the following.
7 tips for productive training
#1: Gradually increase volume and intensity.
Ditch the belief that if there is no pain, there is no gain. Instead, aim to gradually increase your volume and intensity. Perform a progressive overload approach to your training so that you are gradually stressing your muscles over time. Avoid big jumps in training which can lead to injury! Patience is key to progress.
#2: Allow for recovery.
Don’t do two hard workout days back-to-back. Instead, alternate hard and easy days to allow for your muscles to build back stronger. Aim for active recovery after intense workouts and consider one complete rest day a week.
#3: Back off when needed.
If you pushed yourself too hard and feel sore for more than three days, then you need to rethink your training and back off. If you haven’t slept well or feel like you are getting sick, also dial back your training to allow your body to recover well. Sticking to a workout schedule despite how you feel is counterproductive.
#4: Eat well.
Be sure to fuel your body for your workouts. Eat protein and carbs to give your body the ingredients it needs to excel at your workouts and then recover from them. If you starve your body of these nutrients, your workouts won’t achieve what you want—no matter how hard you hit it in the gym or on the roads.
#5: Sleep well.
Sleep is where the muscle growth happens, so get lots of it. Aim for at least 7 to 8 hours a night. Get more shuteye if you’ve worked out or ran harder or longer than usual. Your body has more damage to recover in these situations and needs more time to do so.
#6: Warm-up and cool-down.
Time-strapped athletes are apt to skip the warm-up and cool-down. However, this cutting of corners has led to injury time and again. Be sure to take about 5 minutes to perform some dynamic stretching before a workout and about 5 minutes of light stretching and foam rolling to cool down.
#7: Consider a coach.
An experienced coach can guide you in the right amount of stress and rest you need for optimal biological adaptations. Consider seeking the guidance of a coach to write you a custom plan and make changes as needed to fit how you are feeling.
There you have it! Guidance to answer the burning question should you workout when sore. You can take our tips and tricks and apply them to how you are feeling on any given day before a workout.
We’d love to help you with your training goals, whether for the 5k, an ultramarathon, or simply staying healthy. Check out our Marathon Handbook resources.