Sore Legs After Running? Try These 4 Effective Recovery Techniques

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Excellent run yesterday and hobbling out of bed today? We’ve all been there, and it’s not a pretty sight. Your family or friends are sure to make a smart remark about how they “thought you were fit,” but don’t give them the satisfaction.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There are plenty of ways to reduce or avoid sore legs after running through well-thought-out training plans, plentiful recovery, and adequate nutrition.

Nonetheless, a degree of soreness is likely inevitable, particularly on your longer runs or after a high-intensity session.

Sore leg muscles after running can be a good sign that your muscles are recovering and growing, a familiar sensation after an intense workout. However, sore legs are not a necessity and may hamper your training in the long run.

A runner holding their sore leg.

Why Do I Have Sore Legs After Running?

While running, our bodies are subjected to high amounts of force transference, both on impact and propulsion.

Skeletal muscle is composed of myofibrils and sarcomeres that form a muscle fiber.

Our muscle fibers recruit motor units to both absorb impact and generate force; during this process, the power generated is distributed throughout the muscle, causing small tears within the muscle. Your body reacts to these tears by causing inflammation around the affected areas.

During this period, you may experience soreness to the touch and some discomfort as you use or stretch your muscles. Fear not. It is the natural process of muscle breakdown and repair!

Our body repairs damaged muscle fibers through a cellular process called muscle protein synthesis. These repaired myofibrils increase in thickness and number to create muscle hypertrophy, also known as muscle growth.

The soreness a runner experiences is usually referred to as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).

A runner holding their calf.

DOMS is expected if we are new to running or have incorporated a higher-intensity session, such as hill sprints, into our training.

Having DOMS is usually a positive sign post-exercise. It indicates that the muscle has been adequately stimulated, leading to its healing into a stronger state than it was before the activity.

After it has healed, the muscle has likely adapted and strengthened. Thus, over a period of time, we can run faster and further!

Depending on how hard you have trained, symptoms can range from tenderness to debilitating muscle pain. It is important to note that the severity of the soreness is not necessarily related to the extent of the exercise-induced muscle damage1 Nosaka, K., Newton, M., & Sacco, P. (2002). Delayed-onset muscle soreness does not reflect the magnitude of eccentric exercise-induced muscle damage. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports12(6), 337–346. https://doi.org/10.1034/j.1600-0838.2002.10178.x.

3 Common Training Mistakes To Avoid

As mentioned earlier, a degree of soreness is to be expected after running. But for the majority of your running, this should be very minimal. Here are three key things to consider if you are experiencing sore legs after running.

A runner holding their quad in pain.

#1: No Low-Intensity Running

One of the most common mistakes we make when running is running too fast or too often.

It takes a lot of mental strength to push hard during training, but knowing when to hold back can be much harder.

Consistently running at a hard effort will cause excessive muscle stress and soreness, possibly resulting in over-training and frustration.

In recent years, studies have shown2 Seiler, S. (2010). What is Best Practice for Training Intensity and Duration Distribution in Endurance Athletes? International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance5(3), 276–291. https://doi.org/10.1123/ijspp.5.3.276 that optimal adaptive signaling is achieved when runners perform 80% of training sessions at low intensity and 20% are dominated by periods of high-intensity work.

Instead of hobbling around after a big training session, unable to run for a few days, you can run more regularly and for longer.

Your cardiovascular and muscular systems will adapt over time, and your speed will increase before you know it.

Low-intensity training can be measured by the rate of perceived exertion (RPE) or by using a heart rate monitor. Both measurements are fantastic when utilized correctly as they will adjust for your body’s current condition, making it less likely that you will push the body too far.

A person holding their calf in pain.

#2: No Warm-Up or Warm-Down

 We all know we should be doing it! But few of us do.

Warming up properly before training is an excellent way to prevent muscle-related soreness.

Historically a warm-up has been pretty dull, full of stiff and contorting static stretches that weren’t all that effective.

Warming up with a dynamic stretching routine allows your body to move more naturally as you run and will condition your ankles, knees, and hips for running.

Sometimes you can warm up for running by running! Just start nice and slow to let your body warm up.

A warm-down should aim to bring your heart rate back down gradually.

Once again, your warm-down does not need to be composed of a long list of static stretches. Five to ten minutes of easy running or walking will achieve the purpose of a warm-down.

Stretching can be utilized to aid our flexibility and mobility and prevent tightness caused by running. It can also help flush out the lactic acid build up in our bodies after a hard workout, although that won’t necessarily reduce soreness.

A solid stretching routine post-run is highly beneficial for most people, so put it in your own training plan.

A person stretching.

#3: No Strength Training

According to Yale Medicine3 Running Injuries. (n.d.). Yale Medicine. https://www.yalemedicine.org/conditions/running-injury, a staggering 50 percent of regular runners get injured each year.

That is due to many factors, with running injuries varying massively between individuals.

But one thing is for sure, a well-thought-out strength and conditioning program will leave your body less susceptible to serious injury (stress fractures, runners knee, shin splints, achilles tendonitis…).

A strength training program uses resistance training to strengthen a runner’s muscles and connective tissues, which can help to stabilize the joints and thus reduce the risk of both muscle injuries and joint injuries.

As the body adapts and strengthens, the body’s load tolerance increases, allowing you to run harder and further with less risk of causing excessive inflammation and consequent soreness.

Strength training can also help with correcting muscle imbalance. If you have weak muscles in your legs or an imbalance in your kinetic chain (the ligaments and muscles that work together as you run), then specific muscles may end up being especially sore.

4 Key Recovery Techniques To Aid Sore Legs After Running

So we’ve looked at what you should avoid while training, but what can you do post-activity to ease sore legs after running?

There are many techniques for aiding aching legs after running; here are four effective options to help you get on the road or trail ASAP.

A person on a stationary bike.

#1: Cross-training

More exercise? But I am knackered, and my legs are sore. It might be the last thing you want to consider, but hear me out.

Cross-training is an essential part of a sustainable running journey.

The majority of running-related injuries are tied to overuse. It is important we don’t stress out the same muscle groups and tendons each time we train. If we keep running on sore legs, we are bound to get injured.

Muscles adapt relatively quickly when running, but tendons and ligaments take much longer to do so. Get on the bike for some active recovery cardio and give your tendons a chance to heal.

Try doing light cross-training activities like cycling or going for a walk – think of them as active rest days.

Getting those sore muscles working again can help to improve blood flow, speeding up the overall muscle recovery process.

After a nice walk, your legs will likely hurt less than when you started.

Man sleeping in bed for recovery.

#2: Sleep At Least 7-9 Hours A Night

You do not get faster or stronger while you train. Your body strengthens and adapts whilst you rest and heal. Sleep is the environment in which this process happens the most.

During deep sleep, our body releases high levels of growth hormones. This stimulates growth, cell reproduction, and cell regeneration, which can help injury prevention.

Chronic poor sleep has been shown4 Medic, G., Wille, M., & Hemels, M. (2017). Short- and long-term Health Consequences of Sleep Disruption. Nature and Science of Sleep9(9), 151–161. https://doi.org/10.2147/nss.s134864 to increase risk factors for diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease. It also increases your risk of injury.

It’s easy to get caught up in the rise-and-grind attitude of today’s society. We all have commitments; some are non-negotiable. But committing to sleep will not only improve your mood, wellness, and recovery but also how you interact with others.

It is a win-win.

For a comprehensive guide, check out this article on sleep: Sleep: The Essential Part Of Training That Most Runners Overlook

A physical therapist giving a person a massage.

#3: Get A Massage Or Use A Foam Roller

Massage therapy doesn’t just feel good; it works with the neuromuscular system to send signals to the brain to relax the muscles, and it actually decreases your perception of soreness.

You do not need to get a massage immediately after your run as a cool down; it is still effective even if you do it hours later or the next day.

If you can’t get an appointment with a local sports massage therapist, foam rolling is a worthy alternative.

It should be noted that massage therapy doesn’t directly heal damaged muscle fibers. Once the perceptible soreness has eased, it is not advisable to head straight out on a run. Instead, use it as an opportunity to cross-train or fully rest.

#4: Drink Water And Eat

After you get in after your run, make sure you drink plenty of water. Water is crucial to our health, and we lose a lot of it while we run.

Improper hydration can lead to dehydration, resulting in dizziness, fatigue, and poor running performance.

A salad, bottle of water and a pair of green dumbbells.

It’s recommended that runners aim to drink 0.4-0.8 liters per hour or 8-16 ounces per hour.

If you begin to feel thirsty, drink!

Running burns plenty of fuel, and that fuel has to be replaced both for performance and recovery. Your body is actively hunting for sources of carbohydrates and protein.

Studies are conflicted as to whether you should eat immediately after exercise, but it’s certainly not the end of the world if you don’t. Just make sure you get in an adequate meal!

Nutritionists recommend a carb/protein ratio of 3:1 – for every 3g of carbohydrates you consume, have 1g of protein.

There you have it, some of our best tips and tricks to help battle sore legs after running. To give you a head start on a thorough warm-up and warm-down routine for your runs, check out the following articles:

15 Dynamic Stretches For Runners

The 12 Best Post-Run Stretches For Runners

References

  • 1
    Nosaka, K., Newton, M., & Sacco, P. (2002). Delayed-onset muscle soreness does not reflect the magnitude of eccentric exercise-induced muscle damage. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports12(6), 337–346. https://doi.org/10.1034/j.1600-0838.2002.10178.x
  • 2
    Seiler, S. (2010). What is Best Practice for Training Intensity and Duration Distribution in Endurance Athletes? International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance5(3), 276–291. https://doi.org/10.1123/ijspp.5.3.276
  • 3
    Running Injuries. (n.d.). Yale Medicine. https://www.yalemedicine.org/conditions/running-injury
  • 4
    Medic, G., Wille, M., & Hemels, M. (2017). Short- and long-term Health Consequences of Sleep Disruption. Nature and Science of Sleep9(9), 151–161. https://doi.org/10.2147/nss.s134864
Photo of author
Ben is a qualified Personal Trainer and Sports Massage Therapist with a particular interest in running performance and injury. He has spent the last 9 years working with runners at his clinic in Brighton. Ben is a keen runner and avid cyclist. Evenly splitting his time between trail running, road biking, and MTB.

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