Effective exercise challenges your body, making it work harder than usual, and along the way, there will be some soreness here and there. But how much is too much? The trick is to find a happy point where you know you’ve made progress but it feels good, rather than debilitating.
“When we get some of that good, kind of moderate soreness in an area that maybe we haven’t felt before, it’s a good indication that we’ve actually challenged the body,” says Cris Dobrosielski, author of Going the Distance, owner of Monumental Fitness in San Diego, and a senior fitness expert for the American Council on Exercise.
On the other hand, he says, “If you find yourself being so beat up that it takes you three or four days to recover or it’s hard to get out of bed, then you clearly went further than you should have.” Pain or discomfort in the back or joints is another sign of overdoing it, or of doing a move incorrectly.
These, says Dobrosielski, are common reasons for sore muscles:
1. Working too long
The distance you run or the number of times you repeat a movement, such as lifting a weight, increases too quickly. Going from a 45-minute spin class to a 90-minute one is another example. Increase the time or number of repetitions more gradually.
2. Working too intensely
To avoid a plateau, the intensity of any exercise should increase, but bit by bit. For example, if you’re walking or running on treadmill at a 2-percent incline, suddenly shifting to 12 percent is too sudden. Go up to 4 percent, then 6, then 8, and work up to 12.
3. Starting too suddenly
Your body needs to warm up. Dobrosielski recommends a combination of stretching and light aerobic movements, such as easy-going jumping jacks, or some stretches and marching or jogging in place, so that joints loosen up and muscles are literally warmer.
4. Stopping too suddenly
Cooling down helps your body to eliminate waste products generated during more intense exercise, lengthens muscles, and reduces soreness. After running, gradually slow down to a walk; after weight lifting, walk or do a light jog.
5. Getting stuck in a rut
Doing the same type of exercise all the time puts more stress on the same muscles. Vary activities, such as alternating yoga with running or weightlifting.
6. Not enough water and food
Staying hydrated will reduce soreness. And, within 15 minutes of a workout, consuming about 10 grams of protein and some carbohydrates, such as half a banana, will enhance repair and recovery.
7. Not enough sleep
Even if you don’t increase the intensity or amount of exercise, lack of sleep can eventually make you sore, because your body won’t be able to repair itself. “Deep sleep” says Dobrosielski, “is a really profound place for recovery, growth, and physical health development.”