Why do I feel pain after exercise?

Have you ever felt sore after starting a new activity or pushing yourself harder than usual during a workout?

Muscle pain that shows up a day or two after exercising can affect anyone, regardless of your fitness level.

But don’t be put off. This type of muscle stiffness or achiness is normal, doesn’t last long, and is actually a sign of your improving fitness.

Dr Jonathan Folland, an expert in neuromuscular physiology from Loughborough University, explains how to avoid sore muscles after exercise.

Why do my muscles feel sore after exercising?

Sore muscles after physical activity, known as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), is common when beginning a new exercise programme, changing your exercise routine, or increasing the duration or intensity of your regular workout.

When muscles are required to work harder than they're used to, or in a different way, it is believed to cause microscopic damage to the muscle fibres, resulting in muscle soreness or stiffness. DOMS is often mistakenly believed to be caused by lactic acid build up, however, lactic acid is not involved in this process.

Who can DOMS affect?

Anyone can develop DOMS, even those who have been exercising for years, including elite athletes. DOMS can be alarming for people who are new to exercise and it can give their initial enthusiasm to get fit a real hammering. The good news is that the pain will decrease as your muscles get used to the new physical demands being placed upon them.

The soreness is part of an adaptation process that leads to greater stamina and strength as the muscles recover and build. Unless you push yourself hard, you’re unlikely to develop DOMS after your next exercise session.

What type of activities can cause DOMS?

Any movement you're not used to can cause DOMS, in particular, movements that cause the muscle to contract while it lengthens (called eccentric muscle contractions). Examples of eccentric muscle contractions include going down stairs, jogging or running downhill, lowering weights (such as the lowering phase of a bicep curl) and the downward motion of squats and push-ups.

How long does DOMS last for?

DOMS typically lasts between three and five days. The pain, which can range from mild to severe, usually occurs one or two days after the exercise. This sort of muscle pain should not be confused with any kind of pain you might experience during exercise, such as the acute, sudden and sharp pain of an injury, such as muscle strains or sprains.

How can I treat DOMS?

There is no one simple way to treat DOMS. Nothing is proven to be 100% effective. Treatments such as ice packs, massage, tender-point acupressure, anti-inflammatory drugs, such as aspirin or ibuprofen, and rest may help ease some of the symptoms.

DOMS doesn't generally require medical intervention. However, seek medical advice if the pain becomes debilitating, or you experience heavy swelling or if your urine becomes dark.

How can I prevent DOMS?

One of the best ways to prevent DOMS is to start any new activity programme gently and gradually. Allowing the muscle time to adapt to new movements should help minimise soreness.

There is little evidence that warming-up will be effective in preventing DOMS. However, exercising with warmed-up muscles will reduce your chance of injury and improve your performance.

While stretching has many benefits, there is currently no evidence that stretching before or after exercise helps to reduce or prevent DOMS.

Can I continue exercising with DOMS?

You may exercise with DOMS, although it may feel uncomfortable, especially during the warm-up phase. You may find the pain goes away during the session but it will return after exercising once your muscles have cooled down.

If the pain makes it hard to exercise, then it is advisable to refrain from the activity for a few days until the pain eases. Alternatively, you could focus on exercises targeting less affected muscles to allow the most affected muscle groups time to recover.

Will I keep getting DOMS?

DOMS is a type of muscle conditioning, which means your muscles are adapting to the new activity. The next time you perform the same activity, or exercise at the same intensity, there will be less muscle tissue damage, less soreness, and a faster recovery.

Just one bout of DOMS actually develops a partial protective effect that reduces the chances of developing soreness in that same activity for the following weeks or months.

Page last reviewed: 25/03/2013

Next review due: 25/03/2015

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The 5 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

Gill R said on 05 October 2014

I'm not convinced that we need to feel DOMS when we exercise. It has certainly put me off exercising in the past. Where's the evidence we need to push ourselves so much? This is a repeat of the recent trend of overuse we had in the eighties. For me, exercise should be gentle and enjoyable and any pain tells me the body doesn't like it.

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ThoughtMachine said on 26 August 2014

I have been suffering with muscle soreness for a whole week after starting couch to 5k and I found some deep freeze rub helps massively. I only use it at night as usually it feels worse when I'm lying in bed thinking about it. My partner said I need to take it easy and I even thought of not doing my run tonight but after reading this I realise it is all part of the process!!

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ann300 said on 25 April 2014

Hi,

I agree it's an interesting article. I have recently read a lot about muscle sore and I find some new interesting information all the time. One of them is information about natural remedies which can help in dealing with pain (muscle, joints pain for example). Have you heard about natural ointments which can ease the muscle pain with it's warming abilities?I'm going to try one which is made of amber.Interesting? I will share my comments.

anna

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SwindonDeb said on 01 February 2014

I agree with Outstandingmmm. I googled "why do you feel pain, after exercising", because I want to know what my muscles are doing, in a positive way.

Interesting article though .. great site. Always informative.

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OUTSTANDINGMMM said on 13 April 2013

Hi,

Read this article and it is very informative, however; as aforementioned in "Why do my muscles feel sore after exercising?" you were discussing that DOMS is caused, because of microscopic damage to the muscle fibres, so we feel stiffness/soreness. Instead of telling its benefits in-depth later in the article, you were suggesting ways to prevent DOMS.

I agree when a newcomer steps in, this (soreness) puts him/her off, that WTH I am doing here, but instead of telling that it is good for your muscle to tone up or building, you just took a U turn. For instance, if I will write this article then my whole argument will revolve around how healthy it is to get DOMS instead of avoiding it. Because whenever we rip our muscle then it starts to build if we haven't got any soreness at all then why workout, In addition, even professional athletes get DOMS, because it is the way to know you have done it right and your muscle will improve. As it is said no pain no gain, furthermore you will get way lesser version of soreness as you had after your first workout, if you have done it properly (Right angel + Right weight) and it should be every time, because it is your muscle’s (pleasant) way of telling that you did hit the targeted muscle and you will see improvement. However; proper diet and rest is very essential, as somebody quoted it very nicely, Muscle Ripped during workout (in gym), Fed on the table and build in the bed (while sleeping).

This is a General Information; any patients should ask their doctors first before starting.

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