Exercising can come with lots of next-day aches and pains—but it doesn’t have to.

K. Aleisha Fetters, CSCS
August 13, 2020
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In the days after a workout, it can be tough to take the stairs, roll over in bed, or even sit down on the toilet. That ache is called delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS), and it’s a result of microscopic damage to your muscles, explains Roger Earle, personal trainer, certified strength and conditioning specialist, and co-author of Weight Training: Steps to Success . This damage peaks after doing new-to-you activities or after lengthening your muscles under tension (like hiking downhill or slowly lowering weights during biceps curls).

This hard-earned damage spurs your muscles to grow back stronger and healthier. But more soreness is not necessarily better. “People often think they have to be sore to benefit from their workouts, but that’s absolutely not true,” Earle says. After all, being sore all of the time can sour the joys of exercise. It can also put you at risk of wear-and-tear injuries. While dull discomfort felt in your muscles one to three days after exercise is a sign of DOMS, any pain that’s sharp, lasts for more than three days, or is felt in or around your joints points to injury.

How to Help Prevent Muscle Soreness

Ease Into New Exercises

No matter how fit you are, trying new exercises or variations can make you sore. With new workouts or exercises, Earle recommends taking things relatively easy at first and then building gradually over the course of several weeks or months. Stay in tune with your body’s needs, and stick up for them. For instance, before setting out on a hike or bike ride, or joining a fitness class, tell your group leader, instructor, or friends that you’re going to take things slow or give yourself rest breaks. 

Eat Some Carbs

Eating enough carbohydrates at meals and snacks can cut your risk of soreness by encouraging muscle recovery, says Ellen Shepherd, RD, a certified diabetes care and education specialist at Northwestern Medicine Huntley Hospital in Illinois. Checking your blood sugar before and after exercise can give you an idea of how your food is working for you, and help you and your health care team create a plan of action. If your levels are lower than 100 mg/dL, try eating 15 to 20 grams of carbohydrates like a piece of fresh fruit, a granola bar, or a handful of whole-grain crackers. 

If You Get Sore, Stay Active

Keeping moving can help ease discomfort and tightness, Earle says. However, staying active doesn’t mean pushing through pain. If you want to continue with your planned workout, ease up on your exercise intensity, or how hard you’re working. Try slowing your pace or choosing lighter weights. If the soreness still keeps you from being able to exercise with proper form, stop what you’re doing and devote the rest of your workout to gentle movements like cycling on a stationary bike, walking, or stretching. Remember, the ultimate goal is your health. Give your body what it needs in the moment, as well as in the long run. 

This story originally appeared in Diabetic Living Summer 2020.