On Monday, you pushed yourself really hard during your workout (like, really hard). By Tuesday, you want to go back to the gym, but your quads and calves are screaming for you not to. Is it OK to exercise while your muscles are sore, or are you better off taking a rest day? Let’s find out.
The short answer is, yes, it’s OK to work out when you’re sore. But it’s a little more complicated than that. First, it’s important to note that soreness is relative—and not the same as pain. If you think you’ve hurt yourself during a workout, it’s important not to start another session until you figure out what’s wrong and fully heal. Jaclyn Fulop, Board Licensed Physical Therapist & Founder of Exchange Physical Therapy Group, tells us you should never work out through pain. “If you try to increase your workout (whether that’s mileage or weights) too soon, you can end up with injuries including shin splints, tendinitis, and others,” she tells us. If your body is telling you it’s had enough, listen to it.
But if we’re talking about soreness—which is to be expected when you’re exercising—it’s normally fine to work out while feeling a little achy. The key is to find ways to work around your soreness. So, let’s say you did tons of squats and lunges and your lower body is aching. Instead of skipping a workout, you can do choose one that focuses on your upper body or core. (Psst…Here are 15 core exercises you can do at home.)
Still, that’s not to say you should be working out every single day. Again, Fulop tells us it’s largely about listening to your body’s needs. “A rest day is an important part of working out and is vital to maintaining a healthy lifestyle and preventing injuries or burn-out,” she stresses. While she recommends two days off each week to allow your body to recover and repair, there are ways to make the most of your days off. “You can make a rest day more effective by eating healthy, staying hydrated, stretching or using a foam roller…Taking a rest day doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be completely inactive; you can still keep the body moving.”
Should You Take OTC Meds for Soreness?
If you’re looking to treat those post-workout muscles aches, it’s tempting to get quick relief by reaching for the meds. But is this the best strategy? Not necessarily, according to Dr. Gabrielle Lyon from the Ash Center. “While over the counter NSAIDS (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like aspirin and ibuprofen) can reduce the pain and soreness associated with your workouts, research has shown that by doing so, you will interfere with any muscle gain that would have come from that workout,” Lyon tells us. Quick biology lesson: When you work out, you’re technically damaging your muscles. But this is a good thing (as long as you don’t go too hard, of course) because your body then adapts and heals the damage, which in turn makes you harder, better, faster and stronger.
But a study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that OTC meds get in the way of this process, thereby negating one of the major benefits of exercise. (And other studies have revealed similar findings.) “This is an aspect everyone who is exercising should be aware of,” cautions Lyon. “Depending on the goals of the individual, he or she may be best off leaving the anti-inflammatory in the medicine cabinet.”
3 Ways to Soothe Sore Muscles
1. Be Sure to Cool Down Properly
When we finish a workout, our first instinct is to get out of the gym as quickly as humanly possible. But as much as we want to head straight to the shower, we know we should be doing some cool down exercises. Why? Well, we can think of a few good reasons. Cooling down can be just as important—if not more important—than the actual workout. According to the American Heart Association, “After physical activity, your heart is still beating faster than normal, your body temperature is higher and your blood vessels are dilated. This means if you stop too fast, you could pass out or feel sick.”
Beyond that, cooling down via stretching can reduce the buildup of lactic acid, which can help prevent cramping and stiffness. These exercises can also prevent—or at least minimize—delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS, the pain and stiffness in the muscles you feel anywhere from 24 to 72 hours after exercise. “One of the biggest post-workout mistakes that I see people make is skipping a cool down stretch or leaving before the end of a group fitness class,” says Jonathan Tylicki, certified personal trainer and director of education for AKT. “Stretching will help prevent soreness, relax the nervous system, promote mobility and flexibility and can even improve your next workout.” Here are eight cool down exercises to try.
2. Eat and Drink Strategically
Look, we’ve all gone to a Sunday morning boot-camp class and then rewarded ourselves by ordering pancakes, eggs and two mimosas at brunch. But if you want to help your body recover faster, personal trainer Lisa Reedrecommends refueling soon after working out with a small amount of carbohydrates and protein. Here are six of the best foods and drinks to have after working out.
3. Invest in a Foam Roller
You don’t need to be an elite athlete to take advantage of foam rolling—in fact, all you need is $15 and a little know-how. By applying pressure on sore spots, foam rolling helps release tension and tightness in muscles after they’ve been overworked. Here’s how to use a foam roller for the best (read: most pain-relieving) results.