The Five Stages of Soreness & How to Break Free

I feel like there are two types of people who get sore after workouts:

It burns

1) People who are formerly sedentary and whose bodies are “waking up” to the shock of actually doing meaningful exercise

2) People who are overactive and have such an intense program of exercise that their bodies always kind of ache

Those who are never sore also fall into two categories:

1) People who don’t do sh*t anyway

2) People who stretch and foam roll so well that they eliminate all soreness before it even has a chance to settle in

Oh, Dickie Simmons, I love you.

I have this fanciful nostalgic memory of being one of the “never-sores,” where I could run miles and miles, lift heavy weights, and then spring out of bed with the vim and vigor of a young Richard Simmons (or heck, even an old Richard Simmons).

I am pretty sure those days were due to a medical condition I used to have called “being in your twenties.”  Now that I’m 30, sh*t is getting real.  I have a general level of hip pain.  My knees are hit or miss.  My mid-back feels like it gets punched while I sleep.  And my whole body crackles.

Now while that might sound alarming, I assure you that for me (and for my fitness level, job status, and age) this is perfectly normal.  For folks that are newer to exercise, just getting into weight lifting, or simply trying a new activity, consider the five levels of soreness – and assess where you fall on the scale:

1) In-Motion Soreness.  This is the kind that sets in during your workout, while you are still actively exercising.  It may come in the form of lactic acid buildup, muscle fatigue, or just “feeling the burn,” but it’s usually fleeting and stops as soon as you stop moving, put down the weights, or catch your breath.

2) Day-Of Soreness.  So you worked out this morning.  Good for you!  But then most likely you went and sat down in a car or office, and suddenly when you got up to go to the bathroom your legs felt like they were going to collapse under you.  Soreness at this point is basically stiffness; your body is beginning to feel the effects of your exertion.

3) Next-Day Soreness.  Ah, the pain of trying something new.  Hamstrings that felt so free and loose in yoga yesterday feel like they’re going to snap in half today.  Hips that shimmied and shook their way through Zumba can barely propel your feet forward today.  Areas that feel sore the next day can give you a clue to muscle imbalances and form problems, too, so pay attention to unilateral (one-sided) pain and/or neck strain.

4) Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS).  Yep, this is a thing – a medically documented reality.  You might feel superb the day after a workout and think the soreness has passed you by – only to be blindsided by pain 48 hours after.  DOMS strikes even the strongest among us, especially when trying to “up your game” (run faster, lift heavier, go further).  Find comfort in the fact that it’s only temporary, and usually gone by 72 hours.

5) Chronic Soreness.  Also known as injury, this is the type of burn you don’t want.  Chronic soreness and/or the fatigue associated with it is a sign of chronic inflammation, which is related to a whole host of undesirable health problems.  Chronic soreness accompanies certain sports injuries like stress fractures, muscle strains, and tendinitis.  Any persistent soreness that lasts beyond 72 hours is worth a trip to the sports doc or physical therapist just to make sure everything is OK.

All this being said – I do have some tried-and-true methods for eliminating (or at least managing) soreness.  For example:

  • epsom salts baths.  I swear by ’em.  I buy good old Dr. Teal’s and I soak for a legit 20 minutes, at least twice a week.  This is basic maintenance for me.
  • ice baths.  Also sworn by, but horrifically uncomfortable and really only necessary in the face of massive effort (for example: a 16-mile marathon training run).  15 minutes max for me, and usually with a hot cup of tea in hand to ward off the chills.
  • sports massage.  Whether you prefer Chinese (best spot in L.A.) or Thai massage (like me) or more traditional Western massage, make sure your therapist knows where you’re hurting, what types of activities made you hurt, and how firm you need the pressure to be.  I like to get one at least every two weeks; one a month is crucial.
  • foam rolling.  This is your daily fix – the way you can relieve muscle soreness in a jiffy (caveat: it hurts like hell).  I recommend going through these stretches/exercises to release the conventional spots of soreness, plus going double on any areas that bother you regularly.
  • yoga.  I always tell clients I’ve never gotten injured while doing yoga regularly (for me, just one a week does it) – and it’s true.  When I let the yoga lapse, the inflammation takes over – and that’s no bueno.  You can check out a YouTube at home or hit the studio – it doesn’t take much to reap the stretchy benefits.

What stage of soreness do you feel most often?  What remedies do you use to relieve it?

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