We all know the familiar feeling of post-exercise soreness. The one that makes us dread sitting down on the toilet because we are afraid we might not get back up. The one that has us walking sideways down the stairs because we are worried we might just fall ass-over-tea-kettle if we have to actually use our legs. The one that has us using our arms as if we were a T-Rex because if we were to fully extend then they most definitely will fall off.
Ahh yes - the hurts-so-good kind of soreness that has us cursing the day or two following a workout, but gives us bittersweet validation that has us begging for more.
As a physiotherapist, I get feedback about soreness every single day. What is "good" soreness and what is "bad" soreness? How do we know if this feedback from our body is telling us we are getting stronger or that we are pushing too hard? It's a great question and one that you won't love the answer to.
I know. Total cop-out. So let me try my best to break it down in a few ways that might be somewhat less ambiguous.
"Good" soreness typically is of the achy, dull variety. It is the feeling of fatigue or heaviness in the muscles and it is typically felt most when you recreate the movement that you were doing during the exercise. For example, if you were doing a whole load of squats - the next day you would typically feel tired in the legs, but more noticeably when you had to squat down or get in and out of a chair (thus the classic toilet example above).
For soreness that indicates potential tissue damage beyond what is productive, the soreness is usually sharper in nature. It may feel more "twingy" and might feel deeper in the joint. The pain also can intensify with specific movements, but the movements might be unrelated to the exercise you were performing. Again, if you had a heavy squat day and then were feeling sharp pain around your knee, it might get worse with doing a squat, but will likely also bother you in other positions/movements as well.
"Good" soreness is usually felt 24-48 hours after exercise. This is the classic phenomenon known as DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness). It is theorized to be caused by micro trauma to the muscle tissue. The idea that it is caused by lactic acid build-up in the muscle has been refuted, as many studies have shown that lactic acid levels generally return to normal within an hour of exercise. This microtrauma can be beneficial stimulate growth of muscle fibres (hypertrophy) and we don't get too fussed about it.
"Bad" soreness generally lasts longer than this. It can still be from the same effect, but the exercise load may have been to strenuous to the muscle and connective tissue and the micro trauma might be more significant. Alternatively, you could have already been experiencing pathological compromise to a tissue (i.e. tendinopathy), and loading this tissue excessively during a workout may have created more trauma to the weakened site.
Although both "good" and "bad" soreness might have you walking like a penguin for a couple of days, the body is usually more intuitive about the "bad" variety. In this circumstance, the brain usually signals to the surrounding tissue that there is compromise to the body in a specific area, and the local muscles need to be on "high alert" to protect. This creates a lot of muscle guarding and tension. You may find the surrounding area to be very tender, stiff and tense.
With "good" soreness, usually movement is your friend. It might feel tough at first, but the more you move the sore tissue, the more friendly it becomes. Usually some gentle stretching or light activity helps.
When you exercise in a way that is new or at a much higher intensity than you are accustomed to, the muscle adapts fairly quickly to reduce further damage from the same exercise. This is known as the "repeated-bout effect".
Therefore, when you start a new type of exercise, it is common to feel more sore the first few times you perform it, but your body amazingly adapts quite quickly. This is why it is important to switch up your routine every so often to continue these adaptations.
With "bad" soreness, movement of these areas might actually exasperate the pain. Rest is likely to help more, at least initially. It is important that if this is the type of situation you are in that you see a orthopaedic heath care practitioner (I know, shameless plug). The reason being, it is all too common that the muscle guarding and the "protective mode" that the body goes into in response to injury can usually cause more harm than good to your overall mechanics. Proper muscle and tissue balance needs to be restored and some simple treatment sooner than later will save you from a cascade-effect into further injury (I promise I am not trying to catastrophise - just wanting to get you feeling your best)!
the good news.....
Soreness is a great way of your body communicating with you. It is giving you feedback on your exercise - so start listening! Where are you feeling sore? Is it even in the muscles you were intending to work? Is it symmetrical? Is it in the areas you are typically weaker? All of these questions are so important and the answers to them will help you determine how effective your workouts are.
Your body is always trying to tell you SOMEthing and it is amazing how much more efficient your exercise can be when you listen and adjust accordingly.
So, my sore friends, may you all bask in the enjoyment of a well-excuted and effortful workout with achy, tight muscles giving you a gentle pat-on-the-back for a job well-done. I hope we can all challenge our bodies in ways that give us this much-needed reminder about how fortunate we are to have them carry us through life - even if we spend much of it waddling like a penguin.
P.S. Another shameless plug - if you would like to get sore with me in all the best ways, then head on over to my private Facebook page where I lead a weekly, live workout!