6 Common Causes of Muscle Soreness After Exercise

No matter if you’re an exercise novice or a regular gym goer, muscle soreness after a strenuous workout is inevitable. However, understanding why your muscles hurt and what is normal can help you better avoid injury and get back on track faster.

Muscle pain is the result of microscopic damage to your muscles and is triggered by an inflammatory process. It typically develops 12-24 hours after a workout and peaks 24-72 hours later.

1. Excessive Exercise

During exercise, muscles create a little damage, which results in muscle soreness. But certain types of exercise cause more damage and therefore more soreness than others. For example, exercises that involve eccentric contractions such as a bicep curl or walking downhill lengthen the muscles as they contract and can lead to a greater degree of soreness.

Delayed-onset muscle soreness commonly referred to as DOMS is caused by tiny microtears in the muscles that lead to an inflammatory response. While that sounds like a bad thing, it actually helps the muscles repair themselves and become stronger.

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To help reduce soreness, eat foods that are rich in antioxidants and drink plenty of water before, during and after exercising. Also, use light exercise like walking to increase blood flow to the damaged muscles and speed up recovery.

2. Overtraining

All athletes know that post-exercise muscle soreness is a natural part of working out. In fact, it’s often a good thing. It means that your muscles are getting stronger.

During high-intensity exercise, your muscles create lactic acid, which can lead to muscle soreness. This soreness usually resolves within a few hours after you finish your workout.

Any type of exercise can cause muscle damage and soreness, but certain types of exercises (eccentric) are more likely to cause more pain than others (such as running downhill or riding a Peloton bike). Proper training technique and adequate rest and recovery will help reduce the severity of delayed onset muscle soreness.

3. Poor Nutrition

If you’re trying a new workout or pushing yourself harder in your gym class, muscle soreness is normal. But if your discomfort is sharp, intense or accompanied by other symptoms like fever, headache, nausea or lightheadedness, see a doctor to rule out injury.

Make sure to get plenty of fluids after your workout and include a variety of anti-inflammatory foods in your diet, including tomatoes, olive oil, green leafy vegetables, nuts, fish and berries. Watermelon in particular contains an amino acid called L-citrulline, which may reduce soreness and help speed recovery. Also, take time to stretch and foam roll before and after your exercise and do a light cardio warm-up or walk.

4. Poor Post-Exercise Care

Oftentimes, muscle soreness is the result of working out muscles in ways they’re not used to – hence, the saying “No Pain, No Gain.” The good news is that it’s not harmful and the aches and pains will go away as your body adjusts.

Muscle soreness is caused by the tiny microtears in your muscles, which trigger an inflammatory response that causes discomfort. This process is what makes your muscles stronger, explains Steven Goostree, physical therapist at Hinge Health.

You’re more likely to experience soreness after eccentric exercises (exercises that make your muscles work as they lengthen, like lowering down a weight or doing a biceps curl) than concentric exercise. This is because eccentric exercises cause more damage to your muscles than concentric ones do.

5. Injuries

While muscle soreness is usually a good thing it means that your muscles are adapting to new or increased exercise it can become dangerous if you’re pushing yourself too hard. The best way to prevent this is by gradually increasing the intensity of your workouts over the course of days or weeks.

Injuries can also increase the amount of soreness you feel after a workout. Vardiman says that a sore muscle that crosses the line from normal to “noxious” pain may be an indication of injury.

To help reduce muscle soreness, eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains and healthy fats. Also drink enough water. It helps control body temperature, loosens joints and transports nutrients that promote muscle healing.

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6. Overuse

Muscle soreness is a normal part of exercise, especially when you use new muscles or increase your workout intensity. It means that your body is adapting and getting stronger.

Muscular soreness usually takes a few hours to a few days to develop. It isn’t the same as sharp pain, which may indicate that you sprained or strained a muscle or tendon.

To reduce muscle soreness, make sure to warm up and stretch before and after exercising. Keeping hydrated and consuming protein can also help. It helps if you rub the sore muscles, too, as this increases blood flow to them. Also, consider a topical ointment that makes your skin feel cool, warm or numb, which can help interrupt pain signals and relieve the sensation of soreness.

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