Soreness is actually one of my favorite topics. Why? Well, there are a lot of misconceptions around soreness and honestly, a fundamental misunderstanding of what it is and why it happens.
So let’s start with the basics.
Why do we get sore?
Soreness is a byproduct of muscle damage—but it’s not as bad as it sounds. When we exercise at a vigorous intensity (or at a level that’s above our body’s current fitness level), we create microtears, or little holes, in our muscles. And when we recover (we sleep, take rest days, etc.), our body works to repair those holes. In other words, the soreness we feel is a result of the strain we put on our muscles. It means that our body is recovering and rebuilding, and over time, our muscles get stronger.
Does that mean soreness is a good thing? If so, why does it hurt?
While most soreness is a sign of something positive—you pushed yourself, go you!—there’s no denying that it’s not always a pleasant experience. I myself have let soreness discourage me a thousand times. (Who wants to run when it hurts to walk and sit? No I’m good, thanks.) That said, every person experiences soreness differently, and how you feel will depend on the intensity level of your run and how your body responds to muscle tears.
If you’re a new or intermediate runner—or even an expert trying to achieve new goals—soreness is to be expected. It usually peaks two days post-activity, and then gradually tapers off (this is called Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness, or DOMS, for short). Thankfully, though, there are ways to minimize soreness before it sets in.
1. Eat protein within an hour of your workout.
As someone whose body doesn’t handle soreness all that well (it comes on strong and overstays its welcome), I can confidently say that post-workout protein may change your life. At least, it has changed mine. Your body needs protein to repair your muscles—and to get that protein, you have to eat it.
By far the best advice I’ve gotten for improving both my athletic performance and my soreness is to eat protein within an hour of a run or workout—10 to 20 grams for women, and 30 to 40 for men. When we eat protein, our body breaks it down into amino acids, which supply the body with the nutrients it needs to repair muscle damage. On the flip side, if we don’t have enough protein, our muscles aren’t able to fully repair and grow, and that can lead to inflammation and increase our risk of injury. Lack of protein can actually contribute to overuse injuries (very common in runners), because the body doesn’t have what it needs to reduce inflammation and support muscles and tendons. Bottom line: Eat your protein post-workout. Shakes, smoothies, bars, yogurt, animal or plant-based protein sources—whatever you fancy, go for it.
2. Stretch. A lot.
As a trainer, I’m adamant that all humans should dedicate time to flexibility and mobility work, like yoga, Pilates, or functional mobility routines. At the very least, though, I insist that you should stretch a few times a day, every day.
For runners especially, stretching your hamstrings, calves, and quads is crucial after runs of any length. Before I run, I like to do some dynamic stretches, like walking knee hugs, walking calf scoops, and leg swings. Immediately after a run, you’ll find me on my yoga mat, doing every stretch I can think of that targets my calves, hamstrings, and quads (standing quad stretch, downward dog, or a simple standing toe touch, to name a few). Finally—and this part is crucial—I spend five to 10 minutes before bed stretching my calves, hamstrings, and, you guessed it, quads. Knee pain, lower back pain, muscle imbalances, and Charley horses are all common side effects of tight muscles. To avoid them, you have to stretch!
3. Start slow and build your way up.
When it comes to doing too much too fast, I’m the guiltiest party there is. Like many runners, I love a challenge, and sometimes all you want to do is conquer a feat that you haven’t before. The drawback, though, is that you’re more likely to experience extreme soreness. Think of it this way: Soreness is caused by muscle tears, and muscle tears are caused by vigorous exercise. So the more demanding the exercise—the faster you sprint, the longer you run—the more your body will need to recover, and the more soreness you’ll probably feel.
I can’t emphasize enough that starting slower than you think is the key to becoming a consistent, long-term runner. Not only will your body reward you with less soreness overall, but you’re also way more likely to stick with running.
To be clear, if you’re experiencing soreness that goes beyond feeling “sore” and instead you’re feeling intense pain (you’re wincing when you move and/or can’t walk much), it’d be wise to take a step back and re-evaluate your running regimen. It’s fine to feel intense soreness every now and then (for me, it happens after every half marathon, no matter how much I train), but being sore to a point where it limits your day-to-day functioning isn’t healthy physically, and it sure isn’t helping you stay motivated. Instead, turn to the aforementioned tips, and if you manage to get sore anyway, try taking a bath with Epsom salts, going for an easy walk, or applying a topical magnesium cream. These treatments should bring you some relief while you recover—the rest is just a matter of time.