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How to prevent sore muscles after exercise

Can you prevent sore muscles after exercise? 

After a grueling workout, you’re tired and ready for a shower. You may even feel a little achy, but you know the real pain won’t start until tomorrow. 

That’s because delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS, doesn’t typically begin until about 24 hours after exercise. When it peaks after two days, you may wish you’d never worked out in the first place, even though the pain means you’re growing stronger. But why does it take so long to hit you and how can you prevent soreness next time? 

Joel Hardwick, an exercise physiologist at Piedmont Atlanta Fitness Center, explains that your body needs time to break down and rebuild muscle. 

“Your body wants to make sure that you really are going to be better for this,” he says. 

How your body rebuilds muscle

The rebuilding process can’t start right away, Hardwick says, because there’s a lot of “housekeeping” to be done first. If you try a difficult workout you aren’t used to, you’ll end up with some low-grade muscle damage – think microtears in the tissue. Your body will flood the area with enzymes to help clear the damage, which will then trigger swelling and inflammation

Once the immune system response kicks in, pain will worsen. Soreness peaks about two to three days after you exercise, but after that, your body can rebuild muscle and you’ll be stronger for it.

How to avoid DOMS

Still, Hardwick says, you can improve your fitness without experiencing DOMS. The key is easing into new exercises and routines, which will help prevent damage to your muscles. 

“Progress slowly and be cautious,” he says. 

Stretching can also help you avoid sore muscles, but be mindful about which stretches you choose. A pre-workout regimen should include only dynamic stretches, which take a joint through an entire range of motion and increase blood flow. 

Static stretches, in which you hold a pose without movement, can raise your risk for injury if performed before exercise. Reserve these stretches for when your main routine is over. 

Who’s at risk for DOMS?

Even physically fit people aren’t immune to muscle soreness. For example, Hardwick says, a runner who suddenly decides to take up rock-climbing will use muscles that aren’t typically worked. Even though the runner might already be in good shape, they’ll probably feel some soreness after scaling rocks. 

DOMS can strike almost anywhere, but you’ll typically experience it after activities that lengthen a muscle, Hardwick says. Think about a bicep curl: Your arm lifts the weight, but it must also control that weight as it’s lowered back down. It’s the lowering that extends the muscle and leads to DOMS. 

Even so, there’s usually nothing to worry about. Muscles soreness is annoying, but it’s not really harmful to you, Hardwick says. 

“It’s a normal part of life,” he adds. 

Easing the pain from DOMS

DOMS can make you feel stiff, sore or achy, but it shouldn’t cause sharp or intense pain. If you have a significant level of pain, see your doctor to rule out an injury

If you get sore, don’t rush to buy over-the-counter supplements, because they probably won’t help. You can, however, try a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) like ibuprofen for pain relief. 

More exercise can also relieve soreness, albeit only temporarily. It’s perfectly safe to exercise through the pain, Hardwick says, though it’s probably best to avoid the same movements that caused DOMS last time. 

“If you have this muscle soreness, don’t do the same thing you did before,” Hardwick says. “Wait a couple of days before you go back to doing it.” 

Once the area is healed, you should be able to repeat the routine with less or no soreness (as long as you’re working out with the same amount of weight). Your muscles are now prepared for that level of strain.

The important thing to remember, Hardwick says, is that you don’t need to put your muscles through that level of stress. Start a new exercise routine slowly, which will allow your body to adjust over time. Improvement doesn’t have to equal pain.

“You can still achieve your goals,” Hardwick says, “without going hardcore.” 

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