If you’ve ever been sore when walking up a flight of stairs the day after a hard run: You are not alone. You probably found yourself wondering, Is this normal? We are here to report — and reassure — that it is. So why does it happen and is there anything you can actually do about it?
Here is everything you need to know about why you are sore for a few days after a tough run and how to make yourself more comfortable when it happens.
WHY WE ARE SORE POST-RUN
Soreness after a workout doesn’t discriminate; it can happen to both new and seasoned athletes alike. The term for this discomfort is Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS), and research has found it has a high incidence rate (especially after returning from time off or injury). According to Eric Ullman of ReThrive Wellness, a physical therapist in Scottsdale, Arizona, DOMS is completely normal; occurring within 24–48 hours of strenuous physical activity.
“[DOMS occurs] especially when the physical activity is new or has been modified or increased in duration or intensity,” adds Ullman. “Often, the soreness occurs after exercises with eccentric or lengthening contractions. Examples of eccentric contractions are: running downhill or downstairs, the lowering portion of a squat or lunge or the elbow-straightening portion of a bicep curl.”
The level of soreness athletes experience can vary, especially given the intensity and duration of exercise. While the exact cause of DOMS hasn’t been determined, there are theories ranging from lactic acid build up to muscle damage. With six theories in total, it has been acknowledged that DOMS is probably the result of multiple factors.
“The physical activity stresses the muscles beyond what they’re normally accustomed to and this leads to microscopic tears in the muscles,” explains Ullman. “The theory is that the microscopic tears lead to areas of inflammation, as the ‘damaged’ tissues are repaired. This ultimately leads to pain in the area worked. The muscle aches that result from the exercise lead to adaptations that makes them stronger over time.”
Ullman notes, in agreement with the literature, lactic acid was previously thought to be the sole culprit. However, recent research has found it clears the muscle quickly enough it wouldn’t lead to DOMS.
HOW TO KEEP MUSCLE SORENESS AT BAY
If muscle soreness is inevitable, can anything actually be done from a prevention standpoint? The answer is yes, given that there are things you can do to reduce the amount of soreness you experience. A few of these recovery methods include stretching, foam rolling and even self-myofascial release — which can be done before and/or after a run.
“For self-myofascial release, you want to start lying on the floor,” instructs Rachel Davies, PT, an expert-level John F. Barnes myofascial release practitioner of Essence Physical Therapy in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “Do some diaphragmatic breathing and gently rotate your knees from side to side. Play around with rotating your head one way or the other and stretching your arms straight out to the side and/or stretching your legs straight out. Find a position that feels like a good gentle stretch to you and stay there for 3–5 minutes for a myofascial release. Repeat this in three or more positions.”
As stated, this can be done in conjunction with other stretching and foam rolling. One study published in the Journal of Athletic Training found 20 minutes of foam rolling immediately post-exercise and every 24 hours thereafter markedly reduces DOMS and enhances recovery. When stretching — Ullman recommends doing so before and after a run — there should be a focus on the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, hip rotators and the trunk/spinal region.
“While there are different opinions as to how to treat the muscle soreness once it occurs, most health professionals agree with the general rules of prevention,” adds Ullman. “The rules of prevention include easing into exercise with gradual progressions in intensity and duration, especially if one is deconditioned. Also, a cooldown after running, incorporating a jog or walk or light aerobic activity after the run is key.”
WHEN TO SEE A SPECIALIST
All of this is to say that if you are sore for a few days post-run — especially after strenuous training or a race — you should not be alarmed. However, if you are experiencing what you think to be more than the expected soreness of DOMS, it is time to seek a specialist.
“In normal DOMS the nociceptors in the fascia are stimulated, causing temporary soreness,” shares Davies. “In soreness lasting longer than 3 days — [which is] abnormal — or in pain levels exceeding 2/10 on a pain scale, the myofascial tissue is restricted and tight from the dehydrated and solidified fascia. That’s when one needs to self treat or see a myofascial release therapist.”
In his practice, Ullman stresses the importance of distinguishing muscle soreness from exercise versus that from injury. “With sharp pain, and/or pain that lingers after activity or occurs during or immediately after exercise, this is often a sign of injury, [and] one should consult with a health professional, such as a physical therapist before resuming the exercises routine,” he advises.