Muscle soreness: no pain, no gain?

Published 8:12 pm Saturday, April 5, 2014

By Meagan Overman

No pain, no gain! I hear this statement very frequently, whether in a fitness magazine or even from the members here at Vidant Wellness Center. This statement is a common myth about exercise and sport science: if you don’t experience pain, then you cannot gain any benefit from the exercise. In this article, I will discuss muscle soreness and its causes, as well as the best way to treat and prevent it from occurring.

Muscle soreness is usually incurred from performing an activity you are not accustomed to doing, suddenly increasing the intensity or duration of your workout or performing eccentric exercises, in which you lengthen instead of shorten the muscles being worked (i.e. walking downhill).

There are two types of muscle soreness that you may experience following exercise; the first being temporary soreness that may persist for several hours after exercise and the later being delayed-onset muscle soreness. Temporary soreness is common in those who exercise after an extended period of not exercising regularly. This soreness usually dissipates within 24 hours and does not occur if you participate in regular activity.

Delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) begins approximately 24 hours after exercise and peaks around 48 hours. This type of muscle soreness can last up to three or four days and it gradually dissipates. There are several physiological changes that take place and result in DOMS. DOMS may be characterized as a result of one or a combination of these physiological changes. They include: minute tears in muscle tissue, fluid retention in the surrounding tissues, muscle spasms, overstretching/tearing of connective tissue, and acute inflammation. The degree of discomfort caused by DOMS is directly related to the intensity and duration of the exercise performed; the higher the intensity and/or length of the exercise will result in a higher degree of discomfort.

If muscle soreness is a barrier to exercise for you, there are ways to reduce having to deal with the discomfort of muscle soreness. Before every exercise session, you should always gradually warm-up. Save stretching for after your workout; your muscles are already warm and will help prevent tearing or injuring the muscle. Also, gradually build up the intensity and duration of your workout; increasing either intensity or duration too soon will likely result in muscle soreness. If exercising is new to you or you are returning to exercise from an extended break, the good news is that a single exercise session can protect you against muscle soreness for up to six weeks, and the more regularly you exercise, the less likely you will be to experience muscle soreness. (You should always check with your doctor before beginning any exercise regime.)

There are also a few measures you can take to help ease the discomfort of muscle soreness. Using ice and heat on the area may help. Apply ice first to help reduce any inflammation, and follow-up with heat to increase blood flow to the area. There are also several over-the-counter drugs you may take, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (naproxen, ibuprofen), or aspirin. It is important to check with your doctor to see if any of these over-the-counter drugs may interact with any of your current prescription medications. Also, you should use caution when taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, as long-term use can hinder the ability of your muscles to repair themselves. In addition to these two methods, it is important to stay active when you are experiencing muscle soreness. A light workout is beneficial and will not impair the muscle repair process. Sometimes muscle soreness can be an indicator that you have an injury, if you experience sudden and intense muscle pain during activity or the pain lasts for more than a few days, seek medical attention.

Lastly, it is not imperative that you experience muscle soreness to benefit from your workout routine. Remember that it is normal to experience muscle soreness when you are just starting an exercise routine or as a result of intensifying your workout, but over time our bodies become stronger and more efficient and muscle soreness will not occur. This does not mean that you are not getting results from your workout! If you do experience serious muscle soreness during your workout, seek medical attention and the advice of one of our exercise professionals here at Vidant Wellness Center. We can show you how to get an effective workout without the soreness – no pain, BIG GAIN!

Meagan Overman, MS, CES, is an Exercise Physiologist at Vidant Wellness Center. Contact her at (252) 975-4236 or