Too Much of a Good Thing
Pain is an integral part of your workout.
This is actually a good thing! Pain functions as our body’s way of communicating status updates to our brain. Without pain, you could quickly cause long-term damage to your body from physical exertion. Think of the pain experienced when you grab a hot skillet from the stove without an oven mitt. Just as the pain alerts you to mitigate the damage to your skin caused by the burn, pain during exercise alerts you to potential damage.
But we know from working out that, in addition to signaling potential injury, pain also signals gains. During strength training, the forces from trying to move the weights cause the muscle fibers to tear and break down. Our body then repairs the muscle tissue, resulting in stronger fibers that are capable of handling heavier loads. In a sustained, progressive strength-training program, this process of break-down-and-repair results in stronger muscle over time.
The key is being able to determine the difference between pain that is a result of this process of building muscle, versus pain that is the result of an injury. Here are some key factors to consider when trying to determine whether what you are feeling is a positive result of your hard work or an injury to treated.
TYPE | Pain during strength training is typical. Pain that quickly improves after stopping the activity is normal; resting between sets of strength-training exercises allows the muscles to recover. Acute pain that occurs suddenly during the exercise — and does not improve quickly upon stopping the exercise — could be the sign of an injury. You could also experience some delayed-onset soreness one to three days after your workout, which is normal. If it is your first workout after a prolonged period of inactivity, it may last even longer. But soreness that lasts longer than a week or does not start to improve should be referred to a medical professional.
LOCATION | The type of positive pain from a workout should be focused in the muscles. If the source of the pain you are experiencing seems to be located in the joint or where the muscle attaches to the joint, this could symptomatic of an injury that needs treatment.
DURATION | Soreness from a good workout can last for a few days after the workout (even longer if you have been inactive for a period of time). If the soreness seems to be lingering longer than this (especially longer than a week), then it could be a sign of an injury.
TREATMENT | The positive kind of muscle soreness will generally improve by warming up the muscles and getting them moving with light physical activity, paired with stretching. A good example of this is doing some light cycling followed by stretching the day after doing strength training with your leg muscles. If this sort of activity seems to worsen the soreness, or if the soreness seems to improve only with rest, then it could be an injury that needs to be addressed with treatment.