Overview

If your muscles are sore, you might wonder if you should continue with your workouts or rest. In some cases, active recovery exercise like stretching and walking can be beneficial to sore muscles. But the decision to continue depends on the severity of soreness and symptoms you’re experiencing.

Read on to learn more about when it’s all right to work out sore, and when you should rest and recover.

What are the benefits?

If you’re slightly sore, an “active” recovery may be beneficial. It may feel good to:

  • stretch out sore muscles
  • do light resistance exercises, such as core strengthening workouts
  • do low-intensity cardio, such as walking or swimming

You can also focus on muscle groups that you didn’t work previously. For example, add in an arm weight workout the day after a run.

In addition to feeling good, light recovery exercise may offer other health benefits. Mobility, or full-range, exercises like walking or easy cycling lead to more blood pumping through the muscles. This increase in blood flow may help you recover from soreness sooner. That is, as long as you aren’t overloading or challenging the muscles more.

Recovery exercises may even offer the same benefits as getting a massage. One study compared soreness in a group of participants 48 hours after they performed upper trapezius muscle exercises.

Some participants received a 10-minute massage following the workout. Others performed exercises with a resistance band. Researchers concluded that both recoveries were equally effective in temporarily helping with delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), but more research is needed.

Muscle damage and muscle growth

Microscopic tears in the muscle, or a breakdown in muscle tissue, likely causes DOMS after a workout. Trying a new type of exercise or increasing the intensity can increase how sore you are in the days following a workout.

Over time, though, your muscles become resilient to that exercise. They won’t break down or tear as easily.

In response to micro tears, the body will use satellite cells to fix the tears and build them up more over time. This protects against future damage and leads to muscle growth.

It’s important to get enough protein in your diet and allow your muscles to rest for this process to occur.

What are the risks?

Gentle recovery exercises can be beneficial. But overtraining can be harmful and even dangerous for your health.

If you experience the following symptoms, it’s important to take time off from exercise and allow your body to rest. Let your doctor know about any of the following:

  • increased resting heart rate
  • depression or mood changes
  • increased amount of colds or other illness
  • overuse injuries
  • muscle or joint pain
  • constant fatigue
  • insomnia
  • decreased appetite
  • worsening of athletic performance or little improvement, even after rest

Injury vs. soreness

Soreness can feel uncomfortable, but shouldn’t be very painful. The discomfort usually decreases 48 to 72 hours later.

Symptoms of an athletic injury may include:

  • sharp pain
  • feeling uncomfortable or nauseated
  • pain that won’t go away
  • swelling
  • tingling or numbness
  • areas of black or blue marks
  • loss of function to the injured area

If you experience these symptoms, see your doctor. They may recommend at-home treatments like ice or medication. For a more serious injury, your doctor may use X-rays to help them plan out further treatment.

Tips for preventing soreness

To prevent DOMS, cool down after exercising. Unlike a warmup, during a cooldown you’re gradually bringing your heart rate down and adjusting your body back to a resting state.

Start with a gentle walk or easy spin on a stationary bike for 5 to 10 minutes. Stretching for the next 5 to 10 minutes can also help clear out lactic acid from the body. Lactic acid builds up when you exercise and can cause a burning feeling in your muscles. Clearing it out will allow you to bounce back sooner when you next work out.

You can also use a foam roller to release any tension after exercise.

In the days following your muscle soreness, these recovery workouts may help prevent or reduce soreness:

  • yoga
  • stretching or resistance band exercises
  • walking or easy hiking
  • swimming laps
  • easy cycling

If you’re starting a new fitness routine or trying a new type of exercise for the first time, it’s important to go slow at first. Gradually increasing the intensity and frequency of exercise will help prevent soreness. And remember to always get your doctor’s approval before starting a new exercise routine.

Depending on your fitness level and how sore you are, you can usually resume workouts within a few days to a week following recovery. Work with a certified fitness professional to create an exercise regimen that’s safe and effective for you.

The takeaway

In most cases, gentle recovery exercises like walking or swimming are safe if you’re sore after working out. They may even be beneficial and help you recover faster. But it’s important to rest if you’re experiencing symptoms of fatigue or are in pain.

See a doctor if you believe you’re injured, or if the soreness doesn’t go away after a few days.

Even professional athletes take days off. Working rest and recovery days into your regular exercise routine will allow you to perform better the next time you hit the gym.