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Here's Everything You Need To Know About Being Sore

That January gym kick is fun until you can't move.

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If you made fitness your New Year's resolution, you've probably had your fair share of sore days in the last month. But don't let the dreaded day-after-leg-day keep you out of the gym and sitting sadly on the couch. We reached out to two fitness experts: Dr. Harry Pino, Ph.D., exercise physiologist at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City, and certified strength and conditioning specialist Tony Gentilcore, Boston-based personal trainer and fitness coach, to find out more about why you're actually sore and how to make it a little less terrible.

1. First of all, soreness is a natural physiological response to exercise.

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That strained, sore feeling you have after working out actually has a clinical name: "delayed onset muscle soreness," or DOMS for short, says Gentilcore. "The skeletal muscle — what you work during exercise — actually swells a little so it feels stiff and tender to the touch and there's a temporary reduction in muscle strength," says Pino. It's a totally normal part of your body's healing and recovery process. DOMS is especially common in beginners who aren't accustomed to the intensity or volume of exercise, but it can happen to anyone no matter their fitness level.

2. The pain is actually from tiny micro-tears in the muscle that your body is repairing — which is how muscles get big!

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"DOMS is really a side effect of the repair process that develops in response to micro-tears and muscle damage from high-intensity exercise," says Pino. So when you run for a few hours, it literally causes disruptions of muscle fibers and connective tissue. "When the muscle has tears, you feel sore but it will heal by developing this kind of scar tissue called sarcolemma, which makes it thicker and thicker over time and that's how you develop bigger muscles," Pino explains. So soreness is really just a side effect of the repair process and your muscles getting swole.

3. Soreness isn't really caused by lactic acid, which was a popular belief for a long time.

A common myth is that soreness comes from a buildup of lactic acid in the muscle, but this was debunked about ten years ago. "Lactic acid is a product of exercise, but it's getting burned off so it'll disappear in the body within five hours," Gentilcore says. "It's important that people understand soreness isn't from lactic acid, but repairing micro-tears, so they don't try to jump back into exercise or shake it off and end up with an injury," Pino says.

4. Important: There's a big difference between typical muscle soreness and actual pain from overtraining or injury.

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Yes, soreness is a totally normal part of exercise — but there is a point where the soreness is legitimate pain. "If you continue having intense pain after the 72-hour range, it could be an injury or tear and you need to see a doctor," Pino says. It should be especially concerning if you have pain or swelling in the knees or ankles and it's still difficult to walk after running, Pino says, which could be a sign of an injury to your joint which requires treatment such as a brace or support.

The experts suggest figuring out how your normal pain from soreness ranges on a scale from one to ten — one being mild stiffness and ten being extreme pain — so that you don't overexert yourself. If you're between one and five, you're probably within a good volume and intensity of exercise. If your soreness starts to creep up past six, seven, or beyond, you probably need to readjust what you're doing in the gym, Gentilcore says.

5. But you probably shouldn't take pain meds like Advil or Tylenol unless your soreness is really bad.

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Popping over-the-counter pain meds might seem like a quick fix, but soreness should be more of a manageable discomfort, Pino says. Both expert recommends not taking them regularly for soreness and especially not before to prevent it. Studies have shown that non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like Advil and Motrin can affect skeletal muscle development. Also, you just shouldn't be consistently working out to the point of soreness that requires medication. That said, if you occasionally go a little too hard and are in actual pain, Pino suggests an extended-release pain reliever. Just don't make it a habit.

6. After a serious workout, your muscles usually get sore within 12-24 hours.

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That's why you may feel like a total champ right after your workout is over, but the next morning you can't even lift yourself out of bed. "Soreness typically peaks at around 24-48 hours after the exercise and it goes away within about three days, five max," Pino says. So even though it feels like you'll never walk again, you should be back to normal in about 72 hours.

7. How sore you are really depends on the length and intensity of your workout.

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Typically the harder and longer you go, the more likely you are to be sore, says Pino. But working a new muscle group that you don't normally exercise can also cause soreness — so it's important to start slow and low with any new routine, whether you're trying a new machine or just starting to run.

"Your body will begin to adapt and strengthen over time so you get less sore from certain exercises, but any time you increase the intensity of exercise a little too much, your body will naturally respond to that overexertion with soreness," says Gentilcore.

8. You'll probably get all-over sore if you go hard with a new exercise.

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"If you aren't familiar with the type of exercise, the muscle groups used to support the exercise aren't developed enough so other muscles will overcompensate," says Pino. A very common example is running — which many people jump into with poor form. When you run incorrectly, your joints aren't in proper alignment so you end up stressing them in the wrong way and they can't handle the force of running, says Gentilcore.

The consequences of this are usually shin splints and knee or hip pain, but you can actually injure yourself. The same goes for popping into a deep squat or a deadlift with bad form and straining the muscles in your back. "Seek out a reputable coach or trainer to teach you the proper techniques before you start a new exercise," Gentilcore says.

9. So working on your form and posture can actually help reduce soreness.

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"Many people think they have a sore back from deadlifts but it isn't the lifting causing soreness, it's their terrible posture causing them to overexert certain joints." says Gentilcore. Likewise, if you're doing bodyweight exercises like squats or planks incorrectly, it can really take a toll on your back. So you might think you just need to stretch more, when the problem is actually bad posture and pelvic position. Check out the resources on BodyBuilding.com for tutorials.

10. You don't need to be super sore to have a good workout.

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When it comes to the phrase "no pain, no gain," you should take it with a grain of salt. Yes, soreness is a normal part of gaining muscle mass and you can't avoid it – but it shouldn't be something you seek out. "Many people see soreness as a badge of honor for a hard workout but that's a dangerous precedent to set," Gentilcore says. The experts warn that this mindset can quickly cause you to overexert yourself and end up missing days or even weeks at the gym.

"If you aren't sore at all, you might want to increase the intensity of your workout but do it gradually so you don't hurt yourself," Pino says. And as soon as you do start to feel pain, lighten up your exercise level to give your body a rest.

11. Rest is important, but the best cure for sore muscles is active recovery.

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"The best thing you can do is active recovery, a light exercise for 20-30 minutes which helps stimulate blood flow to the muscles which are sore," says Pino. Active recovery includes anything that mimics your normal exercise but with a much lower intensity such as going slow on the elliptical or stationary bike, fast-walking, or light bodyweight and circuit exercises. "You need rest, but plopping on the couch won't help," says Pino. And neither will a super intense workout the next day — which can fatigue your muscles even more.

12. It's also important to get adequate hydration and nutrition.

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"Sleep and hydration are the two recovery strategies people often overlook, but they're probably the most important," Gentilcore says. Besides getting enough rest and drinking a ton of water, it's important to replace electrolytes and get proper nutrition. "Protein really helps with repairing the microtears in your muscles and you should also get potassium which is essential for muscle contraction," Pino says.

13. Stretching and foam rolling are basically necessary if you want to prevent or alleviate soreness.

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"I prefer active or dynamic stretching, which requires you to move through the poses and helps with blood flow," says Gentilcore. You should do this before a workout (here's a great resource to get you started), and end your workout with some static stretching.

Gentilcore also suggests foam rolling, where you roll different parts of your body over a foam cylinder on the ground — like a big rolling pin underneath you. It literally rolls out your muscles, and by doing so kind of breaks up stuff called fascia, a connective tissue in the muscles which can cause stiffness and pain. For some moves to get you started, check out bodybuilding.com.

14. You can also soothe sore muscles with ice packs or a cold bath within the first 12 hours.

"If you have soreness, there is a 12-hour window after exercise where ice packs and cold baths — around 45 or 50 degrees — can help soothe the muscles and reduce swelling," Pino says. Just be careful to place the ice pack in a towel and not directly on your skin. After icing, Pino says it can help to switch to heat from the bath or heat wraps and patches. But it's important to remember that ice and heat only help you feel better, they don't speed up the micro-tear repair process which causes soreness.

15. And you probably shouldn't rely on those topical "cooling" creams and sprays, because they don't actually do much.

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"It's just superficial heating or cooling," says Gentilcore. "Does it feel good? Yeah. But is it doing anything? No," he says. And avoid numbing sprays, which could actually hurt you. "If you feel like the muscle is fine and relaxed then you go to stretch or exert the muscle too hard and boom — you'll strain it," Pino says. Instead, Pino suggests Kinesio taping which can help a little bit to support the muscle and increase blood flow. But overall, healing soreness just takes time and TLC.

16. You can't totally prevent soreness, but staying within your exercise means and cross-training can help.

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"My biggest recommendation is to be real with your fitness level and don't go for too long or too hard if you do know your limit," Pino says. It also helps to let your body get familiar with certain types of exercise (with correct form) so you can better develop and strengthen those muscle groups.

Then, make sure to cross-train so you're always working different muscle groups and getting a good whole-body workout. And always remember to cool down after intense workouts — with something like walking, light bodyweight exercises, or yoga.

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