Muscle soreness after a tough workout is your body’s natural reaction to exercise. In fact, “a little bit of inflammation is part of how the body signals that it’s going to rebuild,” said Aimee Layton, an assistant professor of applied physiology at Columbia University and a member of the Peloton Health and Wellness Advisory Council.
But pain is not normal; instead, it can be a sign of injury — and a cue to rest and let your body heal.
“It’s important not to ignore your body when it’s signaling pain,” Layton said. “There’s a reason pain receptors exist.”
A little bit of soreness when you’re building muscle — which is OK — is quite different from a sharp pain “that you should not push through,” she added.
How exactly can you know the difference? Experts told HuffPost about the signs that indicate an injury after a workout and what to do about it.
Look out for swelling or stiffness
One red flag is swelling around a joint after a workout, according to Dr. Michael Fredericson, a sports medicine physician at Stanford Health Care.
Any stiffness around joints in the knees, hips, ankles or lower back is also concerning, he said, while adding that stiffness around a muscle you worked out is normal.
You should take notice if joint or muscle stiffness is ever “impairing your ability to walk,” Fredericson said. If that’s the case, you should get in touch with your doctor.
Notice how quickly the discomfort starts
“Soreness will usually come in one to two days after the workout,” Layton said. Injuries, meanwhile, are much more immediate.
“The pain from injury usually occurs during the workout” or directly afterward, she added.
You may notice that a muscle hurts once you stop using it, for example. Cases in which you might immediately feel pain include making a misstep while running or overexerting your shoulder while lifting weights.
Injuries don’t get better during a warmup
No matter how much warming up or stretching you do, an injury won’t get less painful, Layton said.
Doing forward bends is not going to make a pulled hamstring feel better, for example. Instead, it will probably feel worse as you warm up — and will definitely feel worse if you try to work out.
But when you are just dealing with soreness rather than an injury, a prolonged warmup will make the muscle feel better as you get it moving, Layton said.
Try the RICE method for slight injuries
If you notice a mild injury, “the typical recommendation is the RICE method” — or using rest, ice, compression and elevation — Fredericson said. This approach is most helpful within two days of an injury, particularly if there is swelling, he added.
To minimize any swelling in the first 24 to 48 hours, you will want to compress the injured area and elevate it above the level of your heart. This “can be helpful to drain the fluid,” Fredericson said.
If you’re well beyond the 48-hour mark or the RICE method hasn’t alleviated the pain when you work out, you may need to see a doctor, Layton stressed. The RICE method is still helpful, but you can couple it with additional treatment from your doctor or a sports performance center, she added.
To prevent injuries, warm up and cool down every time
You’re probably well aware of the benefits of a good warmup and cooldown when exercising. A warmup gets your body ready for a workout, while a cooldown reduces your heart rate afterward.
Both decrease the risk of injury and intense soreness after strenuous exercise. You should be warming your body up and cooling it down before and after every workout, Fredericson stressed.
“You don’t want to just jump into vigorous exercise,” he said. Instead, start with easy movements like jogging or jumping rope.
You can end a workout with so-called dynamic stretching — referring to leg swings and other fast-moving stretches — as well as static stretching, which entails holding a position for 20 seconds or longer.
But you shouldn’t do static stretching before a workout, Fredericson said. Instead, save this for after you exercise.
Try post-workout massages or foam rolling, too
If you want to take your after-workout recovery to the next level, sports massages or deep-tissue massages can help, Fredericson said.
Another option is to use a foam roller. When combined with stretching, “that’s a way to kind of do your own deep-tissue massage,” Fredericson said.
Theragun devices and similar tools can also help massage your sore muscles, he added.
Listen to your body
Everyone has a “biological envelope,” or the limit of activity that a person’s body can handle, Fredericson said. Much of preventing injuries while promoting a healthy fitness routine relates to “getting to know your body and understanding what your body can tolerate,” he said.
If your body can’t accommodate a certain kind of exercise, it is more likely to cause joint swelling or deeper muscle soreness, he said.
Most people instinctively know the difference between pain and soreness-related discomfort, Layton added.
“There is a level of discomfort when we’re exercising that is normal,” she said, like running for that extra 15 seconds to build endurance or, sometimes, just committing to a day’s workout. But pain is very different, and you shouldn’t ignore it.