Fitness Tips

What It Really Means When You’re Still Sore Days Later—And What To Do About It

Photo: Getty Images/nensuria
You knew that your workout earlier in the week was a killer. But now it’s been two days, and you’re still feeling sore. Is that a sign of an especially good workout, or a sign you overdid it? How can you tell the difference between the kind of soreness that means you worked hard, and the kind that indicates something is wrong?

Why you might be extra sore days after a workout

First of all, you really shouldn’t be sore all the time. “In a lot of fitness spaces, there’s a culture that tells people if they’re not sore, not sweating profusely, and not getting peeled off the ground at the end of a workout, they’re not working hard enough. But if we’re training appropriately, that’s really not the case,” says Justin Roethlingshoefer, an exercise physiologist and founder of Own It, a digital platform that helps coaches interpret fitness tracker data for their athletes.

However, intense or lingering muscle soreness isn’t always a sign that you worked too hard, either. Soreness is typically triggered by activities you aren’t accustomed to, so if you tried a new class or kind of workout, don’t be surprised if your muscles ache afterward.

In particular, soreness is often associated with eccentric muscle action. That’s when a muscle is contracting as it’s lengthening: think running downhill, or lowering down into your squat or push-up. So if your workout included lots of eccentric muscle actions—like maybe if you lifted weights at a slower tempo than usual—it’s normal to feel sore afterward.

Know that a “normal” amount of soreness is different for every body

If your muscle soreness often lingers, that might just be what’s typical for your body. According to Roethlingshoefer, there are genetic factors that make some people predisposed to more soreness than others. First, some of us produce higher levels of interleukin 6, a protein created by the immune system and involved in the body’s inflammatory response. “When interleukin 6 is higher, that tells us we are genetically prone to having more inflammation, which means we’re going to be more prone to soreness,” Roethlingshoefer says.

Another biomarker, called superoxide dismutase 2—SOD2 for short—is an enzyme that helps your body break down toxins, a necessary part of muscle recovery. “If you happen to have that gene for high inflammation paired with low SOD2, you may be more prone to having muscle soreness for days after a hard workout,” says Roethlingshoefer.

There are genetic tests on the market that can identify these and other factors that affect sports performance. If you’re a serious athlete, it might be worth talking to a sports physiologist to see if genetic testing could be worthwhile for you. But even in the absence of fancy tests, trust your sense of what’s normal for your body: If you’re unreasonably more sore than usual, or the soreness is lasting for longer than usual, that’s your sign that something is amiss.

So what are the indicators that you really have overdone it?

If you track your heart rate variability, a sudden plunge that lasts for several days is a sign of overtraining. So are sleep disruption and elevated heart rate for 24 to 48 hours, says Roethlingshoefer.

Be on the lookout for the signs of rhabdomyolysis, “a serious condition that can be fatal or result in long-term disability,” he says. Several factors can lead to this condition, but one of the most common causes is high intensity exercise. The classic triad of symptoms includes pain in the shoulders, thighs, and low back; muscle weakness or trouble moving the extremities; and dark brown urine. If you notice these, see your doctor right away to get treated and tested.

If you’re really sore but not experiencing any of these red flag symptoms, the issue may not be your training—it might be what you did (or didn’t) do afterward. In addition to making sure you get plenty of sleep and hydrate well, if persistent soreness is an issue for you, Roethlingshoefer suggests checking in with a dietitian to see if you can adjust your diet to better combat inflammation. You could also try wearing compression garments after a workout, or using alternating heat and cold, like going from a sauna to a cold plunge. “Always end with cold,” he says. If you do have access to a sauna, he recommends trying some gentle, static stretching while in the heat.

“Often, we’re not actually overtrained. We are under-recovered,” says Roethlingshoefer.

If your body feels like it needs a stretch, try this yoga-based recovery routine:

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