Many people who are new to an exercise program or who are increasing the intensity of their workouts feel a variety of aches and pains. What’s normal? When do you need to seek treatment or tone down your exercise program? As an exercise physiologist at Good Shepherd’s Optimal Fitness  gym, I can provide a few guidelines. But whenever you are in doubt about pain or an injury, see your physician.
Eccentric (lengthening) exercise, such as running downhill or extending your arm during a bicep curl, causes microscopic tears in the muscle fibers that may result in pain. But before you turn these aches and pains into an excuse to give up exercise altogether, know that these tears are normal. This process is known as DOMS, or delayed-onset muscle growth. The tears heal in 24 to 48 hours and are responsible, in part, for muscle growth.
However, overtraining or overuse of muscles (such as strength training the same muscle group twice within a 24 hour period), may cause more severe pain and indicate an injury, which can affect both beginners and experienced exercisers. Generally, pain associated with DOMS peaks 48 hours after exercise and then gradually subsides. This is a sign of adaptation and should disappear a few days after you do the exercise. The more you continue to exercise, the more your muscles will adapt.
Prevention and Healing
Make sure that you warm up slowly and stretch after exercise. Ease into your exercise program by gradually increasing length or intensity. The best thing to do is to listen to your body.
After a few weeks you will begin to feel what normal DOMS is for you. A general ache that isn't in a specific spot and only bothers you when you move in a certain way is most likely due to DOMS.
Taking time off occasionally allows the muscle cells to rebuild and is the best way to alleviate aches and pains. If you decide to exercise while experiencing DOMS, you may need to work at a lower intensity to accommodate a temporary loss in strength.
Icing the muscle and anti-inflammatory medications, such as ibuprofen, can help alleviate pain. Alternating light aerobic exercise with strength training serves to stimulate circulation and aids in muscle relaxation and endorphin production.
Nutrition also plays a role: Certain processed foods, caffeine and alcohol may increase pain. So keep a food journal to identify factors that may trigger pain.
Playing It Safe
If you have a medical condition or are unsure about exercising, check with your physician before starting an exercise program. Your doctor can help you find an exercise program that is safe and effective for you, whether it be a walking program or at a hospital-based fitness center.
If your pain increases or changes at any time, or something doesn’t look or feel quite right, seek medical treatment. Swelling, irritation or redness may be signs of injury. Listen to your body – it can teach you a lot!