The Runner’s guide to muscle soreness

A great sommelier can breathe in the scent of a glass of wine and tell you what year and in which county the grapes grew. A great runner should have have a similar ability with their sore legs. If you can wake up in the morning, take a few steps, and immediately know what’s going on with your body, you’ll be a healthier, savvier, and eventually faster runner. Today we’ll explain what causes muscle soreness, help you know when it’s totally normal or when it suggests a problem, and then show you the best way to get rid of it!

The different kinds of muscle soreness

Soreness comes in a few different forms, each with its own cause. Learning the different kinds of muscle soreness will help you distinguish between normal training and potential problems

Soreness during or right after a run

During the last few reps of a hard workout or honestly the last 16 miles of a marathon, your legs feel like a set of flaming dumpsters or a pair of red hot anvils. This mid and post run soreness (called Acute Muscle Soreness or AMS) is the result of the physical and chemical strain running puts on the muscles.

Running hard physically loads the muscle tissues beyond what they can sustain for long, so they begin to use the nervous system to complain to the brain (the heaviness, soreness, and outright pain you feel). Also, things like lactic acid, H+ ions, and calcium (all of which are normal products of strenuous use of the nervous + muscle systems) build up and create an inflammatory response that your brain also hears about. That’s the burning, tingling, and general suffering you feel from the lower back down.

Pushing ourselves beyond our highest level of comfortable fitness hurts in the moment, but this kind of soreness usually goes away by the next day. Then comes the delayed onset muscle soreness or DOMS.

Delayed onset muscle soreness

Contrary to popular belief, the lactic acid that makes your legs burn and feel like lead on a hard run does not cause the muscle soreness runners feel the morning or few days after a big run, workout, or race. The body moves lactic acid out of the muscles within a few hours, and even though acid sounds like it’d leave a sore and painful residue, it’s not the underlying cause of Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness aka DOMS.

The biologists and physiologists of the world don’t perfectly understand what causes this condition, but the sensation is thought to be a combination of microscopic tears to the muscles that the body is actively repairing and a subconscious form of self regulation. Your body makes you feel extra sore, so you don’t do another hard workout and interrupt it it while it’s in the middle of repairing muscle and adapting a new level of fitness.

Persistent soreness from running

If a body part frequently feels sore after runs or consistently bothers you, that’s a good sign the demands of training have gone beyond the tolerance of that body part. The tissues use the nervous system to communicate with the brain and request changes. If we want to keep running on that sore body part, the best way to get rid of this kind of soreness (unless you suspect you’ve suffered an acute injury) is to encourage the body part to get stronger. That means gradually introducing resistance training exercises, aka prehab. For a specific list of exercises for each type of ache and pain, check out our running injury encyclopedia.

The best way to get rid of running related soreness

When it comes to getting rid of soreness, you’ve got to find the right cure for the problem you’re solving. Here are the most evidence based ways to solve each kind of soreness.

Mid-Run Soreness. Let the body do its thing. This is a natural response to hard running and sadly, not even Recover Athletics has a solution to the pain of the tempo run other than doing more of them and getting fitter!

DOMS. Active recovery like very light running, walking, and other forms of easy cardio consistently proves itself to be the best way to get rid of delayed onset muscles soreness (study). If you’re feeling sore, crank that pace down to a near walk and do an easy 10-30 minutes. Great runners have done various forms of this since the 1890’s when the men trying to break the mile world record used long walks through the countryside to recover from their sprint workouts. Decades later, the best runners still do similar easy efforts to recover.

Persistent & Body-part Specific Soreness. Prehab is the best solution here. Gradually making specific body parts stronger will prevent them from sending that soreness signal to the brain. Strengthening the problem areas pretty much cures everything!

The human body evolved over millions of years to be fantastic at exercise. Humans are one of the best distance running animals, so trust that when you get sore it’s for a reason. It’s a sign that you’re adapting to training, or a signal that you need to prehab a specific body part.

Learning to listen to his body and respond to what I heard was the key to success in my running career.”

Frank ShorterOlympian

We hope this soreness guide can act as a Google translate for your soreness and help you make decisions that help you achieve your running goals!

If a custom strength training routine that matches your training, a soreness log where you can watch your aches and pains disappear, and injury prevention routines from pro runners sounds interesting, you should schedule a visit with us

If you don’t know Recover, we’re so glad you stopped by our page. We’ve made it our mission to help people free their boddy and enjoy life preventint and treating injuries. Meet our team.

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