How to Deal with Muscle Soreness and Identify Aches & Pains
Updated: Jun 14
Muscle pain after running is something that most of us experience from time to time. It’s completely normal to feel a little stiff or achy when you increase your training intensity, either for the first time or after a long break. But how do you know if what you're feeling is just regular muscle soreness from running – and what can you do to alleviate it?
First of all, know that mild or occasional aches after running are normal. You can expect to experience some minor soreness when you train with heavier loads, such as faster paces or the resistance of hills. Building up your mileage may also cause some mild discomfort at first, while your body adapts. Your body needs a bit of time to adjust to the increased volume of training. Balance that increase in training with good recovery, though, and the subsequent response and adaptations will make you stronger.
As you get better at listening to your body, you’ll learn how it reacts to the workouts you do and what's normal for you. For now, let’s break down some of those aches and pains and how to deal with them.
Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS)
This post-exercise muscle soreness is a general feeling of soreness or tightness typically felt in the entire muscle group and about equal on both sides of the body. As a runner, you’ll typically experience soreness in your hips and legs. Your glutes and hamstrings may feel achy from hill training or faster paces, your quads will bear the load of downhill running, and your calves may tighten up from speed, hills, or lower-drop shoes.
To help prevent discomfort, hydrate well, and remember to warm up, cool down and stretch. Dehydration, fatigue, and overtraining can all increase soreness and pain after exercising, so make sure you train smart and prepare for every run.
To relieve the pain, try foam rolling, additional stretching or using a warm compress. Ice baths are very effective, but unless you train daily and need to maximize your recovery and performance, you may prefer relaxing with some heat. An Epsom salt bath, hot tub or sauna does wonders! Regular sports massages are also excellent both for the prevention of soreness and improved recovery after a hard workout or race.
Don't rush into your next workout when you're feeling sore.
You also need to incorporate very easy recovery days into your running routine, including rest days and easy running days that serve as active recovery. Give yourself permission to go super easy (this is when you JOG!) and remember that the purpose of those recovery runs is to simply move your legs and flush your muscles.
Try adding an easy recovery run the day after a long run or race. Even if running is the last thing you want to do, go just a mile or two at a very easy pace. You may be surprised to find that your legs feel better for it!
When it’s More than Muscle Soreness
The D in DOMS stands for “delayed” – it’s something you feel hours later or the following day. If a sharp, new or sudden pain starts when you’re running it is something else.
Pay attention to anything that feels unfamiliar, and stop your run if any pain gets worse, feels sharp, or registers more than a 3 out of 10. Ask yourself some questions: Where is the pain? Is there an obvious cause? Did you just sprint all out without warming up properly, or are you taking your brand new shoes on a long run right out of the box? Did you slip off a curb, or have you been ignoring that nagging pain for weeks?
Stay aware of the sensations.
Take note if post-workout muscle aches linger and don’t respond to your usual self-care habits. It could mean you are overtraining or developing an overuse injury. This is especially the case if you start experiencing muscle soreness from your typical training load or easy running that doesn’t usually give you any trouble.
As a new runner, or if you’re adding mileage, hills, or speed for the first time, you may be more susceptible to overuse injuries such as plantar fasciitis or shin splints.
Don’t ignore stubborn pain – the sooner you address it, the faster you can get back to your full training routine.
Other causes of new aches include worn running shoes that have lost their midsole cushioning. When that happens, your body will let you know about it with new aches and pains. And if you get new shoes that are very different from the old ones you’re used to, they might alter your running form or highlight an imbalance or weakness.
If you can easily pinpoint a cause, the fix could be straightforward and quick.
Drink more water, and break in those shoes gently. Spend a few extra minutes warming up; use a foam roller; stretch it out. Dial back on the intensity and build up more gradually. Take an extra rest day and catch up on your sleep.
If you’re in tune with your body and listening to the clues it’s giving you, your intuition will tell you if it’s time to seek help.
What to Do if You’re in Doubt
If you don’t recognize the pain you’re experiencing, see an expert before it becomes chronic or turns into an injury. Dr. Google doesn’t know your health and running history and is far from the best place to get a diagnosis.
If you’re a member of a running group, ask for recommendations and find your trusted team of experts. That team should include soft tissue, movement and injury specialists like a physical therapist, sports medicine doctor, sports massage therapist, chiropractor, and/or acupuncturist. Use them not just for the treatment of pain but also preventatively, for maintenance and to support your training, so you can avoid a lot of aches and pains altogether.
For advice and support on training smart and staying healthy at any level of running, check out our coaching options from 1-on-1 to small groups and community!