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4 ways to minimise exercise pain

When it comes to exercise, many of us subscribe to the adage ‘no pain, no gain’. But not all exercise-related pain is positive. Here’s a quick primer on differentiating between ‘good pain’ and ‘bad pain’ and tips for faster recovery. 

Do you associate pain from exercise with effectiveness? Or push yourself to the absolute limit to get better results (the old ‘no pain, no gain’ mentality)? It sounds counterintuitive, but your grit may actually undermine your progress by increasing the risk of injury and/or prolonging recovery time. (Goodbye, fourth workout. Hello, physio appointment.) While some pain during or after exercise can be harmless (e.g. feeling the burn from lactic acid or a couple of days of DOMS), and you do need to push yourself past comfort to get results, here’s how to know if you’ve crossed the line and tips to fast-track recovery.

Warning signs that your pain has crossed the line 

SIGN: Acute or sharp pain in muscles or joints that affects movement during exercise (e.g. a sharp twinge or stab). 

SOLUTION: Stop the exercise! 

SIGN: Sloppy form/technique may mean you’ve past an optimal level of fatigue and are at increased risk of injury. Stop the exercise! 

SIGN: DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) that inhibits movement beyond a couple of days after a gruelling workout. 

SOLUTION: Skip the hard session and engage in light exercise at a lesser intensity than what caused the DOMS to ease pain and hasten recovery. Think a leisurely swim or walk. 

But what is DOMS?

Delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is muscle pain that emerges after exercise types or intensities to which you’re not accustomed. It is more likely to occur following exercise that forces muscles to contract while lengthening (eccentric exercise), such as during long-distance running and plyometric workouts. It basically indicates an inflammatory response to microtrauma or myofibril tears. While it is usually short-lasting, DOMS does cause discomfort as well as impairment of muscle strength and function. 

How can I tell if it’s DOMS or something more serious? 

DOMS typically presents as a dull pain, stiffness and tenderness in exerted muscles around 24 to 48 hours after exercise and lasts between one and three days. Sufferers may also notice localised swelling. At its peak, DOMS can compromise muscle strength, range of motion.

How can I minimise DOMS symptoms? 

While DOMS may make you feel like curling up on the couch to minimise pain, in fact, moving affected muscles is likely to result in decreased pain, which is why DIY treatment recommendations include active rest. Research has also indicated the application of ice and heat therapy in expediting recovery. Gentle massage has also been found to help fast-track recovery and reduce severity of DOMS (on the flip side, deep tissue massage may aggravate DOMS). To avoid exacerbating symptoms, avoid strenuous muscle stretching and intense or vigorous exercise during the first 24 hours of DOMS onset.

Can I prevent DOMS? 

These simple tips may help to prevent or minimise severity and/or duration of DOMS:

  1. Maintain hydration by drinking plenty of water.
  2. Consume adequate protein and carbohydrate before and after exercie.
  3. Keep set, rep and weight increases to 10% or less per week and increase the frequency and/or intensity of any other activity gradually.
  4. Cool own after a workout, training or competition.
  5. Schedule gentle exercise such as a walk or swim during recovery (i.e. active recovery).
  6. Use a foam roller to roll out affected muscles.
  7. After a really gruelling session or competition, consider remedial massage may help to relax muscles, ease inflammation and promote recovery. Some research shows that those who had remedial massage experienced significantly less DOMS one to four days after exercise.  

If your pain persists beyond 48 to 62 hours of onset or pain onset occurred during exercise (not after), or if you notice pain or swelling in joints, consider consulting a physio to check for injury or damage. 

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