What is muscle soreness? 8 facts you should know

Sore muscles usually last up to 72 hours and the peak of pain usually occurs 48 hours after exercise. You can find more important facts and what helps against soreness in the article.

What is muscle soreness?

The term “sore muscles” hase been around forever. Muscle soreness describes a harmless but annoying muscle pain after physical activity, which was either very intense and far exceeded the current level of training, or muscular structures were stressed, which are usually trained less.

How long does muscle soreness last?

In general, muscle soreness can occur in any muscle, but it usually affects the larger muscles of the upper and lower extremities. From the point of view of sports medicine, muscle soreness is referred to as a type I muscle strain. The discomfort usually begins after a painless lead time of 12 to 24 hours and then lasts between 24 to 72 hours with a clear decrease in pain within the last 24 hours. The peak of pain is usually 48 hours after athletic performance.

How does muscle soreness develop?

In science, it has long been assumed that there is a temporary, load-induced disturbance of the structural elements and connective tissue in the muscle. This results in protein breakdown due to a local inflammatory process. Most often, the damage occurs during eccentric forms of exercise, that is, when muscles are stretched. Fewer muscle cells are needed for these movements; in sports medicine, this is referred to as fewer recruited motor units. The force generated is thus distributed over a significantly smaller muscle cross-sectional area and a significantly higher muscle tension per unit area is produced than when muscles are contracted.

Why does it not hurt immediately?

The question of the pain-free period immediately after exercise is the subject of several research projects. It is currently assumed that the initial trauma sets in motion an inflammatory cascade, which only leads to the noticeable secondary damage after some time.

Are there sports that cause muscle soreness more frequently?
Athletes who perform highly eccentric movements, as is common in weight training, for example, are more likely to experience temporary muscle soreness. However, other sports such as running or trail running can also cause muscle soreness, especially if the training volume is increased quickly.

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Can you continue training with sore muscles?

Moderate sessions are even beneficial, only intensive training sessions for the affected muscle groups are not recommended. In addition, movement and muscle performance may be reduced during this time. Painkillers (NSAIDs) are also not recommended. The discomfort usually improves on its own after a few days. Rest, a light medical massage and wearing compression stockings if the legs are affected will help for a good recovery.

Can sore muscles be dangerous?

Muscle soreness is actually a positive signal from the body after an exercise and it leads to a training effect, which means that an efficient workout always starts with muscle soreness. Further high-intensity training within the same muscle structures should not be performed during muscle soreness. A permanent overload of the structures leads to a worse training effect and with time to an overreaching (decrease in performance) of the affected muscle parts.

What really helps fight muscle soreness and what should be avoided?

  • Prevention is better than cure, i.e. do not increase the training load too quickly and too intensively and unilaterally.
  • Concentrated forms of exercise/strength elements lead less to muscle soreness.
  • Moderate exercise and light compression therapy of the affected structures (compression stockings, massage, fascia therapy) leads to better and faster relief of the symptoms.
  • Muscle soreness is not to be treated in the same way as a muscle fiber tear. The short-term inflammatory cascade in the muscle and connective tissue serves the training effect and should not be interrupted with medication (NSAIDs).
  • The same applies to ice baths directly (and up to 4 hours) after a hard workout. The inflammatory response and muscle reaction in the tissues leads to a positive training effect and should be allowed.
  • The only exception is for high performance athletes at major events, where competitions take place over several rounds/days and the goal is not a training effect, but only to regenerate the muscle structures as quickly as possible.
  • Alternative ointments such as the well-known rose ointment or products with arnica or rosemary can be used, but the benefit is marginal. The same applies to the so-called relaxation baths.

Myths about sore muscles

  • Myth 1: Prolonged and severe muscle overacidification (lactate production) causes muscle soreness.
  • Myth 2: Stretching prevents muscle soreness.
  • Myth 3: If you have sore muscles, it’s best not to exercise until it’s gone.
  • Myth 4: Calcium and magnesium supplements help sore muscles. High magnesium deficiency can cause very severe muscle cramps and spasms, but this has nothing to do with muscle soreness and should be medically cleared elsewhere.



Christoph Kellerhals, MD, specia

list in general internal medicine FMH, interdisciplinary focus on sports and exercise medicine, Medbase Thun Panoramacenter.

Who is Medbase?

Medbase is the largest multidisciplinary sports medicine network in Switzerland and offers specialized sports medicine services for athletes, clubs and sports associations of all activity levels in the fields of sports medicine, sports physiotherapy, performance diagnostics and training advice.

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