Let’s talk about muscle aches after a workout.
Is it a good thing to ache? And does it mean you haven’t worked hard enough if you don’t ache the next day?
Well, the science says that no, you definitely don’t need to ache after a workout in order to be progressing. Just because you’re not aching after yesterday’s workout does not mean it wasn’t an effective workout.
But, is the flip side true too? Have you had a bad workout if you DO ache?
Well, I’d say that’s a no too – but a conditional no.
We humans love to polarise stuff as either good or bad. But usually, the truth is somewhere in the middle, and aching is no exception.
Let’s say you’ve just returned to exercise after a break, and you jump straight back in to what you were doing before your break. You are going to ache pretty significantly for the next couple of days – the ‘I can’t really walk’ kind of aching. And the truth is that you have probably overdone it. You’ve worked considerably more intensely than you needed to in order to promote change.
But of course, everything is individual, and you may find yourself aching a lot despite doing what the theory would tell you was the right dose. In my experience, it is quite an individual thing as to how much (or even if) people ache with the ‘right’ exercise intensity too.
Sometimes too, we’re exercising for enjoyment and not specifically for the change the exercise is going to bring. Good examples of this would be hiking, cycling, horse riding, skiing – etc. You might ache a lot after these activities if you’re not doing them frequently, but are you going to restrict yourself to only joining in for a percentage of what everyone else is doing? Probably not.
And let’s say you’ve been focusing on some kind of corrective / remedial exercise. Perhaps you’ve been working to ‘wake up’ a muscle which hasn’t been doing its job for whatever reason. In this situation, I think a bit of an ache (not the ‘I can’t walk’ aching) is probably a good sign that the muscle is joining in with life again and gaining some strength.
So, how do we recover best from these ‘I can’t walk’ type of excessive muscle aches?
Firstly, don’t just sit still and wait for it to pass. Keep moving, but keep it gentle for a couple of days until the worst part of the aches have passed. Then, do a workout (of a suitable intensity) to help shift your aches. Low intensity exercise actually improves your bodies ability to recover. Remember the other key parts of recovery from exercise like good nutrition, sleep and hydration also pay important roles too.