If you're on a roll with your training or on a plan for a specific event, sometimes it's tempting to train even when your muscles are sore and achy. We look at whether it's a good idea to still train when you are sore.
Are sore muscles a good sign?
Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness, or DOMS, is common among those who exercise regularly and is nothing to shy away from. Especially if you have recently increased your training intensity/frequency or you are a complete beginner to exercise, you can expect DOMS to last up to 72 hours after your workout.
Our muscles feel sore after a workout because when we train, we develop tiny 'satellite' tears in the muscles. Your muscles get stronger not when you exercise but afterwards, when you are eating and sleeping. This is why consuming enough protein and getting good quality sleep are both key to recovery and improving performance.
Sore muscles are a sign that you have worked hard and that your muscles are on their way to becoming stronger and more efficient. If your DOMS lasts over 72 hours, however, it's time to look at what you might be doing wrong. Perhaps you're not resting enough or not eating enough/the right nutrients. Once your body gets used to a certain training regime, you will find you don't get DOMS as often, if at all, which can be a signal it's time to crank up the intensity or change up your routine.
Read more: Are You Overtraining?
Read more: How Often Should I Take A Complete Rest Day?
Is it OK to work out if your muscles are sore?
In general, it is a bad idea to workout if your muscles are sore. Your muscles need time to repair and grow and it is only while you are resting that this can happen. However, this is not to say you cannot train at all.
If you train certain body parts at a time, you can easily train a different part of your body that is not aching that day. For example, if your chest and triceps are aching, you could still do a leg workout.
If you practise a sport that focuses mostly on one muscle group such as running or cycling, there are still ways to get around skipping workouts. You could do your speed session on a Monday, followed by a hill session on a Tuesday and then rest on Wednesday. Then, you could do another speed session Thursday, a gym workout Friday, and your long run on Saturday with another rest day on Sunday. This sort of plan allows your legs to rest after the toughest sessions when they are most likely to ache.
In another sense, sometimes it's actually a good idea to train when your muscles are sore. Many runners will do a 'recovery run' the day after a particularly tough training session, which means doing a short and easy run to shake out any lactic acid still sitting in the legs and keeping active to stop your legs getting too stiff.
In summary, it's only bad to do an intense or tough workout when your muscles are sore. It can actually be beneficial to do a light workout to ease achy muscles.
Read more: DOMS Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness
Read more: How To Reduce DOMS In The Legs
We all know that getting at least 8 hours of sleep a night is important for being healthy, but why? And how does it affect our training?
How important is sleep to building muscle?
Not only does your body go through different stages of recovery as you sleep, how your body rested affects how you perform and eat the next day.
Research by the Annals of Internal Medicine discovered that having less than seven hours of sleep per night can reduce and undo the benefits of dieting in order to lose weight in combination with an exercise regime. In the study, participants were put on different sleep schedules. When their sleep was cut back the amount of fat lost was cut in half, they felt significantly hungrier, were less satisfied after meals and lacked the energy to complete their exercise regime. Overall, their fat loss was reduced by 55% after inadequate rest.
Another study on sleep monitored Stanford University players for the varsity basketball team. Researchers asked the players to increase their sleep time to roughly 10 hours per night, whereas they were used to sleeping for 6-9 hours. After they had slept more, the players had faster sprint times, their shooting accuracy improved, their free-throw percentage increased by 9% and three-point-field-goal percentage by 9.2%.
The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that poor sleep can increase the levels of our stress hormone cortisol. This increase in cortisol will impact the body's ability to repair damaged muscle tissue, increase weight gain and elevate blood pressure.
Sleep deprivation has also been seen to decrease production of glycogen and carbohydrates that are stored for energy use during physical activity. In short, less sleep increases the possibility of fatigue, low energy, and poor focus at game time. It may also slow recovery post-game.
A recent study found that going for 18–20 hours without sleep had the same negative impact on performance as a blood alcohol level of 0.1 (0.08 is considered legally drunk in the US).
What is recovery in training?
Whilst we are sleeping our bodies release hormones which are essential for fitness recovery. The series of events that occurs once we shut our eyes is divided into 4 distinct categories.
Sleep Stage 1:
The first stage of sleep is characterised by drowsiness, slowing brain activity and shutting your eyes. This stage of sleep is the most easily disrupted. When it comes to muscles, at this stage they are still quite active and the eyes will roll around, often opening and closing. At this stage breathing becomes more regular and heart rate begins to slow, sudden jerks are common in this phase as sleeping takes over waking.
Sleep Stage 2:
Stage two typically constitutes 45-50% of sleep for adults. During this stage muscle activity decreases along with the consciousness of the outside world.
Sleep Stage 3:
Stage 3 sleep is the deepest stage of sleep your body enters. Your brain is resting with very little activity, so the blood supply available to your muscles increases, delivering extra amounts of oxygen and nutrients which facilitate their healing and growth. Your pituitary gland also releases a shot of growth hormone which stimulates tissue growth and muscle repair. Muscles and tissues are rejuvenated and new cells are regenerated during this phase of sleep.
REM sleep is the phase of sleep which is characterised by rapid eye movements. This phase of sleep is where the brain is most awake, but the rest of the body becomes almost paralysed. This is thought to be a built in measure to protect us from hurting ourselves during vivid dreams, as this is the phase of sleep where most dreams and or nightmares take place.
Our sleeping pattern isn’t chronological and we may go through these cycles multiple times, however when it comes to recovery, we can see that stage 3 is our most valuable sleep stage.
How many hours of sleep does an athlete need?
Most people need about 6-8 hours of sleep per night, but when you’re training this can be significantly more. Just as athletes in training typically need to consume more calories, athletes in training typically need an extra hour of sleep, if not more.
What happens to recovery if we don't get enough sleep:
- Chronic sleep loss can result in a 30 - 40% reduction in metabolism.
- Sleep loss causes an 11% reduction in time to exhaustion.
- 2 days of sleep restriction can lead to 3 times the increases in lapses of attention and slowed reactions.
- 1 rep max bench press is reduced by 20 lbs after 4 days of disturbed sleep.
* According to research conducted by Zeo sleep manager.
Roger Federer (Tennis)
Lindsey Vonn (Ski)
Usian Bolt (Sprinter)
8 - 10 Hours
Sarah Hughes (Skater)
Lebron James (Basketball)
Venus Williams (Tennis)
8 - 9 Hours
Tiger Woods (Golf)
4 - 5 Hours
Rafael Nadal (Tennis)
8 - 9 Hours
Maria Sharapova (Tennis)
8 - 10 Hours
Michelle Wie (Golf)
10 - 12 Hours
Steve Nash (Basketball)
These athletes clearly recognise the benefits of a good night's sleep on their performance, with Tiger Woods being our very own anomaly.
What are the effects of lack of sleep?
Not only will lack of sleep put your recovery under threat, it can have considerable effects on your health. Research has found:
- Going to bed too late doubles the risk of breast cancer.
- The risk of heart disease is increased by 100% if you get less than 7 hours sleep per night.
- If you are sleep deprived you are 20% more likely to die in the next 20 years.
How can I improve my recovery with sleep?
- Increase your magnesium intake. Magnesium, found in foods such as halibut, cereal, mixed nuts, soybeans and spinach will help to improve poor sleep.
- Eat a diet which combats inflammation. Eating a diet rich in colours will help to combat inflammation, which can lead to a restless night's sleep. Turmeric spice is a great aid for this.
- Take naps. If you struggle to sleep at night, napping throughout the day could be the answer to aid your recovery.
- Cut out stimulants at least 5 hours before you try to sleep. Caffeine can keep you awake at night or give you a restless night's sleep. Caffeine is a known central nervous system stimulant that takes 45 minutes to be completely absorbed by the body, and it takes approximately three to four hours to be completely eliminated and in some people, this could be even longer. Even if you're one of those types of people who can drink coffee and go right to sleep, it may still interfere with the quality of your sleep.
- If you still struggle to sleep after a tough training session, get checked with your GP for sleep apnea.
One of the simplest ways of monitoring your fitness level is using heart rate monitoring and testing your recovery by seeing how quickly your heart rate returns to normal after a strenuous workout.
How do we measure fitness?
Your resting heart rate is best measured when your body is completely at rest, so ideally this will be in the moments you first wake up. If you are using a heart rate watch, this can be as simple as checking the reading from your watch.
To measure your heart rate without any additional tools your two easiest pulse points are the neck and wrist. Place your Index and third finger on your neck, just left of your windpipe. To check your pulse at your wrist, place two fingers between the bone and the tendon over your radial artery — which is located on the thumb side of your wrist. To take your reading, count the number of beats in 15 seconds and times this by 4, whilst you can count for the full 60 seconds you’re more likely to stay accurate for a shorter amount of time.
MENS RESTING HEART RATE CHART
46 - 55
WOMENS RESTING HEART RATE CHART
46 - 55
The above are guidelines and if your resting heart rate causes concern, it may be worth consulting a GP.
Typically, when it comes to studying resting heart rate and fitness, a lower resting heart rate signifies a higher level of health as seen above. As cardiovascular fitness improves, the muscles in the heart wall thicken and the heart pumps more blood with each beat, increasing its efficiency.
Heart Rate Recovery
How fast your heart rate can return from high intensity near max bpm to resting rate is known as your heart rate recovery. HR Recovery is measured after performing strenuous exercise for a given period of time and then measuring how far your heart rate drops two minutes after stopping that exercise. For example, sprinting on a treadmill as fast as you can for around 2 minutes. Follow this with a heart rate reading and then rest for 2 complete minutes and take your heart rate again. To calculate your heart rate recovery rate you now subtract the two numbers.
Findings: (These recovery results were taken from Enhanced Medical Care).
- Less than 22: Your biological age is slightly older than your calendar age.
- 22-52: Your biological age is about the same as your calendar age.
- 53-58: Your biological age is slightly younger than your calendar age.
- 59-65: Your biological age is moderately younger than your calendar age.
- 66 or more: Your biological age is a lot younger than your calendar age.
The bottom line? The faster your heart rate returns to normal, the higher your level of fitness.
Medical research also supports this analysis of heart rate recovery. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, people whose heart rate recovery times are longer are at a higher risk of death than people with shorter recovery times, regardless of physical condition or other risk factors. Another study by the National Emergency Medicine Association found measuring heart rate recovery rates is one way to tell whether an exercise program is effective.
How can you improve heart rate recovery?
If your heart rate recovery wasn’t as good as you had hoped and you’ve been checked out for any underlying health conditions then there are multiple ways you can improve your heart rate recovery with fitness.
When you start a fitness training programme, your heart is challenged to reach new rates and become stronger, meaning it can pump blood more effectively. Each contraction of your heart muscle forces more blood through your circulatory system than it previously could. The more you train and improve, the more effect this has on your heart and body. After some time training, your blood volume increases, allowing more oxygenated blood to reach your muscles and this gives your heart greater volume. The end result is a stronger contraction with a higher volume of blood and increased oxygen and nutrients circulating.
Once you start any fitness regime, be it weight lifting or running, you will begin to build the muscles in your heart and notice your recovery time shorten. This is due to your heart becoming more efficient and your muscles getting a larger supply of oxygenated blood with each contraction, so your heart doesn’t have to work as hard.
High-Intensity Interval Training
High-Intensity Interval training (where your heart rate is challenged to reach its peak training zone) is great for improving your RHR, as it conditions your heart so it is familiar to working at higher intensities.
The principle of high intensity interval training protocol is short bursts of maximal effort intensity during ‘work’ periods where your heart rate should reach at least 80% of its max, followed by short rest periods where your heart rate is allowed time to recover to around 60% of its max. In order to make sure the higher heart rates are achieved, the exercises during ‘work’ intervals are designed to be tough. Example exercises include:
- Mountain climbers
- Push ups
- Star jumps
Try 40 seconds of work vs 30 seconds of rest. If you're new to exercise this may take longer.
Add 2 - 3 HIIT sessions into your training regime per week and keep monitoring your heart rate to see the improvements in your HRR.
As your health and fitness improve, you will notice changes not only in your heart rate recovery but also in your resting heart rate, which will lower as your heart becomes stronger.
We all know how important it is to stay active in order to keep fit and healthy, but rest and recovery often go under the radar. Rest is a very important part of being healthy so make sure you know how much you should be resting and why.
Why are rest days important?
When we train, we are putting stress and strain on our body so that it has to adapt and change. When you lift weights you are tearing your muscles and it is not until you refuel and rest that your muscles repair and grow stronger. This is why overtraining is such a problem and why rest days are so important. Read our article on overtraining to find out more about what happens when you don't rest properly.
Signs your body is in need of recovery
You’re exhausted despite having had a good night's sleep
If you know you’ve had enough sleep but you still feel exhausted in the morning, it’s a good sign your body is in need of recovery and sleep just isn’t enough. Let your muscles repair by giving them complete rest until you feel more energetic. This could be anywhere from a few days off to a week without training.
Your resting heart rate is significantly elevated
An elevated resting heart rate is a sign of overtraining as your body’s metabolic rate is increased to meet the imposed demands of training. For those who train regularly with heart rate, this will be easy to monitor. For those whose resting heart rate is unknown, the best time to take a pulse for this reading is first thing in the morning, right as you wake up. Continue to monitor your resting heart rate as you awake for the days after training and if it is normal you know you’ve had adequate recovery.
You drink plenty of water but you’re still thirsty
Suffering from an unquenchable thirst is a sign your body is not experiencing adequate recovery. When your body is in a catabolic state (ie. breaking down muscle) it becomes dehydrated. Keep your water intake high to avoid dehydration and give your body time to recover.
You are always aching
Do you feel like your DOMS will never end? If you re-train muscles before they are fully repaired, they will never have the time to recover and grow stronger. It’s normal to experience DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) for some time after a good workout, but any more than 72 hours is a sign your body is struggling to recover and you probably need a rest. A deloading week is often added into training programmes to allow recovery and recuperation before returning to regular training frequency.
Consistent training places your body in a constant state of repair and your immune system can suffer the consequences. An increase in illness frequency suggests that your body is in need of recovery.
Tips for ensuring adequate recovery
- Plan rest days. Create a programme with rest and recovery sessions included. Most people plan a training regime but won’t make progressive changes to it or factor in rest. Add recovery days to ensure you get the most from your training.
- Nourish your body. Eat a nutrient-dense diet with adequate quality resources from carbs, proteins and fats. Nutrition helps the recovery process by replenishing the muscle and liver glycogen stores, helping to restore the fluid and electrolytes lost in sweat, and proteins will assist with muscle repair. This is particularly critical in your choice of post-workout meal.
- Ensure your recovery timing is relative to your sport or exercise. For example, a boxer or fighter will need a significant amount of recovery time in between fights. A light jog or yoga class will, in contrast, only take minimal recovery.
- Avoid self-medicating. Pain killers can mask the pain of an injury or ache and lead you to rush into your next session too quickly, without giving yourself adequate time to repair.
- Have weeks of complete rest. This will give your body time to recover and you will return with a new lease of enthusiasm for your training, with more energy and regained focus.
- Get a massage. Massage can help to relieve tired, achy muscles through potentially helping to break down built up fluid which will help to reduce inflammation and speed up the recovery process.
- Reduce stress. The stress hormone cortisol interferes with your recovery in a big way. Elevated cortisol levels will leave you stressed, moody and can cause a catabolic state where muscle is burned and fat is stored.
How many days a week should you rest?
We all have different bodies and therefore we all recover at different rates. The average person can perform 5-6 tough workouts per week with a day or two recovery. However, athletes can train multiple times per day without rest. The key to knowing when to recover and when to carry on is to listen to your body. Keep track of your progress by writing down your workouts and noticing when you feel run down, or if your progress is stalling.
Never feel guilty about letting your body recover, rest days are just as important as training days and taking a rest day will not halt your progress, instead it will do just the opposite.
My experience in triathlon so far, like everyone, has come with ups and downs. From achieving race times that shocked me during the high moments to long frustrating months recovering from injury (or in my case... not recovering). What started as mild Achilles tendonitis over a year ago led to plantar fasciitis, giving me pain even when resting. While these injuries have been far from terrible, there is nothing more disheartening for an athlete than not being able to push your body in the build up to race season.
It has taken a lot of reflection to find the root of the problem. For me, this has become a game of trial and error and going back to form and recovery basics, which I would have preferred to avoid. As I start to feel like my rehab and physiotherapy are beginning to pay off, I grow confident for the future but I have come to realise that there are so many different factors that impact recovery time. As far as I can tell, these break down into at least 3 main factors: strength and conditioning, rest (or not too much), stretching, and consistency of all these things with no excuse.
I have taken to the gym with my coach more than ever this year in order to build the strength essential for the body to handle the workload demanded from endurance sport. But with every muscle that gains strength there is another in danger of being neglected. It is important that we train correctly in order for another muscle group not to be left behind when the workload is intensified. While we know that all muscles work in groups and rely on each other when the going gets tough, it is easy to neglect a certain area in the gym. Many painful niggles come from certain joints such as the ankle. This could be from not strengthening areas around the ankle while continuing to load the calves during achilles rehab.
One area which highlighted my ignorance was my assumption that rest and rest alone would mean I can just jump back into the deep end once I felt some discomfort lift. In fact, I experienced quite the opposite. Before a two-week break to Asia I had convinced myself that this would give me the break I needed to allow my body to recover. To my surprise, my injury actually worsened during the break. It became apparent that without my calf raises and foot stretching the injury simply returned. When I returned home, I began running again and the pain the following day was a lot less noticeable than on days where I had neglected rehab exercises and running altogether. Consistency again proving to be everything in both training and rehab alike.
I’m sure there is no need for me to tell you that it is important to stretch after any form of exercise, however many of us do not get near enough stretching done to help fight the inevitable lactic acid brought on by the miles of pavement we cover. A foam roller really is an athlete's best friend as we can't all be provided with a personal physio like those on the screen. A good part of every evening, whether you've put in a hard session or enjoyed a rest day, should be spent in front of the soaps accompanied by the roller and your stretch routine. This means getting closer to those toes week by week for those inflexible guys and girls like myself. It has been highlighted that my range of flexibility as well as my low run cadence have had huge input into my current injuries.
Injury has been an unwelcome accomplice for the vast majority of athletes from every level and ability at some point in their sporting journey. At times this has led to serious frustration and doubts about my ability to achieve the goals I’ve set after finding love for triathlon. But with every setback comes hunger and with every slow run drives the determination to re-find form and smash P.Bs... be it this year, the next or in 2 years time. We have to remind ourselves that our goals will always be achievable if our mind is stronger than our ability. Sport takes patience and mental strength. This is the first thing we learn attempting an endurance sport and it's equally relevant in reaching the future perception of ourselves.
About the author: Luke Elgar is a triathlete and Sundried ambassador.