Why exercise recovery hurts – and what helps

Professor David Cameron-Smith explains the science of post-workout soreness.

Even if you’re a regular exerciser,  there’s a chance you have experienced the deep ache of muscle soreness that can last for days. The pain experience can vary depending upon the exercise – from ‘it’s painful just to get dressed’ through to the discomfort of sitting down and the absolute torture of navigating a set of stairs.

The pain is all part of the normal inflammatory response of the muscles to intense or unfamiliar exercise and is definitely part of the ‘gain’ experienced with intense exercise training. The enduring question is whether it’s possible to have gain without the pain.

Why do muscles become sore?

Each muscle consists of many tiny fibres, known as myofibres, which are bunched together. These many myofibres are activated by nerves to contract in unison.

The muscle then shortens, pulling on tendons, which in turn are connected to joints. Many hundreds of myofibres contract the whole muscle, pulling on the tendons and the joint bends.

Each repeated contraction of these tiny myofibres can damage their cell wall. Under a microscope, the muscles of people who have just completed a marathon show extensive tears to most myofibres. Each of these tears, known as a micro-tear, is muscle damage that needs to heal.

The healing process of micro-tears is not well understood. The myofibres themselves begin the repair process by releasing a range of chemicals that attract and activate the circulating immune cells.

Within 12 hours, damaged muscle will swell with many more white blood cells. Immune cells are important for fighting infections, but they also help tissues repair, often by destroying broken pieces of cells. These immune cells also cause swelling and release chemicals that cause pain. This is the pain that is felt during
exercise recovery.

“Typically the pain of exercise is not experienced until the day after and can last for three days or more. This exercise recovery pain is known as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).”

Delayed pain

The immune and recovery responses take a while to get going, but within 24 hours, and generally not more than three days after exercise, the immune cells and the myofibres themselves are hard at work trying to repair.

Typically the pain of exercise is not experienced until the day after, and can last for three days or more. Because of its delayed appearance, exercise recovery pain is known as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).

6 recovery strategies to try

1. Assess the pain

Before getting back into exercise again, take a moment to evaluate the pain. If pain is uncharacteristically intense or localised, chances are it’s more than microtears. Muscle and tendon tears are not uncommon and take specialist care and intervention to help with recovery. If  pain persists, seek further professional  advice.

2. Build back slowly

Beyond just the  pain, DOMS also reduces the strength of the muscles. This is part of the body’s  natural protective mechanisms to try to limit further damage. Listen to your body and step your exercises up again slowly.

3. Stretch and massage

There is no clinical proof that stretching or massage help the muscles repair any faster, but a gentle stretch and a skilled masseur can definitely make it feel a whole lot  better.

4. Eat and drink

Tissue repair is an  energy demanding process. Adequate fuel and water to supply energy and maintain the optimal environment can only help. Protein is particularly important to supply the amino acids required for rebuilding and can speed recovery.

5. Limit anti-inflammatories and antioxidant supplements 

Anti-inflammatories and antioxidants dampen the activity of the immune system. These might take away some of the pain, but they also slow the repair process.

6. Training

Each time an exercise is performed, the amount of muscle damage gets a little less and the inflammation is reduced. So the best strategy to avoid muscle soreness is to get out and do it again, and again.

Recommended reading - Tasty vegetarian recipes

Recipes

Green pasta recipe

Break away from traditional pasta recipes with this green pasta meal with pesto, basil and peas.

Read more
Recipes

No-bake pumpkin pie recipe

Love a no-bake dessert with naturally sweet ingredients? This pumpkin pie is the perfect recipe.

Read more
Recipes

Mushroom ragu pasta recipe

The flavours of garlic and olive oil will win you over in this mushroom ragu pasta recipe.

Read more
Recipes

Corsican pie with courgette flowers recipe

This corsican pie with courgette flowers is sure to impress your dinner guests!

Read more
Recipes

Easy cheesy quiche recipe

Love a dish that makes great leftovers? Try this easy cheesy quiche!

Read more
Recipes

Aubergine with black garlic recipe

For a succulent veggie dish, try aubergine with black garlic

Read more
Recipes

Mexican baked eggy tortilla cups recipe

For a Mexican recipe that's a little different, try baked eggy tortilla cups

Read more
Recipes

Spring quinoa risotto recipe

Full of the goodness of seasonal greens, this dish is a light and flavoursome refresh of a classic.

Read more
Recipes

Spicy Greek bean medley recipe

Fresh cherry tomatoes and a touch of chilli bring a zesty mix of flavours to this spring salad

Read more
Recipes

Kale, feta and pumpkin pie recipe

This nourishing pie is the perfect weeknight trick to have up your sleeve

Read more
Recipes

Shakshuka baked eggs recipe

Breakfast, lunch or dinner, this invigorating, spice-infused dish is a warming feast

Read more
Recipes

Potato and turnip gratin recipe

A creamy, comforting way to savour those wintery root vegetables

Read more
Recipes

Baked Pumpkin, Chickpea and Brown Rice Salad with Crispy Pumpkin Seeds recipe

A comforting winter salad, with an invigorating blend of textures and flavours

Read more
Recipes

Porcini mushroom and kale buckwheat risotto recipe

A creamy, comforting risotto, full of the flavoursome goodness of mushrooms

Read more
Recipes

Vegetarian laksa recipe

Fill up on colourful winter veggies in a light, creamy laksa

Read more
Recipes

Breakfast tacos with chipotle sweet potato and trumpet mushroom recipe

Put a fresh, Mexican-inspired twist on your morning with these colourful tacos from My New Roots

Read more
Recipes

Zucchini and chickpea salad recipe

A filling and flavoursome Turkish-inspired salad by Sevtap Yuce

Read more
Recipes

Beetroot and kale risotto with feta cheese recipe

This risotto dish by Rena Patten is bright with with the super-goodness of kale

Read more
Recipes

Egg, green olive and dukkah salad recipe

Fill up on the rich and tasty flavours of this dish by salad genius Matt Wilkinson.

Read more
Recipes

Pasta with zucchini, basil and lemon sauce recipe

This light, fragrant sauce goes well with thin pasta like spaghetti, angel hair or linguine

Read more
Recipes

Sunflower seed falafel balls with tahini dipping sauce recipe

Savour the goodness of these light, sunflower-and-cashew filled vegetarian bites.

Read more
Community

Vegetable samosas recipe

These tasty, veggie-filled parcels from Stephanie Alexander are always a lunchbox winner.

Read more
Recipes

Spinach, avocado and mushroom stack recipe

Create a deceptively simple feast with this spinach, avocado and mushroom stack recipe.

Read more
Recipes

Veggie fritters recipe

Veggies galore! Try delicious veggie fritters for a meal that can be be prepared in advance.

Read more
Recipes

Coconut and lime cheesecake recipe

Enjoy irresistable no-bake coconut cheesecake with zesty lime.

Read more
Recipes

Coconut quinoa with kale and pesto recipe

Nourish your body with this superfood salad of coconut quinoa, kale and pesto.

Read more
Recipes

Cherry tomato and mozzarella salad recipe

A fresh, Italian salad like this cherry tomato and mozzarella salad is ideal for everyday enjoyment.

Read more
Recipes

Quinoa sushi bowl recipe

Love sushi? Try this unwrapped quinoa sushi bowl recipe for an interesting variation.

Read more
Recipes

Nutrition bowl with beetroot hummus and guacamole recipe

Boost your energy at any time of the day with a fresh, healthy and wholesome nutrition bowl.

Read more
Recipes

Spiced tempeh recipe

Need an interesting vegetarian idea? This spiced tempeh recipe will surprise with its versatility.

Read more
Recipes

Eggplant and sweet potato pizza recipe

For a healthy and interesting take on an old favourite, try this eggplant and sweet potato pizza.

Read more
Recipes

Spicy pumpkin and lentil soup recipe

Spice up your soup ideas this winter with a pumpkin and lentil soup inspired by Indian flavours.

Read more
Recipes

Corn fritters with tangy tomato salsa recipe

These cajun-flavoured corn fritters with tomato salsa will freshen up your weeknight routine.

Read more
Recipes

Zucchini and sweet potato vegetable slice recipe

This zucchini and sweet potato vegetable slice will keep the family happy and well-fed.

Read more
Recipes

Raw mint chocolate mousse recipe

Feel like a healthy dessert? Try this raw chocolate mousse recipe with surprising fruits and herbs.

Read more
Recipes

Sweet potato rice paper rolls recipe

Try this delicious combination of vegies parcelled in rice paper rolls.

Read more
Recipes

Fresh vermicelli salad bowl recipe

Looking for a salad with a difference? Try a salad with vermicelli noodles.

Read more
Recipes

Light pumpkin soup recipe

Looking for a lighter alternative to traditionally creamy pumpkin soup?

Read more
Recipes

Zucchini noodle and coriander salad recipe

Try zucchini noodles with pineapple chilli dressing for a salad with a difference.

Read more
Recipes

Roast veggie medley with chickpeas recipe

Looking for a new vegetarian favourite? Try this roast veggie medley with chickpeas recipe.

Read more
Recipes

Trio of dips recipe

Try this beautiful and fresh homemade trio of dips for an alternative to supermarket dips.

Read more
Recipes

Quinoa sushi hand rolls recipe

A recipe to master the art of sushi at home!

Read more
Recipes

Fennel with goat’s curd recipe

If you're looking for a tasy side or light meal, Maggie Beer has the recipe for you

Read more
Recipes

Pumpkin fritters recipe

These pumpkin fritters are so simple, yet so delicious

Read more
Recipes

Mexican party cups recipe

Brighten up any fiesta with these spice-infused, protein-rich, deliciously flavoursome parcels.

Read more
Recipes

Spring asparagus and egg recipe

Nothing says spring better than fresh, deliciously sautéed greens

Read more
Recipes

Zucchini and avocado fritters with lemon coconut yoghurt recipe

Deliciously fresh and light, these fritters make the perfect brunch

Read more
Recipes

Spiced tofu and beetroot salad recipe

The gluten free, vegan spiced tofu in this dish is packed with intense flavours.

Read more
Recipes

Butternut pumpkin and parsnip soup recipe

A rich and creamy pumpkin soup, infused with a blend of cumin, paprika and chives.

Read more
Recipes

Ultimate roasted vegetables recipe

Roast those root veggies with the perfect infusion of herbs and spices

Read more
Recipes

Mushroom pâté with crispy bread sticks recipe

This pâté is high in fibre, potassium and iron – and it's pretty delicious, too!

Read more
Recipes

Curried cauliflower soup with toasted chickpeas recipe

The nutty goodness of chickpeas takes this creamy soup to delicious new levels

Read more
Recipes

Healthy vegetarian nachos recipe

Lee Holmes of Supercharged Food shares a mouthwatering vegetarian recipe from her new book

Read more
Recipes

Lentil soup recipe

Lentil-based dishes like this red lentil soup are not only delicious but are packed with goodness.

Read more
Recipes

Bruschetta with asparagus and cherry tomatoes recipe

Try this satisfying recipe for rustic Italian bruschetta with asparagus and cherry tomatoes

Read more
Recipes

Vietnamese salad recipe

A fresh, healthy summer salad that’s perfect for lunches.

Read more
Recipes

Tomato, pumpkin and beetroot frittata recipe

Love vegies? Try a tomato, pumpkin and beetroot frittata for a delicious and visually-tempting meal.

Read more
Recipes

Green veggie slice recipe

Zucchini goodness with a nutty twist, perfect served warm or sliced up cool for leftovers.

Read more

For full functionality of this site it is necessary to enable JavaScript. Here are instructions on how to enable JavaScript in your web browser.