Exercise And Pain: What's Normal?

10/11/2011 08:18 am ET | Updated Dec 07, 2011

Come on baby, make it hurt so good!

Clearly John Mellencamp was not referring to that post-workout it-hurts-just-to-put-on-a-pair-of-jeans kind of pain we've all experienced.

So, does the old adage "no pain, no gain" hold any truth when it comes to effective exercise? It's important to understand the difference between the typical post-workout tenderness you feel the day after, and an actual injury. The common discomfort we often feel (starting when we try to get out of bed the next morning) is referred to as DOMS -- Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness. Even though the pain can feel huge, these aches and pains are really just microscopic tears in the fibers that constitute your muscles, as well as the connective tissue that surrounds the muscles. Why does this happen? Maybe you decided to run a few miles after being sedentary for months, or maybe you did one hundred crunches for the first time since high school, or you spontaneously started a new type of exercise, putting underworked muscles in a state of shock. Whatever the reason, the outcome is the same -- you're working muscles that haven't been put to the test in a while, and DOMS sets in.

But these rips and tears don't mean you're damaged goods. In fact, these tears are what help you build muscle, and the degree of soreness you experience is directly related to how many tears resulted. What does this mean? If it's burning, it's working! So put your pain in perspective: the discomfort from DOMS is your body's way of adapting to new exercise. Pain should not reinforce your decision to stay inactive. There is relief from DOMS symptoms. See my helpful tips below:

  • Get plenty of rest post workout.
  • Lighten the load; even if you work out again right away, lower the intensity by using lighter weights and doing fewer reps until your body has recovered.
  • Stretch gently and daily.
  • Stay in the game. Don't let discomfort keep you down; embrace the fact that your body is responding to exercise.
  • Take ibuprofen as needed to reduce inflammation.

While some discomfort from strong workouts is expected, it should be your goal to prevent excessive pain and still come out ahead of the game. Even though some aches and pains are the battle scars of self-improvement, pain is still a huge turn off for most people. As you train your muscles to work hard, transform your appearance, and adapt to different movements, you will experience varying degrees of DOMS. I tell my clients (especially newbies) when indoor cycling at Flywheel Sports to: properly warm up muscles, stay hydrated, stretch before and after a strenuous workout, and increase their exercise regimen gradually -- never suddenly.

Unfortunately, many well-intentioned people feel that exercise is all you need to see positive results. They often forget a major component, which is stretching. Not only does stretching elongate muscles, it also improves flexibility, which in turn reduces injuries and excessive pain. Most importantly, stretching reduces the amount of lactic acid stored in your muscles, a major culprit in post-exercise pain.

And here's some additional food for thought: Incorporating meals consisting of complex carbohydrates and proteins immediately following a workout will help your body recover faster from strenuous workouts. For overall better nutrition, it's also very important to get ample quality protein daily.

So where do we go from here as we continue our journey to good health?

  • Set reasonable goals.
  • Gradually increase your exercise routine.
  • Stay hydrated and well-rested.
  • Increase protein for snacks and meals.
  • Diversify your workouts.

It's important to make exercise a big priority. So if you're going to do it (and I certainly hope you do!), do it right and make it count. And most of all -- let it burn!