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“No pain No gain!” We’ve all heard the phrase but when does pain end up doing more harm than good?

Differentiating between pain and fatigue while exercising can be tricky. A professional athlete may push through pain knowing that injury is likely to happen but it is a sacrifice they are willing to make. Professional sport is filled with high risk/reward situations. However rarely is there a case when a lot of pain during every day exercise or activity is actually a good thing. And for the rest of us who are not pro athletes, getting that extra rep or pushing through the pain likely won’t make much difference in the long term.

Muscle fatigue should be the only acceptable “pain” during exercise.
Gauging when and where pain is during a workout can help you to improve your performance and reduce your risk of injury. When exercising, if you feel pain in your joints, non-working muscles, or early on during a set you should stop and assess why you are feeling pain. These symptoms can be warning signs of an injured muscle, ligament, or tendon. Pain can also indicate that your form is not what it should be.

What is DOMS?
Vigorous exercise typically results in damage to your muscles, in the form of microscopic tears, and is followed by a stiff and sore feeling the next day known as Delayed Onset Muscle Stiffness or DOMS. The stiffness your feeling is a combination of localized inflammation and increased nervous system activity. By limiting movement, your body is attempting to protect itself from further damage. Gentle stretching, light movement, even foam rolling can help encourage your muscles to loosen up and regain function. DOMS is a common when you are starting a new exercise program and it’s ok to be a little stiff and sore for a couple of days after exercise. If the pain and stiffness persists more than a few days though, you have likely caused significant damage and further rest will be needed to heal, aka couch time. Generally speaking, the couch is not where you find healthy people spending a lot of time.

Fatigue in your muscles after exercise is generally acceptable and helps to serve as a marker that you are doing enough to create change. The physical stress created during exercise leads to adaptation. Building muscle, improving blood flow, and increasing lung capacity, are just some of the ways your body naturally adapts to stressors from exercise so that exercise is less strenuous in the future.

What if, instead of doing more, you could do better?
Besides paying attention to pain during or after a workout, be careful of overtraining. People who fall into the overtraining trap are often those that want to try hard and do their best to reach their goals. “If some exercise is good, more must be better, right?” is a common misconception with over-trainers. If this sounds like you, instead of giving 110% in the gym every single time, try taking your exercises back a notch every once in a while and see if you notice any differences. Maybe you are less sore the next day, or you still have energy after your workout. Lifting lighter periodically, moving through your full range of motion, and using proper form may even yield better results and decrease injury.

What you do after and in between your workouts is important.
Rest is a key element in any effective fitness regimen. Sleep is one of the most important role players in recovery. As you sleep your body is hard at work trying to repair the damage to our bodies that we caused. Aiming for at least 8 hours of solid deep sleep after a workout is a great start. Your body also needs nutrients and hormones to help build and repair as well, try to eat a little more protein as well as healthy fats after a workout to provide the body with the nutrients it needs to build and repair. Alternating heat and ice can soothe sore muscles and improve blood circulation. Massage and even self-massage like foam rolling or mobility work can also help to speed up your recovery time. Lighter activities like walking, cycling, and swimming are great ways to “actively” recover and help to get your body moving again without risking more damage.

A great workout doesn’t mean that your muscles and your body have to suffer.
If you feel pain, or exhaustion to the point that you can no longer move well, back off so that you can work toward your goals tomorrow instead of taking more time off for an injury. Being patient with your workouts and ignoring that little voice telling you that you aren’t working hard enough can pay off in the long run. There’s a sweet spot for exercise to be effective and it usually doesn’t mean pain.

Sometimes less is more.


… Not to limp around for the next week.

Paul Bradshaw l Kinesiologist