Why do muscles still hurt a few days after exercise?

Physiotherapist Gbemi Adedipe explains what causes your muscles to still ache and hurt a few days after exercising hard

Credit: Juanmonino / Getty Images

Regardless of your fitness level – whether a newbie to sports, a fitness enthusiast or even an elite athlete – you can still experience some muscle soreness and pain 1-2 days after exercise. This is sometimes called DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) and it can happen for a variety of reasons: when you change your exercise routine, begin a new routine or even increase your duration or intensity of your regular workout.


What causes the muscle pain?

When muscles are made to work in a harder way (heavy resistance training), or in a different way than they’re used to, it can lead to microscopic damage to the muscle fibres. These microscopic tears in the muscles draw increased blood to the site, causing the inflammation process to begin. Sometimes redness and swelling become obvious. This inflammation process activates pain receptors in the actual muscle cell and then makes them more sensitive, which results in soreness or stiffness.

Though muscles soreness and pain can be expected, the good news is that it’s only temporary. As the muscle begins to rebuild itself, it adapts to the exercises and demands that are being placed on it, and so as the muscles starts to build greater stamina and strength, so the soreness will decrease.

How can you help prevent muscle soreness?


When you’re in a hurry, especially before you begin your workout, it can be tempting to skip a warm-up. But warming-up before training can have some significant physiological benefits.

As well as slowly increasing the body’s temperature and loosening up the muscles in preparation for exercise, warming-up also does the following:

* Increases heart rate in preparation for harder exercise.

* Increases blood flow through active tissues and muscles.

* Increases oxygen take-up and utilisation through warmed muscles.

Dynamic stretches can also be used to improve the overall flexibility of the body before proceeding with exercise.


A cool-down allows the body to slowly return to its normal resting state post-exercise. When exercise is stopped suddenly, the blood, which was being pumped very rigorously at very high pressures by the heart, no longer has that strong push. As a result, your blood pressure can drop very quickly, and when this happens there’s a tendency for it to pool in lower extremities, such as in the legs. This blood won’t get to your head, so can result in dizziness or, at worst, fainting. Cooling down helps decrease your heart rate and breathing rate very gradually, which helps to prevent and avoid fainting spells and dizziness.

The benefits of a cool-down include:

* Reduces heart and breathing rate.

* Cools down the body’s temperature.

* Mental recovery.

* Returns muscles to the optimal length/tension relationship.

* Eliminates waste product build-up.

* Prevents the venous pooling of blood to the lower extremities.

How physiotherapy and massage can help muscle soreness

Ice packs, painkillers and even heat can also be used to minimise the symptoms of muscle soreness.

From a physiotherapeutic standpoint, there are also a variety of ways it can be managed. Either through acupuncture, stretching, trigger-point release or even massage.

Massage is most commonly recommended to help treat muscle soreness. It can help increase circulation, by bringing in more nutrients and oxygen to the muscle, and remove the toxins and waste material present in the muscle after exercise, and aid in recovery.

How to relieve muscle soreness after a hard workout

However, if you have ongoing muscle soreness or pain, seek advice from a physiotherapist or other medical professional first as it could be a symptom of a more serious problem or injury.

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Gbemi Adedipe is a chartered physiotherapist with Capital Physio.