Am I just sore? Or is it an actual injury? This is a common question that endurance athletes often face, and it can be a fine line distinguishing symptoms between the two.
We all come from different athletic backgrounds, and understanding your body from the perspective of fitness, exertion thresholds, acclimation and recovery is very important in mitigating your chance of injury and reducing muscle soreness.
Muscle Soreness is often felt after a long workout, a hard workout, and especially in the beginning of training as different muscles are engaged in your training routine. The soreness felt after a workout is called DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) and can begin anywhere between hours after a workout and up to 2 days. Many marathon runners have gone to the gym before and felt the sorest 2 days after the workout. This is an example of DOMS. The discomfort here felt by athletes is often confused as an injury when in fact, its muscle soreness and completely normal. Muscle soreness, generally speaking, can often be pinpointed as discomfort felt in general areas of the body (i.e. front of legs) whereas an injury tends to be more centralized to a specific location (i.e. IT band, kneecap, etc.). Soreness can be tender to the touch, whereas an injury tends to be more of a sharp, acute pain.
One of the other methods of distinguishing between soreness and injury is to determine whether the discomfort is symmetrical. For example, if the discomfort exists on both sides (i.e. both quads, both hips, both hamstrings), it can likely be determined as soreness versus an injury. While this is not a perfect science, it can give you, the athlete, a starting point for the initial step of self-evaluation.
A few helpful tips to alleviate the soreness and decrease your chance of injury.
1) Most important: listen to your body! Don’t try to be a hero and keep fighting what your body is trying to tell you. If your muscles are needing a bit more rest, scale back the miles or back off the intensity. Let the body get the recovery it needs. Doing some light non-impact exercise (bike, swim, etc.) is one of the best ways to expedite the recovery process and help your body “loosen” up.
2) Active 3D stretching before and after exercise is a great way to eliminate the “fuzz” (fascial restrictions) that we experience after exercise or even after a night of sleep. Movement (functional stretching) increases the circulation in our body (warms it up) so we don’t feel as stiff the days following a workout.
3) Hydration is key. Over 70% of our bodies is made of water so we must replace the fluids and electrolytes that we lose with exercise. The rule of thumb for proper hydration is to consume .6 times your body weight in ounces of “pure” water per day.
4) Eating after your workout: eating within 30 minutes of your workouts is optimal to alleviate soreness as this is the most critical period for your body to restore the glycogen (fuel) that has been lost during workouts. A combination of carbohydrates and protein is recommended.
5) When all is fails, revert back to tip #1 and listen to your body.
In summary, muscle soreness is completely normal as your body adapts to the strenuous demands of endurance training. If discomfort in a particular area is persistent, seeing a doctor or physical therapist as soon as possible is the best course of action. If unsure, speak to your coaches ASAP.