Feeling a twinge and wondering: “Should I run if my legs are sore?”
Firstly, it’s good to be cautious!
It’s hard to know when the pain in your legs is simple muscle soreness or when it means it’s time to take a break.
Knowing when to push yourself to see results and when to ease off to allow for recovery is essential for getting the most out of your runs and workouts.
To make your choice, you need to assess the pain and determine its severity.
It is normal to suffer muscular pain after vigorous exercise or after a period of inactivity. Sore muscles from a workout are often painful to the touch or burn slightly with the movement. Mild soreness shouldn’t keep you home, but something more intense can.
Understanding Muscle Soreness
Micro tears form in the muscles when you exercise. That is what makes them stronger. When your body detects this damage, it tears down the muscle tissue and builds it back stronger.
This is why you must constantly challenge your muscles to build more mass. The body, by design, will make over areas it deems as weak. Micro tears signal weakness, so the body responds by strengthening muscles.
Acute pain is different, though; it can be a symptom of an illness or an injury that needs more time to heal.
Soreness vs Acute Pain
When distinguishing between muscle soreness and pain, the most important factor to consider is time. Natural discomfort from physical exertion lasts far less time—typically a few days. Soreness should last one to three days, although it may appear suddenly during or immediately after physical exercise.
Acute pain often lasts longer than three days and makes it difficult to engage in routine, daily activities. It is far more serious and can present in a variety of ways.
Pain has a tendency to happen with a particular movement. Sharp or dull, abrupt or prolonged — anything that seems novel and does not improve after a few days off is potentially serious. If you’re still hurting following an exercise after 72 hours, it’s essential to evaluate what’s going on with your body.
When Is It Okay to Run With Sore Legs?
Generally, muscle soreness will go away or at least not get worse when you run. If you start and the soreness fades, then you are probably okay to continue your training with a few caveats.
If you feel soreness at the back of your foot, this might show problems with your Achilles tendon. It’s hard to tell the difference when there is an injury to that tendon. It is easy to mistake it for muscle soreness. And running on an inflamed Achilles tendon can lead to more problems in the future.
You should also push on a sore area in your legs or feet. If it feels hard, that may be a sign of a problem that exists in the bone, like a stress fracture.
Traditional muscle soreness from exercise does not cause swelling, either. If you see inflammation or redness around the sore area, this is more likely an injury.
See also: Overpronation vs Underpronation – could technique be the source of your injuries?
When Is It Not Okay to Run With Sore Legs?
The notion is often to run through the pain. Doing so might turn a minor injury into something more serious. If you push on the sore area, and it is hard, or there is an obvious sign of damage like swelling, avoid running until you see a healthcare professional.
Trying to train when you have pain from an injury can also change how you run. You can develop what trainers call a pain-avoidance pattern. That can lead to a fresh injury or an asymmetrical gait that will cause problems for you in the future.
Take some time off to see if the pain goes away. If you feel better, proceed with caution when running again. If the pain persists, it may be time to consult a doctor or physical therapist to treat the underlying cause of your pain.
Never decide that your injury is too insignificant to need medical evaluation. It is better to get help to avoid a significant setback.
Using The Pain Scale From 1 to 10
If you suffer from a sharp pain when running, this is nearly always your body telling you: stop running now.
But other times, it’s not so clear cut.
One way to measure whether it’s worth the risk of running is to use a pain scale from 1 to 10.
Use this to decide how bad the pain is and how much you might damage yourself by running through it.
- 1 to 3 – mild aches and pain that doesn’t increase during exercise. It should cease once you’re finished.
- 4 to 7 – uncomfortable pain that you can tolerate in a race situation, or if the run really matters, but is likely to cause an increased recovery time.
- 8 to 10 – severe pain that is likely to affect the basic mechanics of how you run. Unsuitable for any training program. Time to take a break.
As a general rule, it’s okay to run through pain levels 1 to 3.
For many runners, aches and pains are a badge of honour. As long as you’re not doing any serious damage, and the symptoms are not progressing, you can generally run through this level of soreness.
You are unlikely to deliver your best performances, but rest isn’t a necessity.
We can only recommend running through pain levels 4 to 7 if the circumstances make sense. For example, if you’re three quarters of the way through a race and you’d rather deal with a longer recovery time than face the anguish of quitting.
This level of pain represents the point at which your performance is significantly affected, although it may still be possible to carry out limited training.
Finally, if you’re hitting a 8 to 10 on the pain scale, it’s time to stop running. This represents sharp or acute pain that alters your ability to run how you normally would.
Athletes who try to run through a 8-10 on the pain scale will typically end up changing their gait or creating a muscular imbalance that has one inevitable result: injury.
Ways to Prevent and Treat Muscle Soreness
Get proactive when it comes to muscle recovery, so you don’t have to wonder if you should run or not.
Icing to Avoid Muscle Soreness
One of the most difficult things for runners to do after a workout is to ice their muscles, but it is the best way to help them heal and avoid soreness. Especially if you plan on running several miles every day.
After a run, your body is hot, so an ice bath is unpleasant, but if you manage to stay in for 10 to 15 minutes, it will help remove the waste products from muscles and decrease the soreness.
Remember, too; your body temperature will start to melt the ice, so the discomfort won’t last long. You will grow accustomed to the temperature change after just a minute or two, and the benefit will make it worth it. If the bath is too much, consider icing individual areas that tend to get sore. For instance, if you usually feel it in your thighs, apply ice bags for 15 minutes that reduce inflammation and tissue breakdown.
If icing isn’t possible, at least give your body time to cool time before you start any other activity.
Some runners also swear by epsom salt baths as a means of recovery, but the evidence here is mixed.
See more: ice vs heat for runners — when should I use each?
Practice Active Recovery
Low-impact exercise for 20 to 30 minutes after a run promotes blood flow to muscles, reducing injuries and re-establishing the body’s pH equilibrium. Also, consider cross-training the day after a hard run, especially after a race.
See more: the best cardio alternatives to running.
Be sure to stretch afterward, too. It helps to keep your muscles limber and allows them to relax and heal. Don’t start your stretching until you are done icing or cooling down. Then, focus on your quadriceps, glutes, hip rotators, hamstrings, and trunk. These are areas prone to soreness.
Muscle massage (consider a percussion massage gun), foam rolling, and compression gear help get the blood to those tired muscles and prevent soreness. Applying heat to the sore areas will also increase blood flow.
Refuel After Your Run
One of the essential steps to prevent soreness after a run is refueling with carbs and protein. With a hard workout, your body uses up its energy stores and glycogen. It’s up to you to recharge.
Refuel within the first 30 minutes after the training to get the most benefit. Replenishing the glycogen to your muscles will help reduce soreness. The perfect recovery drink is chocolate milk. It contains not just protein and carbs but B-vitamins, too – all of which go towards helping you get back your energy and rebuild those muscles.
For most, running with sore muscles is an easy one. Most of the time, it is okay. If you start your run, though, and the pain increases or doesn’t go away, stop and go back home.