How to tell the difference between soreness and injury

We get the low-down on post-workout pain!

By Team Triple White • 3 years ago • HEALTH & FITNESS


We tell ourselves all kinds of things when it comes to training. The old adage, “No pain, no gain!”, is definitely a catch-cry that’s been used one or two (thousand) times, and that’s because it rings true with the struggle we all face when it comes to working out.

But not all pain is good pain, and not all pain leads to gain.

In an age that’s all about going hard and constantly challenging ourselves, it can be difficult to stop and listen to our bodies and understand whether the soreness we’re feeling is of the good kind. Here to break it down to the nitty gritty, our in-house exercise scientist, Brooke Macdonald, talks us through the differences between good and bad exercise soreness – and what we can do to ease the pain!

Ok, let’s talk about post-workout soreness. What is actually happening to our body after a workout and why does it put us in so much pain a day or so later?

Post-workout soreness is a sign of a good workout, even though it may be super uncomfortable, we have to remind ourselves that this is “good sore!”. Mild soreness is a common and natural result of physical activity, we call this Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS). This is when the muscle tissue has been stretched beyond what it’s accustomed to i.e. we have pushed ourselves a little bit harder then last session! Go, guys!

During a workout our muscles are constantly being lengthened and contracted under tension and this creates small microscopic tears to the muscle fibres. This damage, coupled with the inflammation that accompanies the tears, causes the pain. The pain should be mild and slightly uncomfortable when moving (sitting on that toilet can be hard!) but it simply implies that our muscles are adapting to our fitness program!

How long does the soreness typically last and what factors might influence individual recovery time and what can we do to minimise post-workout soreness so we can get back in the game faster?

Our muscles will gradually increase with discomfort over the 24-48 hours after a workout and can last up to a few days. The time it takes for the muscles to recover is all up to how we go about managing our bodies post-workout. We need to make sure we have a decent slow cool down for around 10 mins at the end of our session. It’s good to incorporate slow movements like walking, leg swings, dynamic stretches and foam rolling (just like a massage!). Then, allow yourself to take some time to actually stretch out the muscles you have just worked. We do not stretch enough in this busy day and age and really does help break the cycle of DOMS.

In the days following a workout, getting the right amount of sleep, eating good nourishing foods high in protein and keeping hydrated is so important. However, throughout my experience it is keeping the muscles in motion that really does help. Going for a walk, swimming and slow yoga all reduce the amount of recovery time.

While moving your body during recovery is super helpful, if you can do this with a compression garment on – that’s even better! These guys are life savers. The compression technology of tights like 2xu and Jaggad are designed to help increase the circulation of blood flow which essentially helps remove any toxins or bi-products from the muscles quicker. Research has found that wearing compression gear during recovery reduces fatigue, swelling and inflammation. So, we will all be living in these guys post gym sesh, yes?

Are there any exercises or particular muscles that make us prone to being sorer for longer?

There are no movements or muscles that will make you sorer for longer. Muscle soreness is commonly linked to weight training and, well, picking up heavy things! However, soreness/DOMS can occur at any time that you do an activity that your muscles are not use to. Haven’t gone for that cheeky run you have been planning for months and when you finally do, your calves feel like they are on fire? Yep, that is because the body is totally not used to being worked like this. This is why it is so important for us to change up our workouts and programs regularly so the body is exposed to changing adaptations.

Is there a difference between feeling tight and stiff and feeling sore? 

Tightness and stiffness is a reduction in range of motion. You may feel like this if you have worked out in the morning and then sat at your desk all day at work. This is purely because the muscles have worked and moved and then stayed in the same position for a long period of time. Stretching and constant movement will help this ,as it promotes continuous blood flow and circulation through the muscle belly. Feeling tight and stiff can also be a result of soreness. Soreness, as I mentioned before, is due to the small micro tears in the fibres of the muscles that occur during a workout becoming inflamed. Both are a result of our bodies being put under stress during a workout.

How can we tell the difference between good soreness and real pain or injury? What are some of the tell-tale signs?

When your workout was five days ago and you are still hobbling around, this may be about the time you need to have a look into it! When pain is still hanging around 4-5 days later and causes an extreme restriction in movement, you may have crossed the fine line from soreness into injury.

This is a good, basic guide:

Muscle soreness

  • FEELING – Tender when touching muscles, tired or burning feeling while exercising, minimal dull, tight and achy feeling at rest
  • ONSET – During exeercise or 24-72 hours over activity
  • DURATION – 2-3 days
  • LOCATION – Muscles
  • IMPROVES WITH – Stretching, following movement
  • WORSENS WITH – Sitting still
  • APPROPRIATE ACTION – Resume offending activity once soreness subsides


  • FEELING – Ache, sharp pain at rest or when exercising, excessive swelling, discolouration
  • ONSET – During exercise or within 24 hours of activity
  • DURATION – May linger for more than 4-5 days if not addressed
  • LOCATION – Muscles or joints
  • IMPROVES WITH – Ice, rest
  • WORSENS WITH – Continued activity
  • APPROPRIATE ACTION – Consult with a medical professional if pain is extreme or lasts more than 1-2 weeks

Lower back tends to be an area where soreness is often perceived as a dangerous thing and people tend to shy away from anything that puts even a little strain on it. Is it normal and safe to feel some soreness there and what exercises might affect the area when performed with the proper form?

Of course it is normal to experience some soreness in our lower back! There are major muscles there and they have to work very hard in keeping us stable during a lot of moves – and if they have not been used for a while and all of a sudden are called on, then of course they will be saying, “Hello! I am here!”.  Our lower back muscles are spread across are large surface area, so soreness may run up along the side of the spine or horizontally out to the side.

Some exercises that target the lower back muscles are superman back extensions and you may feel it working during deadlifts as well. Do not shy away from these though, it is important to have a good, strong, supportive lower back.

So, let’s just say you’ve trained hard, had a great session and two days later, you’re still in a world of (good) pain. Your workout plan says you are due for the gym but you feel like you can barely lift up your arm… is it safe to work out while sore?

You can definitely exercise with DOMS or soreness. It may feel uncomfortable, especially during the warm up phase when you are just getting into it all. However, you may actually find once you are warm, the pain does subside and actually goes away during the workout. Blood circulation is a lovely thing! I would recommend planning your sessions targeting the less affected muscle groups and allow the sorer muscles to have a bit longer to recover. For example, if your legs are really sore, maybe look at working your upper body more. If the pain does make it hard to exercise, and your movement patterns are changing and your technique is diminishing, it is best to give your body a few more days.

Exercise Scientist (BExSc), F45 Instructor

With a bachelor’s degree in exercise science behind her, Brooke has spent many years in the fitness industry, devoted to helping people on their path to wellness through strength, conditioning and rehabilitation. Coming from a strong track and field background, she has developed a love for all things health and fitness. Her passion is driven from her belief that exercise acts as a form of medicine and she tries to promote and educate this throughout her every encounter. Her love for sneakers and runners is also a little bit obsessive…

Main image credit: iStock



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