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stretching sore muscles

Should You Stretch Sore Muscles? Read the Dos and Don’ts


  • Why do muscles get sore after training?
  • What is Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS)?
  • Is muscle soreness dangerous?
  • What is acute muscle soreness?
  • How to stretch sore muscles the right way?
  • How to recover from sore muscles?

Should You Stretch Sore Muscles?

Having sore muscles is one of the most common problems athletes and fitness enthusiasts encounter during recovery. And what do they do when this happens? They stretch. Stretching is believed to be the most effective way to recover from sore muscles, prevent injury, and improve performance. However, stretching is not always a surefire approach to expediting your recovery period and eliminating sore muscles. Stretching also has its Dos and Don’ts.

In this guide, we’ll answer the question, “should you stretch sore muscles?” and provide insights and tips on how to stretch and recover from sore muscles properly.

Why Do Muscles Get Sore?

Muscles get sore when they work more intensely than they used to. Workout, exercise, training, and other physical activity can cause minor and temporary damages and stress to the muscle fibers. Soreness and stiffness are then the side effects of that stress.

What is Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness?

Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness or DOMS is the specific muscle pain or soreness that begins after a workout or any other intense physical activity, typically a day or two after the activity. You won’t feel DOMS during the actual physical activity. Muscle soreness felt during or right after physical activity is called acute muscle soreness.

DOMS usually occurs when you do an activity your body is not used to, such as a new type of workout routine or a high-intensity exercise. All athletes can experience DOMS, even the elite ones who have been training their whole life. “DOMS is most prevalent at the beginning of the sporting season when athletes are returning to training following a period of reduced activity,” proved a 2003 study published in Springer’s Sports Medicine journal.

Some symptoms of DOMS include tender muscles, limited range of motion, muscle stiffness, muscle swelling, and loss of muscle strength. Soreness and stiffness during DOMS approximately last for one to three days.

Is Muscle Soreness Dangerous?

Muscle soreness is nothing to worry about. This type of body pain or stiffness is normal and typically doesn’t last long. Further, repetitive DOMS after workouts or physical activity will decrease in frequency as your muscles get used to the new physical demands they face.

DOMS, specifically, can actually be a sign of improving fitness and can lead to greater stamina and muscle strength. When your body gets used to an activity, there will be times when you won’t feel DOMS or considerably less muscle pain. Muscle soreness and stiffness after a high-intensity activity is part of the body’s adaptation process.

Despite this, however, you shouldn’t completely ignore DOMS and still do activities that can worsen it. Execute a recovery plan after a long run, workout, training, or any high-intensity activity. Don’t ignore your pain to avoid overtraining and other adverse health implications.

Should You Stretch Your Sore Muscles?

Stretching, in general, is an easy exercise activity that can improve muscle flexibility, improve blood flow, and ease stress. Due to this, many believe, even experts, that stretching sore muscles is one of the best ways to relieve DOMS and other types of muscle pains. But is there truth to this? Should you really stretch your sore muscles after an intense physical activity?

Let’s demystify stretching and its benefits or risks to sore muscles and identify the right ways, times, and situations to do it.

When to Stretch Sore Muscles

The right time to stretch sore muscles depends on the physical activity or static activity you’ve done and your physical condition. Here are the best times to stretch those sore muscles and expedite your recovery:

Before And After A Physical Activity

Stretch your muscles before and after a workout or training. Stretching before putting stress on your muscles would improve your blood flow and prepare your body for what’s to come. Meanwhile, stretching immediately after physical activity helps cool down the body and ease muscle stress and tension.

Although stretching doesn’t actually lessen the risk of injury, studies say that it can really reduce muscle soreness and stiffness. “The data on stretching and muscle soreness indicates that, on average, individuals will observe a reduction in soreness of less than 2 mm on a 100-mm scale during the 72 hours after exercise. With respect to risk of injury, the combined risk reduction of 5% indicates that the stretching protocols used in these studies do not meaningfully reduce lower extremity injury risk of army recruits undergoing military training,” concluded a study published in the Journal of Athletic Training.

After Waking Up

Stretching in the morning or during your recovery period can relieve tension from awkward sleeping positions or ongoing DOMS. Furthermore, it’s the perfect energy booster and stress reliever to help you get through the day.

According to science, it’s best to start your sessions before you get out of bed. “Stretching before getting out of bed can help wake up the body and improve the circulation. It can also turn on the parasympathetic system – the ‘rest and digest’ system — which puts us in a more relaxed state right when we get out of bed, helping set the tone for a calm morning and day,” said Dr. Beth Frates of the Stroke Research and Recovery Institute at Harvard-affiliated Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital.

When Not to Stretch Sore Muscles

DOMS and muscle pains are not the only side effects of high-intensity training and unfamiliar physical activities. There may be other underlying, existing, or delayed physical repercussions of exposing your body to intense activities. As such, there are situations where you shouldn’t stretch your sore muscles.

During Chronic Pains

Chronic pains are different variations of body pains that can last for months. They can be caused by a traumatic injury (mainly from sports), poor sleeping position, poor posture, or congenital conditions. Sometimes, they don’t have obvious physical causes at all, so athletes or individuals won’t know if they have one, leaving them in the dark, not knowing when to avoid any intense movements and stretching exercises.

Some examples of chronic pains are headaches, lower back pain, and arthritis. Their main defining characteristic is that they last for months or even years if ignored or without proper medication. Athletes often get chronic pains from past injuries or overtraining.

Due to the risks brought by chronic pains, you shouldn’t stretch sore muscles if you have one—even after a simple workout or exercise routine. It’s best to seek advice from medical professionals regarding what to do with your muscle pains on top of your existing chronic pains and to find out the best exercise activities that match your ability.

Acute Muscle Soreness

As mentioned, acute muscle soreness is the muscle pain you feel during or immediately after physical activity. This soreness is caused by a quick buildup of lactic acid, a chemical byproduct that appears when cells produce energy without oxygen present. Acute muscle soreness is different from delayed onset muscle soreness.

Stretching when you have acute muscle soreness can strain your muscles more and produce tiny tears in your muscle fibers that may take some time to heal. It’s best to wait for acute muscle soreness to subside before you stretch.

The chance of sore muscles occurring is pretty high during and after you try an intense or unfamiliar physical activity for the first time. When your body is still adjusting to the movements you’re trying, be extra careful about stretching.

Unidentified or Existing Pain During Stretching

If you tried stretching before and during a physical activity and encountered an unfamiliar pain, avoid stretching altogether. Likewise, you should also avoid stretching if you have an existing injury or occurring pain. Stretching is different from doing an actual physical activity that can help you recover from your current condition. So while it’s advisable to keep your body active while you have injuries or physical limitations like arthritis or heart problems, stretching your muscles is a completely different matter.

Like our previous advice, you may speak to a medical professional, trainer, or other related experts to find out if stretching is good for your body or if there are other warm-up activities that are more suitable for your condition and ability.

Bottomline: Should You Stretch Sore Muscles?

The answer to the question, “should you stretch your sore muscles”, depends on your physical condition, sport, and physical activity. More often than not, stretching can improve your flexibility or performance and lessen muscle soreness. However, there are times when stretching can do more harm than good. It can even make an existing health problem worse.

Before you incorporate stretching into your before and after routines, listen to your body first. If you’re part of a sports club or have a personal trainer, always ask the experts for help when in doubt.

How to Stretch Sore Muscles the Right Way

After learning when and if you should stretch your sore muscles, let’s get to the actual process of stretching sore muscles. The right way of stretching can improve your condition before participating in a physical activity and during the recovery phase. Here are the things you should do and remember while stretching:

Don’t Stretch Every Muscle You Have

Remember that it’s not important and necessary to stretch every muscle you have. It can do more harm than good. It’s best to look for a stretching program that suits your sport or physical activity, so you’ll know the best muscles to target.

Focus on Core Muscle Groups

Complementing the first tip, just focus on core muscle groups that need improvements and support. According to David Nolan, a physical therapist at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital, the critical area that you should never forget are the muscles in your lower extremities, such as calves, hamstrings, hip flexors in the pelvis, and quadriceps in the front of the thigh. Further, stretching your shoulders, neck, and lower back is also beneficial.

Incorporate Warm-Up Activities

Stretching, in a sense, is not actually a warm-up activity. Some examples of warm-up activities are low-intensity jogging and light walks. You should warm up first before you stretch your muscles and do a physical activity or start your training.

Aim For Symmetry

While experts advise that you should focus on core muscle groups, make sure that your stretches reach both sides of your body, left and right. Not doing so can actually increase the risk of injury and negatively affect your performance.

Hold Your Stretching Positions

Stretching is not just about flexing your muscles. While stretching, make sure you hold your positions for at least 30 seconds. For core muscles or low-performing parts of your body, hold for at least 60 seconds. Breathe normally as you hold your positions.

Incorporate Movements

For best results, add gentle to moderate movements to your stretching. These can improve your body’s flexibility and calm your mind. Some trainers and athletes recommend tai chi, pilates, or yoga.

Avoid Bouncing

Contrary to popular belief, bouncing while stretching won’t improve your recovery. It can even lead to injuries. It’s not safe and should be avoided, regardless of the sport and physical activity. If you bounce while stretching, you’ll stretch your muscles too far and too fast, causing strain or trauma to your muscle fibers.

Be Consistent

To ensure that stretching offers significant benefits to your performance and recovery process, aim to incorporate stretching daily or at least three times a week into your exercise routine. It can be time-consuming at times, especially if you’re looking forward to heavy training sessions or just having a busy week, but remember the benefits of stretching to your physical and mental health.

How to Recover From Sore Muscles

Stretching and its wonderful benefits isn’t and shouldn’t be the only way to recover from sore muscles. In fact, you shouldn’t rely on stretching alone during your recovery period. To reduce muscle soreness, take as much rest as you need, stay hydrated, eat food rich in protein and carbohydrates, and try heat or cold therapy. If the soreness is unbearable, seek assistance from medical professionals or physical therapists immediately.

Remember that stretching is just one part of the recovery process. For more tips concerning proper recovery and muscle soreness, check out our blog about how to recover from a long run.

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