What’s the Difference Between Pain and Soreness?

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by Coach Stevo
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What’s the Difference Between Pain and Soreness?

You finally got to the gym. You did it; congrats! You took it a little easier than you used to (it had been a while), you drank plenty of water, and you went to bed early. But the next morning when the alarm goes off, every part of you feels like lead. Hot lead. And you’re supposed to go back to the gym?

Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) is a phenomenon that is familiar to almost everyone who has started a new gym routine. Try as we might to avoid it, for some, it might be as inevitable as love, death and taxes. However, soreness is not a good or bad thing. Soreness is just newness. So it’s perfectly normal to be sore when you first start working out, or come back to exercise after a layoff.

Honestly, the best way to get over it is to drink plenty of water and keep going back to the gym. Light movement is the best cure for DOMS.

When you’re trying to change your body you can expect, well, changes! Here are more new things you can expect when you start working out that are completely normal:

  • New Sensations. When you start working out, you might not know how to interpret all of the new signals your body is sending your brain. A lot of your muscles may not have been used in these ways before, and some of them may have been used very little. When performing something like a row, some of my clients tell me variations of, “That hurts my back.” I stop the session and ask lots of follow-up questions about their exercise history, and we often find that the client is just feeling muscles work in that way for the first time. It happens so often that I have found it to be completely normal. Take things easy and just practice the movement though the full range of motion to get a sense for what that “feels” like.
  • Pain vs. Injury. There’s a big difference between discomfort, hurt, pain and injury and, unfortunately, it takes experience to know the difference. My mentor, Dan John, once told me that the difference between an athlete and a recreational exerciser is that athletes know the difference between pain and injury. But my rule of thumb for when you’re first starting out: You will experience some discomfort, but you should stop at the first sign of “that hurts,” and reassess what you’re doing. “Pain” and anything above it means you should consult your doctor as soon as possible.
  • “That Good Sore.” There is a feeling I have struggled to define my whole career that a lot of my clients just call, “that good sore.” It’s not, “Oh-man-how-am-I-gonna-walk-down-the-stairs” sore. It’s more like, “I definitely used my body as a tool.” My clients tell me it makes them feel, “hard” or “tempered.” And one of my favorite clients texted me this week (after eight years of working together) and wrote, “I always know I’m doing something right when I get ‘that good sore’ in all the places I want to get hotter.”

Getting into working out will evoke a lot of these new sensations and it’s important to remember that they are completely normal. One of my favorite times as a coach is working with a new class and hearing them share their experiences—they often hear that everyone else is having them, too! But when you’re getting started, it’s important to remember to keep the goal the goal, and remember my favorite therapy joke:

“What’s the goal of the first session?”

“A second session.”

About the Author

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Coach Stevo

Coach-Stevo-Logo.pngCoach Stevo is the nutrition and behavior change consultant at San Francisco CrossFit. He is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, holds a BA in Philosophy from the University of Chicago and an MA in Sport Psychology from John F. Kennedy University. He teaches habit-based coaching to wellness professionals all over the world and he contributed to Intervention by Dan John in 2012. 

 

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