Running depends almost entirely on the lower body. So when you have sore legs, enjoying your daily run becomes quite a bit harder. But how do you know when your sore legs are okay to run through or when there’s something more going on?
Should you go running with sore legs or should you rest? The answer is unclear until you understand why your legs feel the way they do.
Knowing when to rest and when you can push through could be the key to maximizing your performance and reducing the chance of injuring yourself. Here’s everything you need to know to make the best decision.
Why Do You Get Sore Legs?
Your legs may not always feel sore immediately after a run, but the morning after may be an entirely different story!
Several factors can contribute to sore muscles and stiffness, which may make moving extremely painful. These include:
- Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness
- Running with improper form
- Muscle imbalances or weaknesses in the legs
- Inadequate warm-ups and cool-downs
Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness
In most cases, delayed onset muscle soreness is the cause of sore legs regardless of your fitness level. You’ll experience DOMS 24 to 48 hours after a run, especially if you’ve increased the intensity or duration of your runs.
The stress placed on your muscles causes micro-tears as your body tries to adapt to the new exercise load. Your body responds by producing inflammation as it repairs these micro-tears, so that your muscles can become stronger in the long run.
The pain caused by DOMS varies from mild to severe, and could include tenderness, muscle stiffness, swelling, and possibly reduced mobility.
Fortunately, when you repeat the same workout you should experience a lot less pain as your body adapts to the stress fairly quickly.
Running With Improper Form
It’s easy to run with improper form when you become fatigued, which places your joints, muscles, ligaments, and tendons under excessive stress.
As your gait begins to change, you’ll find that it places pressure on the structures of the feet and legs where there was none before. This can lead to the improper muscles taking over and compensating for those that are fatigued.
As these muscles aren’t used to being recruited, it’s easier to overwork them, leading to sore legs the following day.
However, it’s also easier for these muscles to become injured. When you lose your form, you tend to land harder upon your foot strike, increasing the impact in your muscles and joints.
Muscle Imbalances or Weaknesses in the Legs
While running has many benefits, muscle imbalances or weakness in the legs can hamper your progress.
Unfortunately, most runners will develop a muscle imbalance over time, the most common being weak hamstrings and strong quadriceps—otherwise known as being quad dominant.
Some quad-dominant runners will be able to run hundreds of miles without any issues. But in most cases, the imbalance places excessive strain on the muscles and ligaments as you run.
This can lead to soreness in the dominant muscles from overuse, and soreness in the weak muscles as they’re more prone to injury. It may also lead to other muscles, like the calves, compensating for the weaker ones, leading to sore legs after running.
Inadequate Warm-Ups and Cool-Downs
Although we know we shouldn’t, most runners start their run without a proper pre-run warmup. Research has shown that warming up properly before exercise can help to reduce muscle soreness, even after increasing the intensity and duration of the exercise.
The good news is that you only need 10 minutes to do a proper warm-up! This will increase muscle elasticity, which will help expand your range of motion and increase blood flow to the muscles.
When you run with warm, supple muscles, there’s less chance of becoming injured. You’re also more likely to recover faster thanks to the improved circulation.
Research has shown that 1 in 3 recreational runners will experience a running-related injury. While it’s not uncommon for runners to experience acute injuries, such as ankle sprains from a misstep, overuse is the most common cause of running injuries.
It’s natural to feel stiff, tight, and sore after a run, especially if you’ve increased the intensity or duration or have started speed work.
But if the aches and pains don’t go away or are located in a very specific place, it could indicate an underlying problem.
Soreness vs Acute Pain
Before you lace up your running shoes and head out the door, it’s important to determine if you’re experiencing acute pain or muscle soreness.
If you’re experiencing muscle pain—DOMS—from your last intense run, the physical discomfort should last only one to three days. You may also find that the pain actually completely disappears either during or after physical exercise.
That being said, if you’re experiencing acute pain rather than normal muscle soreness, you’ll find that it lasts for longer than three days. Pay attention to how the pain affects you, as it can present in a variety of ways.
If you’re experiencing a sharp stabbing pain that happens with a particular movement, or a constant localized dull pain, then it would be best not to run. It’s important to note that if you experience any sharp pain while running, you should stop immediately.
Acute pain should be assessed by a doctor to determine an underlying cause so it can be treated before you get back to running.
The Best Way to Assess Your Pain
Aches and pains may be considered a badge of honor by some runners! But when you’re considering whether you should run through the pain, the safest way is to use the Pain Scale.
This will help you to determine how bad the pain is and whether or not it’s worth the risk of running. There is one caveat: if you have a naturally high pain threshold, you may need to adapt the Pain Scale to your own experience.
Just because you can tolerate a high level of pain, it doesn’t mean you should. Pushing through pain, especially if it’s acute pain, significantly increases your risk of doing damage to your body.
If you have any hint of doubt about whether or not to run because of pain or soreness, it’s most likely best to have a rest day.
Levels one to three are considered to be the “green zone”, which is safe for running. In this zone, you may feel a small niggle but it’s easy to forget about when you’re moving. If your soreness comes with stiffness and it decreases with movement, you’re also okay to run.
On levels four to seven—yellow and orange zones—you have noticeable pain that may:
- Affect your range of motion
- Cause you to change your gait
- Get worse during a run
- Not go away after a run
While you may be able to tolerate this pain while you’re running, it’s highly recommended not to run if your pain falls into this range. Recovery will take longer and you’ll be at more risk of damaging your muscles, ligaments, and tendons permanently.
The “red zone”, levels eight to 10, is where you’re suffering from severe pain. In some cases, your pain may make it hard to move or increase when you exercise.
If your pain falls into this area, you should definitely avoid running and it may be a good idea to see a doctor to find out if there’s an underlying cause.
Should You Go Running With Sore Legs?
Aside from the Pain Scale, here are some guidelines to figure out when you should or shouldn’t run with sore legs.
You Can Go Running With Sore Legs If:
Your soreness is a result of DOMS. It’s usually simple to tell if it’s DOMS or not. You can ask yourself the following questions:
- Did I increase my pace yesterday or the day before?
- Did I increase my distance yesterday or the day before?
- Have I been running more often than I usually do?
- Did I warm up and cool down effectively?
- Am I returning to running after a break?
The answers to these questions should give you a good indication of whether your pain is likely to be DOMS. There’s also research that suggests that exercise can actually reduce the soreness of DOMs.
You Should Avoid Running With Sore Legs If:
Any pain or soreness related to an injury or a foot or leg condition should be a reason to take a break from running. Avoid running with sore legs if:
- You have an existing injury that hasn’t fully healed yet
- The pain is localized to a specific area, which could be an injury
- Your pain is only on one side, which could be a warning sign of an injury
- You can’t go through your normal range of motion without pain
- The pain falls into level 4 to 10 of the Pain Scale
- Your body is tired in addition to your pain, which may indicate that you need rest
Tips for Preventing Muscle Soreness
If your running has been delayed or disrupted by muscle soreness, here are some measures you can take to prevent it from happening in the future.
Increase Mileage Slowly
Increasing your mileage too quickly can overload the muscles, ligaments, and tendons. You should stick to increasing your mileage by 10 percent per week at the most.
As an example, if you ran 10 miles last week, you should only run 11 miles at the most the following week. Then 12.1 miles the following week, and so on. This is the ideal way to progress and add a small challenge to your runs without overloading your muscles.
Warm Up and Cool Down Properly
Neglecting your warm-up and cooldown can leave you open to injury. Warming up will ensure that you start with warm muscles with good blood flow and a wide range of motion, making them less prone to injury.
You only need 5 to 10 minutes of warming up and a short walk to cool down, so it won’t add a lot of time to your run.
Stretch After Your Workouts
Stretching or doing a short yoga routine after your workouts can help to release tension that may already be building in your muscles after a run.
This can help your muscles to stay supple and get the blood flowing, bringing oxygen and nutrients to the area for faster recovery.
If you’re struggling with DOMS from running but you don’t want to skip your exercise, you can do some form of cross-training. This should give your running muscles a break but still allow you to burn calories and get a workout in.
Weight lifting is an excellent form of cross-training that will help you build muscle, but if you’re new to it you can expect to experience DOMS from your lifting sessions too.
You can also choose other cardio forms of cross-training, like cycling, elliptical, rowing, swimming, or yoga. These are low-impact and great for recovery while still giving you good exercise.
Get ahead of sore muscles by refueling properly. Yes, the food you choose to eat can help you recover faster and reduce your pain!
It’s a good idea to refuel as soon as possible after your workout to replace the muscle glycogen stores.
You should eat enough protein per day to help rebuild your muscles after they’ve experienced micro-tears during exercise. As a rule of thumb, you should aim for 1 to 1.2 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight per day.
Don’t neglect the carbs. You should eat a ratio of 4/3 to 1 of carbohydrates to protein, to provide your body with the energy it needs on a daily basis.
It’s also a good idea to add some anti-inflammatory foods into your diet. These will help to reduce inflammation in the legs and prevent your DOMS from getting too bad.
Some foods that combat inflammation include pineapple, watermelon, turmeric, ginger, and cherry juice.
How to Handle Sore Leg Muscles
If you do wake up the day after your run with sore legs, here are some ways to ease the soreness.
If you use an ice pack, you should keep it on for 20 minutes at the most. An ice bath should last no more than 15 minutes, or you risk doing more damage than good.
Use a Foam Roller
Foam rolling is underrated for reducing muscle soreness, especially for the larger muscles like the quads, hamstrings, glutes, and even the calves.
Using a foam roller helps to release tension in the muscles, so they don’t feel as sore because the tightness is lessened. They’re very easy to use at home.
Get a Massage
Research shows that getting your sore muscles massaged can help to alleviate soreness. Not only does it help to increase circulation, but it can help to release smaller knots in the muscles that may be causing pain.
You can go to a sports masseuse or simply massage your muscles at home using your hands or a massage ball. On the other hand, you can ask someone else to massage you or invest in a sports massage gun.
Movement can help relieve the pain of DOMS as it keeps nutrient- and oxygen-rich blood flowing to the muscles and gives them a bit of a stretch.
If your job has you sitting behind a desk, you may want to take a walk around the office every half hour, or do some leg stretching exercises underneath your desk.
You could also consider getting an under-desk treadmill, which will allow you to keep walking while you work.
Stay as active as you can during the days you’re sore. Take a walk whenever you can, do a slow recovery jog, do some yoga, swim, or do a gentle cycle.
When to Worry About Sore Legs
While in most cases, rest and taking recovery steps is enough to help your legs heal, there are some cases in which you may need to seek medical attention. You may want to see your doctor if you experience pain that:
- Comes with swelling or bruising
- Reduces your range of motion
- Prevents you from doing your normal activities
- Only occurs during a specific movement
- Gets worse during exercise
- Sticks around for longer than 3 days
- Keeps coming back
If you have pain that you can’t attribute to DOMS, we highly recommend erring on the side of caution and not pushing through it. Rather get it checked so you can make sure there’s no underlying injury or condition.
Pushing through the pain just to run may exacerbate a small problem that becomes a big problem, which can have a more severe impact on your running.