Is it Ever OK to Push Through the Pain During Exercise?
You often hear stories of Olympic or professional athletes who heroically fight through pain or injury to secure a win. It’s not even uncommon to come across a story of your average marathon runner gritting their teeth through pain to cross the finish line. There’s no doubt that it happens, but should you really push through the pain during exercise? We spoke to Elizabeth Batterton, M.D., a family and sports medicine physician on the medical staff at Texas Health Southwest Fort Worth and at Fort Worth Orthopedics, a Texas Health Physicians Group practice, to figure out the truth.
Differentiating Soreness from Pain
Soreness is almost to be expected during rigorous activity, especially if you haven’t exercised in a while or you’ve recently increased the intensity of your workout. This sore or achy feeling is a result of micro-tears or mild inflammation in your muscles or tendons, which is normal. The muscle repairs the tears while you’re resting, and it helps the muscle to grow in size and strength.
You may even feel like your soreness doesn’t appear until hours or days after the activity. Batterton says this phenomenon is called Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) and it usually starts 24 hours following the activity, resolving in, at the most, seven days.
It’s alright to exercise if you’re experiencing soreness, and physical activity might actually help alleviate the ache. But Batterton says any soreness lasting longer than a week is not normal and should be followed up on with your primary care physician.
“If you begin to experience chest pain or shortness of breath while working out, this is a sign to stop what you are doing and call your doctor as well,” she adds. “Another thing to look out for is extreme soreness, tight/hard muscles, numbness, tingling and dark-colored urine. These symptoms can be due to muscle breakdown and a rare condition called rhabdomyolysis which warrants a trip to the emergency room!”
While experiencing sore muscles is normal, pain is not. Pain represents injury; it’s our body’s way of letting us know something is not right. Pain during or after exercise can be a sign of overuse or too much stress placed on a muscle or tendon. When it’s a result of repetitive use or a single episode of overloading a muscle or tendon, it’s referred to as a muscle strain.
“Pushing through sharp, acute pain could be causing more damage than good taking away the initial benefit of exercise,” Batterton explains. “If your soreness turns into pain or pushes you past your comfort level, it is time to scale back. Also, if pain starts to dictate how you perform the exercise or if it causes you to modify the activity to compensate for the pain, you are definitely doing too much!”
Signs of overtraining include:
- Sleep disturbances
- An increase in sickness
- Unresolved muscle soreness
If you’re suffering from any of these symptoms, it’s time to speak with your doctor about setting a healthy workout schedule and nutrition plan.
Take a Break
If you’re experiencing pain, the best thing to do is to rest and give your muscles or tendon the time they need to recover. Batterton suggests using ice for acute swelling or injury, and you can apply heat to the affected area for up to 72 hours following an injury.
She also suggests light stretching and range of motion exercises, as well as foam rolling, yoga and massage to help stimulate the muscle and increase blood flow. If needed, you can also use topicals, anti-inflammatories or a transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) unit to treat mild soreness or pain.
If the pain does not resolve after two weeks of rest, ice and activity modification, Batterton recommends reaching out to your doctor. If you’re experiencing acute pain, especially accompanied by swelling, it’s better to reach out sooner rather than later.
The best way to prevent injury and pain is to ease into your workout. Performing dynamic stretches versus static stretching has been shown to reduce muscle tightness better. Dynamic stretching is movement-based instead of holding a pose in traditional stretching.
For instance, instead of holding a traditional lunge, try a walking lunge with a twist. Get into a traditional lunge then twist your torso toward the front thigh. Stand back up and walk out into a lunge on the other side and repeat, twisting your torso toward that leg.
Traditional stretching and foam rolling can be added at the end of a workout when your muscles are already warm.
If at any point you experience pain, back down. It’s better to stop or modify an exercise than to further any injury.
“When starting a new exercise routine, take it slow,” Batterton says. “Don’t expect change overnight. Small steps in the right direction will get you to your goals safely and hopefully injury-free!”
If rest and modification keep falling short of alleviating your pain, it may be time to see a specialist. For more information about Texas Health Sports Medicine or to find a sports medicine physician, visit TexasHealth.org/SportsMedicine.