We’ve all been there: You’re 30 minutes into a 45-minute spin class, wondering whether this level of pain is really doing your body any favors. And how do you know whether that lung-burning, legs-aching thing is actually what you’re supposed to be experiencing, or if you’ve pushed your body too far. It’s why we spoke with Dr. Laura Miranda DPT, MSPT, CSCS, a New York City-based fitness expert and Holly Rilinger (Nike Master Trainer and creator of workout program Lifted) for some valuable insight into the world of exercise – and exercise-induced pain!
First of all, Dr. Miranda warns that any pain you would describe as “sharp, radiating, pinching, numbing, throbbing or grinding” is likely a red flag. Similarly, she says joint pain is never a good sign; if your knees or ankles hurt during an exercise, see a fitness professional to check your form. “Your joints should not hurt,” agrees Rilinger. “Most times when pain shows up in your joints it’s the result of an ‘acute’ injury, meaning you had a specific time and injury you remember. Other times however these injuries can be a result of overuse.”
If you experience headaches, loss of vision, loss of sensation (numbness), tingling or radiating sensations, deep joint pain, chest pain, dizziness, or light headedness, both pros suggest you stop immediately.
When running, cycling, or generally working up a major sweat with some cardiovascular exercise, it’s normal to to feel a burning sensation in your lungs. The same goes for the burning feeling in your muscles; it’s totally expected during a really tough strength-focused workout – but it’s still possible to go too far. A good way to tell whether your gym-induced pain is worth worrying about, is to check your technique – is it still perfect after several reps? “Any discomfort that causes you to break good form, move with poor alignment, lose integrity of the movement pattern, or compensate from other areas of the body is considered a warning sign and should be avoided,” Dr. Miranda explained.
To lessen the likelihood of a nasty injury, we all need to have a level of what Dr. Miranda calls “movement literacy” in the basic movement patterns. That means you should only try a group class after you become well-versed in the particular activity. She explains that if “you are jumping into a group exercise class for example,” whether it’s Olympic-style heavy lifting, dance cardio, or even Pilates, then “you should first have a grasp of the fundamental movement patterns that are required for that specific training method.” So it might be a good idea to call a personal trainer or a physical therapist before trying out a totally new class, guys.
Another factor that typically sets people up for overuse injuries is sticking to only one genre of training. “Our bodies are designed to move in three different planes of motion, in a 360 fashion; movement is our bodies fuel,” Dr. Miranda said. However, because most of us sit at a desk 8 to 12 hours a day and many have sedentary lifestyles, we foster “muscular imbalances, maladaptive movement patterns and poor postures.” So when you step into the gym and continue doing the same movement over and over – like spinning your legs in one direction every day for an hour – you are “bound to over-train certain areas of your body, and under-train or flat-out ignore others.” Dr. Miranda’s fix? “Diversify your training!”
Afterwards, your body can ache for up to 47-hours, depending on the activity. “Anytime you introduce a new training stimulus or increase intensity or volume your body is forced to make changes to better prepare you for the next time. You are essentially tearing down muscle fiber, so it will rebuild stronger,” explained Rilinger.
If any pain sticks around for a week or longer, you should get to a doctor quickly – otherwise you could make the situation even worse. “The longer you move around with pain, the longer you wait to get something checked out, the greater the likelihood that you will cause more damage than the original issue,” Dr. Miranda added.