Chances are, you’ve pushed through pain to finish a workout. Every year 42% of exercisers hurt themselves, according to a study by the American College of Sports Medicine. Knee pain and sprains, and strains of the shoulders and upper arms are especially common; they help fuel more than $2 billion in annual sales of over-the-counter pain relievers. While minor aches during your workout are typically nothing to sweat about, there are some types of pain that should stop you in your tracks. Here’s how to deal with discomfort and injuries—and recover faster.
When pain strikes, think about your fitness regimen over the past week: Did you increase reps? Up your speed? Start a new workout? “If your activity changed, some pain or soreness will be normal," says Windee Weiss, Ph.D., a professor in the Kinesiology & Physical Education division of the University of Northern Iowa. Apply ice to the area and take ibuprofen: over four to five days it produces an anti-inflammatory effect that can reduce swelling and allow tendons to move more freely. Have you been skimping on shut-eye? “When you're tired, there’s a good chance you’re changing your gait or technique during exercise,” Weiss says. “Get more sleep and you should feel better in two to five days.”
If you’re hit by an intense pain out of the blue, you should stop exercising immediately. Then, try gentle stretching. If it’s just a muscle spasm, that should help relieve the ache, says Weiss. “If stretching makes it worse, it’s likely that you have a strain. You’ll need to change your workout so it’s pain-free, or stop exercising altogether. To treat your injury, apply ice for 20 minutes several times a day.”
Keep going for two to three minutes and it will probably subside. This kind of pain often occurs early during exercise while your body limbers up. If the ache continues for more than five minutes, stop and rest that specific joint or muscle until you can exercise without pain. To prevent cramping next time, spend more time on your warmup. If pain early in your workout persists for two weeks, see your doctor.
As your body struggles to get rid of the lactic acid and carbon monoxide that build up during exercise, physical exhaustion can make you hurt. Reduce your intensity or pace. “If you’re maxed out, you need to stop,” Weiss says.
If pain wakes you up at night, feels worse in the morning, prevents you from moving a joint through its full range of motion or is present when you’re standing still, see your doctor. You may have tendinitis or a stress fracture. “Rest is the only thing that will cure overuse,” Weiss says. Go to the doc right away if you experience any sharp, piercing, shooting, radiating, burning or searing pain, as this may be a sign of nerve damage.
As you’re healing from an injury, don’t stop exercising (if your physician gives you the OK), but do rethink your workout. “If running hurts, you can get the same cardio benefits without all the pounding by swimming or doing the stair-climber, instead,” Weiss says. Activity delivers oxygen and nutrients that aid your body in repairing itself. Plus, it improves your mood and helps you stay upbeat. And who knows? You just might discover a new exercise to add to your repertoire.