Chasing Pain: Should Your Workout Make You Sore?

You should know that I’m writing this after an idea I had after seeing that my Facebook news feed was filled with celebration for my friends who ran the NYC Half Marathon.  You may have read my last piece on running, where I shared that Running a Marathon is not inspiring.  The sentiment still stands for the NYC half, and you should know that I’m proud of my friends who committed to a goal and performed on race day.

That shouldn’t be confused with anything other than a support for their desire to make their own decisions.  You see, I’m a fan of exercise that comes from internal motivation.  I dream of a world where we take care of our bodies so that we can do more of the things that we love.  From my experience, running is entirely something that most people do not love.


Movement should be about enjoyment, not misery.  Exercise is about taking care of your body so that you’re able to enjoy the physical activities that mean the most to you.  However, this isn’t the popular approach.  That’s why in October of 2014, The New York Times published a piece asking the question, “Why are Americans so fascinated with extreme fitness?” It’s why every time I see someone workout until they’re sore or injured, I think that they’re well-intentioned, but ultimately misled.

You see, I don’t believe that your workout should make you sore.  Your workout shouldn’t put you in pain, injury you, or make things hurt.  At least, not within reason.  Chronic pain or discomfort is not a sign that you’re doing a good job.  It’s a sign that the workout you’re chasing is actually messing things up.



Let’s casually consider that “soreness” is muscular fatigue during or after workout.  Yes, they occur from different mechanisms and for different reasons, but it’s about muscles that are working hard and recovering.  Let’s consider “pain” anything else, and I hope that we can agree that pain is something that you’d like to avoid during your workouts.

Conventional wisdom is that you get sore when you’re doing a new movement for the first time, or making a large change in volume or intensity.  We know that eccentric muscle action, lowering weights, is a more potent mechanism for soreness than raising weights.  Most of us have experienced delayed onset muscle soreness the day after we first squatted or did single leg deadlifts.  It’s normal to get sore, and an indicator that we’ve done something different.  If a little bit is normal, what is abnormal?

For me, if you’re unable to complete activities of daily living the next day, then you went too far.  Those stairs should be a humorous discomfort, not a painful journey.  Regular exercise should make you feel better the next day, not worse.

Are there exceptions? Of course there are.

Falling off of a treadmill is certainly not a good idea, but it happens to be an exception.  At least hopefully.


Days of competition should count, too.  I don’t want you to walk around like you were in Fight Club after every workout, but on the last day of your program, or on the day of that meet or race, you better bring it.  You better go out there and work as hard as you can, because that’s what you signed up for.  However, if you’re kicking the shit out of yourself every weekend… sign up for less of that.

There’s a difference between practicing and playing, and if we practice really well, we’ll be able to play that much harder.  However, if we’re practicing hard all of the time, we’ll have no idea if we can flip that switch when it counts.

So, should your workout make you sore?  Maybe.  Should it hurt you?  Definitely not.  If you’re a fan of running until you can’t walk, swimming until you cry, or lifting until you can’t get out of bed, ask yourself Why.  There are some important things that we can learn from our obsession with chasing pain.


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