Using A Treadmill When Your Legs Are Sore (When It's Ok)
By Simon Gould
If you use a treadmill you may have experienced some soreness in your legs. It usually occurs the morning after a hard workout. In order to know if we can still use a treadmill while our legs are sore, we need to identify what kind of soreness and the severity. Here I'll go through what the soreness could be, and if you can still use a treadmill when you have it.
What kind of soreness?
Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS)
This is the most common soreness we get from running on a treadmill. You usually the feel it the morning after when you've done some speed training or a long distance run. It usually lasts a day or two and doesn't represent much of a problem for your exercise routine. It's your muscles breaking down and repairing themselves. If it feels very sore, take a few days rest.
This is soreness in the front of the shin. The causes are exactly the same as for DOMS (intensity increases). Some people take it easy for a few days to let the area heal. If it's been sore for a few days or more, you should rest until the soreness goes away. It's not usually a serious injury and is very common too. Stretching the calfs can help prevent it as they're support muscles for the shins.
If you watch any sport you'll occasionally see athletes stop and grip their thighs or calves. They've experienced leg cramps which are very uncomfortable for a brief period. You could describe this as soreness and it can happen if you're dehydrated or the muscles are cold. Use the treadmill handrails to help you come to a stop and the pain should pass in a minute or so.
Muscle strain or pull
When this is mild you'll feel soreness as you run which doesn't go away. This can occur in any leg muscle as they're used so much on a treadmill. The hamstrings, quads and calves are the most common to get this kind of injury. The injury itself, however, is not common. It usually happens if you far exceed what you're used to. It can be mild or severe.
When not to use a treadmill with leg soreness
First of all, it's important to identify what is soreness, and what is something more serious like an injury. With DOMS I've described above, you can get away with using a treadmill if your legs are still sore. I would advise you taje it easy though. If you feel sharp pain, swelling, pain that doesn't go away, or even bruising. These symptoms will require a specialist to diagnose as it could be something serious.
This is an obvious one but if you've completed a very long run than you're used to, or you've run a marathon the day before. Then it's wise not to use a treadmill at all the day after. Let the soreness go down and let some good recovery infiltrate those muscles. Where a marathon is concerned, don't do any exercise for at least a week afterwards.
The thing is, science doesn't really understand what causes DOMS and there are plenty of myths about treating it, like massaging it away (that doesn't work). It's something you just have to give time to recover. When you've been exercising for years, you get used to the feeling of soreness when you're routine has taken you further than you may have gone for some time.
The fashion these days is for sports people especially soccer players to take ice baths. This medical paper in the US National Library of Medicine says this is a possible strategy to help reduce the amount of soreness days that occur. There are also other methods proposed. I, personally, just let it recover naturally, which it normally does.
Exercise you can do when your legs are sore
If your legs are sore then you are advised to rest. This doesn't mean you do no exercise at all. Soreness from using a treadmill affects the legs. But there are parts of the body you could exercise while your legs are sore. This would mean you still get a workout while your legs are recovering. So if you're sore from running, don't repeat the same exercise until the soreness goes.
You can do workouts that involve the upper body. Strength training can be an effective upper body workout. If you're sore from long distance running, then a gentle cycle on an exercise bike might be something you can do with sore legs. As long as you don't feel the soreness getting worse by exercising the same muscles. You can do light exercise like stretching or other low intensity workouts like walking.
When it may be ok to use the treadmill with soreness
This is very much, listen to your body. After a 10k race I felt a bit sore, but the next day I did a slow jog for a couple of miles on a treadmill, just to keep my mileage up for that week. The soreness was mild and I felt I could train through it. A physio might disagree with that but the soreness never stayed too long. If I had soreness the next day as well after a few miles, then I would definitely take it easy.
You know your body best. If I had shin splints, that's a bit different. Damage can be done of you keep running with shin splints. I think a bit of muscle stiffness and soreness is all part of an exercise routine. Especially if you like to run races or long distances. A distance runner will often do their long run for the week on a Saturday or Sunday and have the next day off as their recovery day.
For any runner this delayed onset of muscle soreness is a regular occurrence that we need to deal with. I would say with any sharp pain or soreness that gets gradually worse, then a doctor should be seen. But as said before, pay attention to every feeling in your body, don't ignore anything. Just recognize what it could be and you'll know how to deal with it.
So the medical community don't really know what causes the soreness or treats it. We know it happens to people who exercised after a long break or after strenuous exercise. This soreness can occur from aerobic and anaerobic exercise. People who lift weights will recognize the soreness and we all need to be aware of over training to help prevent it.
Thinking of buying a treadmill? Here's my favorite, I always recommend it when asked*