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Recovery

Is My Soreness Good or Bad?

Everyone gets sore, but it's important to know the difference between good sore vs. the kind that's telegraphing an injury.

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We’ve all heard the old clichés—“Pain is temporary, victory is forever,” or “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”—but the truth of it is, those don’t always hold up. Yes, sometimes pain really is simply “weakness leaving the body,” and yes, some soreness is good, but other times pain is your body desperately trying to tell you something, like maybe “Stop!”

But how do we know the difference between a good hurt and a bad hurt; how do we know when a hurt is an injury? Any time you begin a new exercise program—triathlon included—there will be soreness.

Any time you start pushing your body harder than you have before, there will be soreness. Within this realm of hurt, there is muscular soreness (the good kind) and tendon or joint pain (the bad kind).

Good soreness has been associated with delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). Following a new or increased workload, you might experience muscle pain or weakness with symptoms that persist for a day or two. The more you work out and do similar sessions, the more your muscles will adapt to the workload and your DOMS will decrease. Expect to feel DOMS when you transition into different training phases or introduce new, faster workouts. Regarding the latter, you’ll likely experience more DOMS as a short-course athlete than as a long-course one.

Bad soreness, on the other hand, is when you’re on the road to developing an injury. If you’re experiencing structural pain that lasts for more than a day or two, then it might well be time to take a day or two of rest. If the pain still hasn’t subsided or—worse yet—the pain is causing your swim, bike, or run form to alter, or you’re having to modify your daily nontriathlon activities, it might be time to see a professional. Some of the worst injuries can occur when we are trying to compensate for another injury. A small imbalance that causes you to limp on your left leg could then create a bigger injury to your right leg as you try to adjust.

Here we’ve broken down some common examples of “good” and “bad” soreness that you might experience during triathlon training. If you’re experiencing the good kind, then this just might be “weakness leaving your body,” but if you’re feeling persistent “bad soreness,” then the pain might not be temporary. Get it checked out before it gets worse and sidelines you for the season.

SWIMMING

Good Sore

  • Weakness and discomfort in the shoulders causing an inability to lift arms above shoulder height
  • Dull (not sharp) pain across the abdominals and abdomen
  • Muscular pain in the area from the neck to the tops of the shoulders, likely as a result of head rotation during breathing
  • Muscular tightness in the lats, pecs, and upper biceps, particularly common if using paddles or increased pulling

Bad Sore

  • Sharp “pinpoint” pain in the shoulder joint, particularly in the front
  • Clicking or popping in the shoulder, accompanied by sharp pain
  • Reduced range of motion and pain in the cervical area from the neck to the middle of the back
  • Numbness in the upper extremities or fingers

BIKE

Good Sore

  • Muscular pain in the tops of the thighs, sometimes tender to the touch
  • Lack of flexibility in the quads or glutes
  • Lower back pain that is dull (not sharp)
  • Tightness in the middle or upper back, particularly after long sessions spent in the aero position

Bad Sore

  • Numbness or tingling in the hands
  • Specific pain that limits range of motion in the knees
  • Sharp lower-back pain with increased discomfort when standing or walking
  • Pain in the front of the knee that gets worse when squatting or standing on one leg

RUN

Good Sore

  • Achy or sore calves that feel worse while walking or running up an incline
  • Tightness in the side—the infamous side stitch—during a workout
  • Mild tenderness under the ball of the foot during impact
  • Mild tightness in the hamstrings while extending the leg

Bad Sore

  • Knee or hip pain in the sides of either that can indicate iliotibial (IT) band issues, also known as “runner’s knee”
  • Specific pain in the Achilles tendon that is sore to the touch or during stretching, also weakness during heel raises
  • Sharp pain under the ball of the foot
  • Sharp pain on or in the shin bone

Adapted from The Triathlete Guide to Sprint & Olympic Racing by Chris Foster with permission of VeloPress.

The Triathlete Guide to Sprint and Olympic Triathlon Racing