Legs that start to feel stiff or sore after a run are not always a sign of a running injury, but could be a sign that your body is adapting to the new physical stress.
If this pain appears and disappears within a few days, it’s most likely to be Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS). It can be caused by a number of factors, such as an increase in running intensity.
DOMS is not exclusively a side effect of running though, and can affect anyone after a training session.
The first goal you should have is to take the necessary precautions to avoid or minimise the effects of DOMS. There are a number of ways you can achieve this, such as warming up properly, having a caffeine-filled beverage before working out, gradually increasing the intensity of your new workout program or helping yourself to some cherries or cherry juice.
If you take preventative steps and still end up with DOMS, there are a number of ways that you can deal with the symptoms.
Heat, whether it’s warm baths, sprays or heat packs, is a common method used to treat the effects of DOMS. Heat helps increase blood flow to the muscle, reducing the symptoms associated with DOMS.
You can use an ice pack or ice cubes, wrapped in a cloth to prevent tissue damage, and apply it to the painful area. This will help reduce pain and swelling by numbing the area that the ice is applied to. Ice should be applied for no longer than 20 minutes at a time up to six times in a 48 hour period.
Ease into your running routine
If you are sore, it is still not only possible but beneficial to go for an easy run. A gentle run increases blood flow to your recovering muscles and decreases the effect of DOMS.
Elevate your legs
If severe, elevating your legs so they are above your heart will decrease blood flow. This will reduce swelling and the associated stiffness and pain.
Gentle stretching of your muscles for up to 30 seconds can align collagen fibres during healing, speeding up recovery. With running it’s particularly important to stretch the leg muscles and joints, such as your calves, hamstrings and knees before you go for a run.
Massaging a sore muscle can alleviate the effect of DOMS by up to 30%. Massage helps reduce swelling in your muscles by improving circulation. If you are unable to massage the affected your area yourself, foam rolling is one way to massage the area and reduce the effects of DOMS.
A day or two of rest can give the affected muscles time to recover from the effects of DOMS. As recovery occurs, the pain will subside and you’ll be able to return to training the affected muscle group.
Repetition of the exercise over time will reduce the impact on your muscles thanks to the repeated bout effect. While you may still experience DOMS initially, it will reduce over time with regular repetitions of the exercise as your muscles adapt to the workout.
Use acupuncture therapy
While acupuncture might not be for everyone, it has been proven to reduce the effects of DOMS when used on sore muscles.
If you have checked that you aren’t injured but still have sore and stiff legs, you can still run. Just be sure to warm up sufficiently and gradually ease into your run to prevent injury.
However, if you’ve applied any of these methods and it fails to help your stiff legs, you may have a more serious running injury. Five of the most common running related injuries are runner’s knee, iliotibial band syndrome (ITBS), achilles tendinopathy, plantar fasciitis and shin splints.
While each of these injuries are associated with pain, the pain will affect different areas of the leg:
Runner’s knee is typically characterised by pain in or around the kneecap. It’s commonly caused an overload on the knee or tissues around the knee. This could be caused by a poor warm up or an issue with your technique. Treatment of this issue will vary depending on the cause of the injury.
The primary symptom of ITBS is pain outside of the knee, which is caused by inflammation of the iliotibial band. This condition can be caused by increased exercise intensity or anatomical issues. The usual treatment for this condition is the implementation of a strength and conditioning programme, which will help prevent overworking of the muscle in the future.
Achilles tendinopathy is identified by pain in the achilles tendon or back area of the heel. Achilles tendinopathy can occur due to overworking of the muscle. Rest is the first option when it comes to treating this condition, but if this fails to help, then injections therapy, shockwave treatment, or surgery might be recommended.
Plantar fasciitis can be recognised by stiffness or sharp pain in the arch of your foot. It is generally caused by the force of the foot impacting the ground without sufficient support. To resolve this condition, rest is and stretching are required. If the condition still doesn’t improve, a steroid shot or night splint may be necessary.
If you are experiencing an ache or sharp pain in your shins, it’s probably shin splints. The specific cause of this injury may vary from poor running shoes to difficulty running on a specific surface. Your training plan will need to be adjusted to reduce the stress of your shins.
If you’re not sure about the cause of your sore leg, you can check our Sports Injuries Treatment and Recovery Guide for more information. You can also contact us for a personal consultation with a specialist at our clinic in south west London.
You can also sign up for our Injury Prevention Screening Programme and Return to Running Programme which will provide you with all the information you need to reduce the impact of running on your body.