Is a “Workout Hangover” a Real Thing?
There is a new trend – or perhaps manufactured trend? – of people skipping work and social events for what they say is a “workout hangover.” What we used to call DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) has now been coined “a hangover” by the fitness industry’s illiterate.
To me, calling it a hangover isn’t accurate, because it implies feeling like you got hit by a truck after a hard workout is inevitable and normal. It’s not.
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Regardless, these “hangovers” are causing people to miss out on their lives and that is a senseless practice worth addressing.
According to a poll of 2,000 active Americans:
- 29% have called in to work due to muscle soreness and fatigue
- 55% have stayed inside all day to muscle soreness and fatigue
- 65% have sustained injuries from working out that have impeded their lives
- 39% have skipped get-togethers with friends
- 32% have even canceled dates because they were so miserable.
Think about that. Over a third of people interviewed have turned down dates because they were too sore from working out. What have we become, America?
A nation of people so consumed with wanting to be sexy that we hurt ourselves and miss the opportunity to actually enjoy our sexiness? Where are our priorities in this situation?
Get it together, people. We don’t have to cancel our lives because of a heavy squat session.
What Causes a Post-Exercise Discomfort?
To stop this insanity, we must first understand why people feel so bad after working out that they liken it to a hangover and withdraw from life. The first reason is usually a miseducation about fitness and exercise. Too many people are modeling their beginner programs off of what they see world-class athletes do, and they are bolstered by the fitness industry motto, “no pain, no gain.”
The problem is people are jumping into the deep end without progression and guidance. They are told pain is good, so they don’t question it. A good workout shouldn’t be limit-pushing, nor should it be so painful you cannot function afterward.
Here are the common causes of your workout hangover:
When you exercise, you create small tears in your muscle tissue. As you rest, your body gets to work patching up and reinforcing those tears. This is how muscle is built. It requires a certain amount of inflammation and water retention to bring all the nutrients it needs, via your blood supply, for repair.
Think of it as a construction site. Workers have to put cones out and widen the road next to the building so they can get workers and cement trucks and supplies in and out. It’s like the swelling of your tissue making room for all the blood cells to get in and do their thing.
Swelling hurts. It creates stiffness. Often this is blamed on lactic acid, but lactic acid is the burning your muscles feel while they are pushing during a workout, not the ache afterward. This is simple inflammation, but it can feel pretty gnarly.
Another reason for people to be in pain is because they have injured themselves. More serious tearing of the muscles, and strains and sprains need medical attention. As do ligament and tendon injuries and fractures.
If your pain does not subside or feels acute or extreme in nature, make an appointment with your physician to rule out – or take care of – any legitimate injuries. If you push too hard again, while injured, chances are you will make it much worse. Imagine that, no dates for a month because you went gonzo again, and now you need knee surgery.
Dehydration is often overlooked in general. It is one of the main reasons for an alcohol-induced hangover and can be tied to your workout hangover, as well.
When people work out and sweat, they don’t realize how much water they need to replace all of that fluid. Not only that, but water helps flush all the metabolites out and keep nutrients flowing to your muscles.
Dehydration causes headaches, feelings of lethargy and sometimes nausea, too.
Exhaustion goes hand in hand with dehydration, because dehydration makes you tired and being tired causes you to drink less water.
However, exhaustion can also be caused by not getting adequate rest and recovery from those balls-to-the-wall workout sessions. Your body is telling you to slow down so that it can use some energy to repair itself. While it is normal and healthy to be active throughout the day, it is not common to be reaching max physical capacity all the time. Your body will tell you to cut that out.
What Eases the Pain?
Before we go into how to exercise without all the misery, I’ll share some tips to ease the pain you may be experiencing right now. I assume if you have found this article, you are probably suffering on some level. Here are some tried and true ways to mitigate it:
If you have tight muscles, heat works very nicely to loosen them up a bit. I have had success using a hot compress when my neck, traps or back seizes up and I get very stiff. The day after heavy squats or deadlifts, I often turn the seat warmer in my car to “high” and it feels great.
Another way to soothe muscle issues with heat is by taking a bath with Epsom salts. Not only do you get the benefits of a hot bath, but the magnesium in the Epsom salts acts as a natural muscle relaxant, to further relax those overworked muscles.
Ice works best on inflammation and swelling and is good for injuries, like sprains or tendonitis. I have had success with cold compresses on knee and ankle injuries and the occasional flare-up of tennis elbow.
Another way people use ice and cold as a recovery tool are with ice baths, cold showers and cryotherapy. The idea is to get on top of the inflammation before the inflammation gets on top of you.
If you don’t have access to a cryotherapy unit or you want to go to sleep or move about, and a compress wouldn’t work, consider a topical muscle balm.
Some balms are medicated with CBD or anti-inflammatory medication and help reduce swelling, while others work by causing a flux of hot and cold sensation on your skin that blocks some of the pain signal. They work great short-term, but sometimes the smell is pretty strong.
BCAAs & fluids
If you’re in pain, start drinking fluids. If blood is the transport of the nutrients and healing blood cells in your body, water is the base, the speed, and the ease of which it moves. The more hydrated you are, the better your blood flow and delivery of construction materials to the site.
BCAAs have been shown to help repair muscle, plus they offer some flavor, so adding them to your water bottle may help the process.
One of the worst things you can do when you experience DOMS is to be still. Although it seems like torture to move, performing some light warm up cardio movements or taking a walk will actually help improve your condition. Moving helps to warm and loosen your muscles and flush those pesky metabolites causing you grief.
If I overdo it and it hurts to get out of bed, I move around for ten to fifteen minutes and feel much better.
Anti-inflammatory meds and muscle relaxers
The last resort, if you simply cannot manage your pain with any of the aforementioned remedies, go ahead and reach for an anti-inflammatory or a muscle relaxer. Use caution and read the labels for any warnings or harmful interactions.
How Do We Prevent a Workout Hangover in the First Place?
Contrary to the popular motto, there is gain without pain. The pain in the famous saying refers to pushing past your comfort zone and growth not being “easy”; it doesn’t mean that you haven’t worked out unless you are left sprawled out on the floor, wishing for a quick death.
Here are some ways you can manage your body and keep your physical activity consistent and sustainable:
The first step is to be totally honest about where you are on your fitness journey. Are you a beginner (this is your first year of focusing on a fitness program) Intermediate (you’ve had two to five years of fairly consistent practice) or are you advanced (have more than five strict years under your belt, athlete-specific, extremely fit)? Plan your program accordingly.
The biggest initial mistake people make is overestimating their capabilities because they see so much excellence via Instagram and fitness sites. They think elite is the first goal post. Or many people reminisce of the time when they used to be fit and try to work from that starting point.
Sure, you may have been the 1989 Ohio State Potato Sack Race Champion, or leg pressed 600 pounds for sets of ten back in high school, but it’s been a minute. What you did 20, 10, or even two years ago no longer applies. Start small and simple.
Stop going from zero to 100 to zero again
Sometimes even I have trouble with this one. You train hard, it feels amazing, but then your schedule gets in the way and you don’t make it to the gym for days or weeks. Once you are back, you are so happy, you crank up the volume to make up for lost time and… ouch.
You get sore when you aren’t consistently moving. It’s better to do a half hour every day if you’re short on time than trying to do a two-and-a-half-hour monster sesh every few weeks. Keep it regular.
Stop thinking near-death experiences = progress
Exercise has two main purposes, to keep you fit and/or to progressively make you better at a physical task. Tell me, does going ham until you blow chunks in the parking lot and then spending the next two days moaning in bed do either of those things?
No. If your workouts require so much energy that you are suffering “hangovers,” you are not getting fitter, you are just getting sweaty. Nor are you able to make gains aimlessly burning calories and being random. You should leave the gym feeling good, albeit a little tired or hungry, sometimes. It should not interfere with your general state of health.
When there is a new movement, go easy
Say you can do back squats all day. Say you back squat almost every workout. Say today you want to try front squats. Should you do as many front squats as you do back squats? Should you start at the same weight?
No. Every new movement is going to challenge your muscles from a slightly different angle. You are going to utilize different patterns, different stabilizers and new muscle groups altogether. That is a recipe for DOMS.
If any program calls for a new exercise, whether you are just getting started, or it’s a different angle on a muscle group you work out all the time, ease into it. Simply put, keep it light the first few times, or keep it to a set or two. Build that work capacity up as you would anything else.
If It Happens Anyway
There are times you just can’t help some discomfort and soreness. The comfort zone is a stagnant place to be, don’t expect to never feel beat up. When it does happen, suck it up! Drink some water, move around and learn from your experience. You can’t call out of work or miss your best friend’s wedding, or miss out on sex because you are stiff and achy.
The only time for excuses is if you feel something is truly wrong and need to see a doctor because of an injury or a freak case of rhabdomyolysis. Save the “hangover” talk for actual hangovers. Or better yet, don’t do that, either. Train smarter, not harder!