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Whether you're strictly running or you're cross-training, chances are that you're going to feel sore once in a while. The question is, when is it okay to run while sore? And how sore is too sore for you to run? 

We spoke with Shaun Riney, a PT and clinical therapist at OrthoCarolina Monroe Physical Therapy, to find out.

What kind of soreness is worth worrying about as a runner?

This can be a tough question for PTs to answer without seeing you in person, since soreness is typically your body's way of letting you know that something is wrong. That said, there are some acceptable (and expected!) types of soreness that are nothing to worry about and don't require you to stop running.

"Soreness that can be attributed to the onset of a new program — say, adding mileage to an existing running program or changing the route to include more inclines and declines — can result in soreness that will be felt in the muscles," Riney explained. But he added that this kind of stiffness and soreness will typically dissipate as your muscles warm up, and thus, it's okay to run if that's the kind of soreness you're experiencing.

The problem, however, is if you're feeling soreness in a joint rather than in your muscles.

"If it is sharp, like someone stabbed you with a needle — or if it is accompanied by moderate swelling — you should probably see a specialist, such as an orthopedic physician," Riney said. "This can be a sign that there is something wrong with the joint, like a cartilage tear or a defect in the cartilage that lines the joint. This type of soreness should not be ignored."

How can runners combat soreness?

Riney said that one of the biggest mistakes he sees over and over again is runners biting off more than they can chew when they begin a new running program. 

"When people ask me about starting a program, I tell them to plan on starting at a mileage that seems ridiculously low to them, like half a mile," he said.

Riney recommends that you take a day to assess your body's reaction to this mileage, and increase the mileage only when the soreness is minimal.

"I tell them to increase at a rate of half a mile per session only," he added. "This will minimize soreness and allow them to increase milage without developing a tendonitis or other malady that will cause them to have to stop running." 

How do you know if you are too sore to run?

First and foremost, Riney warned that if the soreness is consistent and lasts more than one week, it should not be ignored. But beyond that, he advised considering how the soreness is impacting your movements.

"If the soreness changes the way you run by causing a limp, a change in the way that your foot hits the ground, or the transition from one foot to another, then you should stop running and see a professional," Riney warned.

These types of changes in the way you run can negatively impact other joints like the knee, hip, and low back, which you definitely do not want as a runner.

If you are too sore to run, what are some other activities you can do instead?

"One of my favorite alternative activities is the elliptical trainer," said Riney. "This allows you to simulate running without the danger of the compression and distraction on the joint. It also incorporates that upper body which helps to simulate the rigors of running."

Riney also suggested bike riding (either stationary or traditional riding) or swimming, if you're too sore or injured to run.

"Some say that swimming is the ultimate exercise because it more equally employs upper and lower body activity," Riney added. "This may cause the athlete to fatigue more quickly than running or cycling. Progression of swimming programs should be slow and steady just like running and cycling."

Learn more about making healthy choices from the experts at OrthoCarolina

Whether you've recently experienced an injury, need help with recovery after tough workouts, or are simply experiencing chronic pain and need help managing it, OrthoCarolina can help. Make an appointment at a location near you to start getting the treatment you need.