Should I skip practice when I’m sore?

Sore muscles are a common after swim practice. Here’s what to do — and what not to do.

Although swimming is a low-impact exercise, you still use up to 50 muscles at a time. Getting in shape in the pool means you’re often using muscles you might not use in Everyday Land Life. As they develop and strengthen, it’s normal for muscles to feel sore.

It’s also normal for your muscles to feel sore as you develop athletically and take those muscles to new levels of exertion. New swimmers who don’t know it’s normal to feel sore can be afraid that they’ve hurt themselves and therefore want to avoid working out until their muscles aren’t sore anymore.

“You can’t improve unless you push past your limit,” says Race Pace Club AZ Head Coach Sean Emery. “When you push past your limit, your muscles get sore.”

Why are my muscles sore?

Muscles typically tighten up and feel sore 12 to 72 hours after exercise. Muscle soreness that you feel right away after your swim is known as acute soreness. Muscle soreness a day or two after a workout is due to muscles strengthening and repairing themselves and is known as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). 

Sore muscles are caused by microscopic tears as your muscle breaks down and rebuilds itself to be stronger for the task the next time. In the process, natural chemical irritants that cause the soreness are left behind. 

Think of those chemical irritants like food wrappers that are left when you consume takeout or fast food on the go. If you just leave the food wrappers in your car, they start to pile up and look trashy. They might even stink. It takes action to clean them up and get them out of the car.

Sore muscles are the same way. A thorough warm down can help your body process those chemicals and “take out the trash” so to speak, making you less sore. 

What can I do about sore muscles?

Knowing it’s normal can definitely help your mental outlook about it, but the fact remains that your muscles are still sore.  So what should you do? Should you skip practice?

The short answer is “No.” You should NOT skip practice. In fact, skipping practice can be one of the worst things for your sore muscles. 

“To be a great athlete, you have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.”

– Coach Sean Emery

Help for sore muscles

Once you’re adequately warmed down and out of the pool, there are more things you can do to help your muscles recover. Taking a hot shower or jacuzzi helps your body move the “pain junk” out of the muscles and bring more oxygen to help with repairs. Gentle stretching, foam rolling or massage can also help move the process along.

If you’re really uncomfortable, over the counter creams with menthol can help the discomfort, as can an OTC pain reliever. Most importantly, refuel your body with nutritious food and give it rest in the form of a good night’s sleep to help muscles repair and build.

Consult a medical professional if the pain is so severe that it prevents you from moving, there is redness or swelling over the area, or the pain causes dizziness or trouble breathing. Normal muscle pain should be a general achiness in the affected muscle group; severe pain in a joint, tendon or bone is a clue there might be a different issue.

Minimize the soreness

There’s no way to completely avoid sore muscles. It’s a natural part of athletics and a sign your muscles are getting stronger and more efficient.  However, there are ways to minimize the amount of soreness you experience. 

  1. Warm up adequately. Gett to practice on time and into the pool so you can take advantage of the entire warmup. RPC team warmups include backstroke and freestyle to warm up both the front and back of the shoulders and upper body. A vigorous kick set is also designed to get blood flow to the legs and core. A proper warmup increases blood flow better than stretching. 
  2. Hydrate. Water is essential to helping your body transport nutrients and metabolic waste. It also helps control your body temperature and keeps your joints mobile. Not having enough water in your body means you’re likely to feel cramps during your workout, along with excessive fatigue and possibly even dizziness. 
  3. Swim with the proper technique. Even during warmup and warm down. This will help prevent strained muscles and joints or other injuries from improper movements. 
  4. Cool down, don’t stand-and-talk down. Workouts include cool down swims after challenging sets. This is called “active recovery” and helps your body move oxygen to your muscles and waste products out. Swim easy, practice stroke drills…whatever your coach suggests…just keep it moving to keep your blood cycling oxygen and removing waste products.
  5. Limited rest is built into the workout cycle. Don’t worry: Those muscles you used in 200-yard-butterfly training won’t be doing the same thing tomorrow. Your coach knows to avoid working the same muscle groups in the same way, with the same intensity or the same duration for about 48 hours. You’ll use other muscle groups and commonly used muscles will perform other strokes, less intense versions of the set, etc. so there’s no need to fear the next workout. 
  6. Trust that coaches know your limits. Our coaches are fitness professionals that prioritize safety and injury avoidance. Workouts are challenging, and you WILL feel muscle soreness, but our USRPT and challenge-based sets are designed to naturally work with your body’s neurology to help it adapt to the challenge and then give it recovery. 
  7. Let them be sore. Accept that it’s a natural part of athletics and learn to live with it. “To be a great athlete, you have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable,” says Coach Sean. “If you don’t like sore muscles, maybe you need to switch to playing the piano or picking up an artist’s paint brush. It’s just part of the game.”