If you exercise regularly, you're probably familiar with the "good" kind of sore and the "bad" kind of sore. When your triceps ache because you did an extra few sets while lifting weights the day before or your glutes are burning from running hills, that's typically a signal from your body to your brain that your muscles are in repair mode after a good workout. But when you start experiencing soreness or sharp pain in joints like your knees, wrists, or ankles, that could be a sign of unwanted inflammation.
"Repetitive stress injuries in the ligaments and tendons are a sign of inflammation," explains chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia expert Jacob Teitelbaum, M.D. "This often causes pain around the joints, which is mistaken for arthritis. You can distinguish it by pushing over the tendon area and reproducing the pain."
So, which types of workouts are causing inflammation, and what can you do about it? Here's what you need to know.
The workouts that cause inflammation.
While HIIT, CrossFit, and long-distance running are good for your body in moderation, if you overdo it, they can cause your inflammation levels to spike. "HIIT or heavy strength-training workouts like CrossFit, power lifting, and Olympic lifting cause the most inflammation and tiny micro-tears in your muscles," explains health coach Michelle Cady. "Long-distance running or cycling can also produce the same effect."
Dr. Teitelbaum notes that the main thing to watch out for is exercises that push you beyond what you're conditioned to do. "You don't want to go beyond your conditioning. And if you haven't properly stretched before, weight-bearing exercises like running or jogging can be hard on the joints," he explains.
Keep this in mind: Exercise-induced inflammation isn't always a bad thing.
While too much inflammation in the body will inevitably lead to injury, a little inflammation after a workout is actually crucial to building stronger muscles. "You want your muscles to get inflamed after a hard workout session because it means you created tiny micro-tears in your muscles that must repair and rebuild even stronger. Inflammation after exercise is simply blood rushing to the area to heal irritated muscle," says Cady. "In this case, inflammation is one of the earliest stages of the recovery process to building a stronger, fitter, leaner body."
What to do if you've taken your workouts too far.
If you have a suspicion that your body is inflamed beyond the micro-tears needed to get stronger, there are some easy recovery tactics you can implement to reduce it. "Sometimes inflammation needs to be controlled in order to reduce pain, improve body mechanics, and enhance recovery," says Cady. "Inflammation can even be exacerbated by life stress, so if you’re feeling stressed and run down, be sure to make things like deep breathing and meditation the foundation of your program. No recovery technique will be effective without proper sleep and nutrition."
As for what you should eat, a plant-based diet can do wonders for the recovery process. "A plant-based, anti-inflammatory diet helps with speedier recoveries," Cady adds. "Load up at least half your plate with leafy greens and veggies, and fill up that water bottle often. Don't dehydrate your muscles as they're trying to heal! And remember, sometimes what you cut out is even more important than what you add in. My health coaching clients who cut out added sugar and excess refined carbs report that they're rocking their workouts with their personal trainer because they recover faster than ever before."
And if you're looking for lower-intensity workouts in general, Dr. Teitelbaum recommends taking your workouts outside if possible. "Getting adequate sunshine and vitamin D are associated with less inflammation, so any exercise done in the sunshine can be helpful," he says. "Exercise that decreases weight-bearing, such as swimming, is less likely to trigger inflammation."
Thinking of taking your workout outside? Here are six science-backed reasons why outdoor exercise is so much better for you.
Leigh Weingus is a New York City based freelance journalist and former Senior Relationships Editor at mindbodygreen where she analyzed new research on human behavior, looked at the intersection of wellness and women's empowerment, and took deep dives into the latest sex and relationship trends. She received her bachelor’s in English and Communication from the University of California, Davis. She has written for HuffPost, Glamour, and NBC News, among others, and is a certified yoga instructor.