Understanding the difference between soreness, fatigue, and pain from injuries in track runners

High school track season is underway and as your body undergoes the rigors of the season, stress and strain builds up leading to a range of sensations that can be difficult to differentiate. Muscular fatigue, muscular soreness, and pain from an injury are common issues that runners, throwers, jumpers, and hurdlers feel during the track season. However, knowing the differences between these sensations is crucial to avoid further injury and ensure proper recovery. As a doctor of physical therapy, I’m here to explain the differences between muscular fatigue, soreness, and pain from an injury, so you can take the necessary steps to keep your body in top shape and perform at your best.

Pain Science Basics

Everyone perceives pain differently, and track athletes are no exception. Pain can be defined as an unpleasant sensation or feeling that is associated with benign reparative tissue healing or an actual tissue damage. It is a complex and subjective experience that can be influenced by a variety of factors, including physical, psychological, and social factors. Pain can be acute or chronic, and can vary in intensity, duration, and location. Acute pain is usually short-lived and is often the result of an injury or illness, while chronic pain persists for longer periods of time, usually three months or more, and can be difficult to manage.

It’s important to understand that pain is not just a physical sensation, but there also is an emotional and cognitive experience that can have a significant influence on one’s perceived pain and it is this emotional component that heavily influences the perception of pain and causes everyone to react differently to it. For example, two runners with a pebble in their shoe can have opposite reactions where one simply ignores the problem and is able to continue running while the other has to stop and deal with removing it because they can no longer continue. This complex reaction to pain is the brain’s ability to amplify or quiet the input of pain and is highly related to one’s history with prior episodes of pain and social/emotional experiences in life. This subjective perception of pain is where it gets difficult to thus determine the difference between fatigue, soreness, and an injury because all three can present with the complaint of pain. So how do we tell the difference?

Fatigue, soreness, and pain (from an injury) can occur on a continuum where post exercise fatigue can kick in, progressing to soreness and then ultimately develop into a painful injury. They can also develop independently of each other. To differentiate one from the other it is important to understand the similarities and differences of each of them.

Muscular Fatigue

Muscular fatigue is a common sensation that occurs during exercise when the muscles become tired and are no longer able to perform at their optimal level. It is a result of the muscle exhausting it’s energy source and can be described as a feeling of weakness, heaviness, or burning in the muscles. As it sets in, a track runner may notice a decline in their performance, such as a decrease in speed, power, or endurance. The sensation of fatigue can vary in intensity and duration and resolves after resting from your activity. This recovery can be short lived (minutes) to allow the track athlete to move onto their next event. This rest time allows the muscles to restock with their fuel source (muscular sugars) and allow for a quick return to their next event. If a muscle is pushed beyond it’s capacity the muscular fatigue can quickly turn to an injury and present itself in either muscular cramping or an acute tear in the muscle.

Muscular Soreness

The recovery needed post exercise can also be long lived (days) depending on the amount of exertion the muscles were pushed through. When muscles are pushed to their limit at high intensities acute muscular trauma sets in. When controlled this is a good thing and your body responds by repairing the damage to the muscles by growing stronger, bigger, or with improved muscular endurance. This controlled damage to the muscles is what muscular soreness is and the formal name to it is delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). DOMS refers to the muscle pain and stiffness that typically develop several hours to a day or two after strenuous exercise, particularly exercise that involves eccentric muscle contractions (lengthening of the muscle under tension) like bounding and jumping. DOMS can occur in any muscle group but is most commonly experienced in the legs, arms, and core muscles. The pain is often described as a deep ache, tenderness, or stiffness in the affected muscle, and it can be accompanied by swelling and reduced range of motion. DOMS is thought to be caused by microscopic damage to the muscle fibers and connective tissues, leading to an inflammatory response that triggers pain and stiffness. While DOMS is generally considered a normal part of the muscle adaptation process to exercise, it can be uncomfortable and interfere with daily activities. It usually resolves on its own within a few days, but gentle stretching, low impact cardiovascular exercise, and massage can help alleviate symptoms.

DOMS in of itself is not a problem, may be perceived as pain, and if ignored with continued high load can precipitate an injury. When DOMS is active the body and muscles have a lower threshold for injury and there is greater risk for a muscular injury if not allowed proper recovery.

Pain from an Injury

If an injury occurs, it is represented by local tissue damage that is pathological in nature. Onset is usually traumatic, however can also be related to cumulative overload where one does not give proper recovery between high intensity exercise stress. Injuries can affect muscles, joints, bones, ligaments, and nerves where the structure is at fault. Pain is frequently felt when the body is at rest not exercising, inflammation that you can see and palpate is often present, and you may notice visual bruising around the hurt area.

If the individual’s perceived pain is significant enough you may see that your function is negatively impacted when performing specific tack events like sprinting, jumping, or throwing. This may be the case when one is suffering from fatigue, soreness, or an injury. If we see a deterioration of performance as related to any of the three the body will move in a compensatory fashion. When this occurs the body is no longer performing at an optimal level and the risk of an injury increases dramatically. This is where the expertise of the coach is needed in managing appropriate loads to create positive controlled physiologic changes interspersed with active recovery to get the track athlete performing their best when it comes time for their track meet. The athlete also needs to be aware of these signs and communicate with their coach if they are needing more recovery and understand strategies to minimize their required recovery timelines.


Understanding pain and how it relates to fatigue, muscle soreness, and injury is an important part of managing the track athlete’s body. All three can be painful depending on the individual and careful consideration needs to occur to know when to push through any perceived pain to keep the athlete running, jumping, and throwing during the track season. Otherwise a simple injury can spiral and ruin your whole track season. The following is a brief summary of the above that you can cut and paste to share with anyone you know that might be confused about the three.

  1. Muscular fatigue
    • Results from muscular fuel source loss
    • Rapid onset and quick recovery during exercise
    • Hydration, prior fitness, and diet can influence it’s onset
    • If pushed too hard can lead to muscular cramping requiring longer recovery
  2. Muscular soreness
    • Benign microscopic trauma to the muscle
    • Normal response to muscular growth post exertion
    • Slow onset and longer duration to recover
    • Prior fitness influences the intensity and duration and recovery tools can speed up the recovery
    • If not allowed proper recovery between sessions can lower the threshold for muscular injuries and spiral to something more significant
  3. Pain from Injury
    • Traumatic onset or slower progressive build
    • Presents with inflammation, bruising, limited range of motion
    • Slow recovery
    • If ignored significantly heightens risk of other injuries

Hopefully this blog helps boost your understanding how pain intertwines between fatigue, soreness, and injury. If you or someone you know is having difficulty understanding if the pain they are experiencing is fatigue, soreness, or a more significant injury please know that PreventPT offers free consulting to help triage the complaint. We offer 15 minute phone or in person sessions to answer your questions and help you make informed decisions to keep you firing on all cylinders during your tack season.

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