“Listening to your body” doesn’t always involve negative, judgmental language about body size in fitness spaces.

However, it’s often vague at best. To break down this concept, which will likely still be relevant in 2030, we consulted three fitness experts. They explain how to tune in to your body and what can happen if you neglect it.

What’s the distinction between muscle soreness and pain?

  • Muscle soreness is a good kind of discomfort, indicating muscle growth through microtears.

  • On the other hand, pain suggests harm and can be identified by characteristics such as pinpointed pain, lasting more than a week, and worsening when still or moving.

Differentiating between the two

  • Muscle soreness: General ache, lasts 3 to 4 days, hurts when you move (but not when still), feels dull, heavy, and tight.

  • Injury: Pinpointed pain, lasts longer than a week, hurts more when you move, feels stinging, radiating, burning, sharp, stabbing.

Male asian athlete, kneading shoulder pain, sore arm muscles in the park

Emphasising the positive aspect of muscle soreness, it’s a sign of the (micro)torn muscle fibres that your body repairs, making them stronger than before. This process, known as Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS), may cause temporary discomfort, like tightness or tenderness, lasting no more than 2 to 4 days.

Pain that makes you say “ouch” isn’t something to ignore. If you can pinpoint pain in a joint, bone, or tendon, it might be an injury, and it’s a signal to take it easy. Injury-related pain often feels like stinging, radiating, burning, sharp, or stabbing sensations and may last longer than a few days.

If you can identify a specific moment in your recent workout that caused the pain (like dropping a kettlebell or twisting an ankle), it’s likely more than just regular soreness. Ignoring an injury could make it worse, warns Dr. Alex Tauberg, a chiropractor in Pennsylvania. So, if you’ve been dealing with “oohs,” “owws,” and “ouches” for a week, it’s wise to see a doctor instead of being stubborn about it.

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Maybe it’s all about your mental health state?

Another aspect of listening to your body is paying attention to your mental state during exercise. If your mind isn’t focused, you increase the risk of injury, especially in activities like intense yoga, CrossFit, or strength training that require precise form.

Arielle Thomas Newman, a yoga expert, suggests taking a moment to centre yourself by closing your eyes and focusing on your breath. This helps calm your nervous system and allows you to tune into your body. If you still don’t feel up to a workout, go through a dynamic warm-up and see if you’re in the right mindset to continue.

Dr. Tauberg emphasises that exercising with a distracted mind raises the likelihood of injury. If you choose to work out, keep the intensity at 75 to 80 per cent to minimise the risk. Listening to your body isn’t just about the present; it’s an investment in your long-term fitness and health.

Cropped photo of a muscular woman wearing sport clothes holding on to her back at the gym

Know when to challenge yourself and when to take it easy

Let’s be real: most people won’t push themselves hard enough to experience what’s commonly referred to as “The Pain Cave.” Achieving this intense level of effort requires a certain baseline of fitness, meaning you need to be capable of working out intensely for a significant duration.

The Pain Cave is a mentally and emotionally intense state that athletes enter during competitions, races, or challenging workouts. It’s like a dark, all-encompassing space where you tune out everything around you, lose track of time, and essentially experience a kind of fitness-induced blackout.

For athletes, willingly diving into the Pain Cave can be the deciding factor between success and falling short of the podium. Grayson Wickham emphasises that as long as an athlete’s body is prepared for it, going deep into the Pain Cave isn’t necessarily unhealthy.

However, if you’re just getting back into exercising or taking a more casual approach to working out, the Pain Cave is not where you should be heading. Wickham warns against frequent visits to the Pain Cave, especially for non-professional athletes, as it can lead to overtraining syndrome – pushing your body beyond its ability to recover.

This doesn’t mean you should never challenge yourself. Instead, ask yourself why you feel the need to push so hard. What are your goals, and what emotions are you trying to escape or numb? Seeking guidance from a trainer to define your fitness goals or consulting with a mental health professional for a healthier coping strategy might be beneficial.

Fitness, exercise and man with knee pain in gym holding leg after injury, accident and muscle pain

Practice tuning into your body with these simple steps

  1. Start a mindfulness practice: Engage in any mindfulness activity like yoga, meditation, mindful walking, body scanning, or even counting to five. Just 5 minutes can make a difference.
  2. Keep a journal: Take physical notes in a journal about what you’re feeling and thinking right before hitting the gym. Spend 3 minutes reflecting on prompts provided by Wickham. It might feel odd initially, but with time, you’ll find it easier to answer them.
  3. Use a tracking device: Invest in a tracking device that monitors your resting heart rate, heart rate variability (HRV), and sleep hours. According to Wickham, these metrics directly reflect your recovery status. A lower resting heart rate, higher HRV, and more sleep indicate better readiness for your next workout. Over a few weeks, you’ll notice patterns between the data and how you feel.

And what if you choose to ignore these practices?

Well, your risk of injury significantly increases. According to Wickham, listening to your body boils down to being aware of how prepared your body and mind are for exercise. This awareness should guide you on whether to proceed at your planned intensity, slow down, or take a break altogether.