There is a certain satisfaction in knowing you have worked out — that feeling you get when your muscles hurt, and you are sore in areas you never thought could be. This may occur during normal, ordinary activities and unusual or strenuous physical activity. Muscle cells are vulnerable to injury during exercise and need rest and repair afterward.
Muscle soreness occurs due to inflammation and oxidative stress during and after exercise.
Early studies suggest that certain foods and ingredients may help improve muscle recovery and lessen muscle soreness.
After exercise, consuming anthocyanin-rich foodstuffs such as tart cherry juice or other polyphenol-rich food helps lessen muscle soreness and improve muscle healing.
Various supplements claim to treat muscle soreness and improve muscle recovery. However, many of these products lack scientific evidence.
However, several foods and drinks, like tart cherry juice, or milk, may aid in reducing muscle discomfort and speed up the healing process. Less muscle soreness means a faster return to that favorite pastime, exercise, activity, or even job. If eating or drinking something healthy helps, why not try it?
We've all been there at some point in our lives. We exercise, maybe strenuously (running a marathon), ride a horse for the first time, or go for a leisurely 30-minute walk around the neighborhood with a pulling dog on our arm. Then shortly after, up to five days later, especially with tougher workouts, we feel sore, stiff, sometimes have some swelling, feel weaker, or even tired. This is known as exercise-induced muscle damage (EIMD). So let's take a look at how nutrition plays a role in reducing soreness and speeding recovery.
Eat right to speed muscle recovery
Normal exercise damages muscle cells — even in the most well-trained athlete. Our bodies are great at repairing this damage by stimulating the immune system to clean it up. However, the post-exercise inflammatory cascade can cause oxidative damage and inflammation, leading to muscle soreness and related symptoms. So, while this inflammation does help to repair the muscles over time, minimizing the time to recovery enables you to get back to the gym sooner and, hopefully, stronger than before.
Excellent post-exercise food choices
While inflammation helps our bodies rebuild, nutrients may boost our immune systems, expedite healing, and reduce pain. Thus, the food and drink choices we reach for pre- and post-exercise can help boost our body’s ability to heal while lessening our discomfort. In addition, science suggests that various compounds within foods may play a key role in faster recovery and minimizing muscle tenderness after exercise.
These include antioxidants, such as foods containing vitamins C and E, and high-quality protein sources, such as eggs, fish, and dairy.
While further research is needed, in a review of early studies by Rickards et al. (2021), results suggest that polyphenol-rich juices, foods, and even concentrates can improve muscle damage caused by exercise. These foodstuffs can improve a muscle’s return to normal function while minimizing muscle pain, including delayed onset soreness. (Those times when you hurt 2–3 days after exercise and cannot figure out why).
Foods high in polyphenols include spinach and various berries:
Antioxidants help protect the body against oxidative damage. This type of damage occurs by exposure to environmental harm such as pollution or sun damage, but also as a normal consequence of our body’s naturally from various metabolic processes. Antioxidants help protect against this damage and are a valuable asset in any healthy diet, especially for those recovering from exercise. Vitamins C and E belong in this category. Foods like oranges, peanuts/peanut butter, sunflower seeds, almonds, and other foods are rich in these vitamins.
Anthocyanins are a type of polyphenol. Plant-derived phytochemicals (agents derived from natural ingredients in plants) show promise in various studies of post-exercise recovery. The presence of anthocyanins in different foods has been studied to evaluate their consumption’s benefits on muscle recovery after exercise. Early evidence suggests they have a place in post-workout nutrition to provide faster muscle soreness recovery times.
Black currants are an anthocyanin-containing fruit studied for anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits. In addition, research suggests that extracts of this fruit reduce muscle damage and improve post-exercise recovery.
Another anthocyanin-containing fruit, the cherry, has also been evaluated. The use of tart cherry juice has been shown in several studies to lessen muscle pain and lessen the loss of strength after intense workouts. Furthermore, it has been shown to minimize the negative pain effects caused by exercise-induced muscle damage (EIMD). Since anthocyanins have been shown to aid in reducing inflammation and for their antioxidant properties, researchers have concluded that tart cherry juice is a viable option for post-exercise recovery.
Consuming cherry juice is advantageous since the primary factors affecting performance after harmful exercises are the loss of muscular strength and the accompanying soreness. Therefore, we may return to exercise more quickly with less pain and discomfort throughout the healing phase if we can reduce soreness and strengthen early in the recovery process.
Although there is some evidence that chemicals derived from plants may help reduce inflammation, oxidative stress, and muscular soreness, it is still important to focus on getting enough protein in your diet. When discussing proteins, it is important to consider not just the amount of protein, but also the timing and quality of that protein when considering the muscle recovery period post-exercise.
There is mounting evidence that dairy proteins, namely casein and whey, are superior to soy protein when it comes to stimulating the production of muscle proteins, though whey outperforms casein. Research evaluating fat-free milk consumption instead of a soy protein or carbohydrate-rich drink after exercise shows better muscle size and lean muscle mass gains over a 12-week training period. Additional studies suggest that milk drinks also offer added benefits in overall muscle recovery.
What else helps muscle recovery?
Other factors help muscles recover quicker as well. For example, a few studies have evaluated various others, including enzymes, amino acids, and polyphenols, to aid muscle recovery. In addition, early research suggests that eating the following may also improve outcomes.
- Bromelain. An enzyme found in pineapple can lead to less soreness and improved muscle function.
- Pomegranate juice. Pomegranate contains a polyphenol with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
- Beetroot juice. Beets are high in dietary betalains, a pigment, and nitrates, which may provide anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, though further research is needed.
Many other substances have been studied, but the results are inconclusive. Watermelon juice (L-citrulline, an amino acid, a building block of protein) and green algae extract (astaxanthin) have been evaluated. Even herbs and herbal supplements, from green tea, curcumin, and ginger to ginseng, may have some benefits. But further research is needed.
Finally, creatine is a controversial supplement because of conflicting studies. Creatine is an amino acid primarily associated with your brain and muscles. Stored in muscle, the liver, pancreas, and kidneys can make this amino acid and obtain it by eating seafood and red meat. Studies have evaluated its use in injury prevention, improving muscle performance and strength, and even non-muscle-related uses. Although it has been shown that taking creatine for EIMD has no unfavorable side effects, there is not enough scientific support to advise doing so after exercise.
Pre- and post-workout nutrition
After exercise, we want to ensure our bodies have enough nutrients, water, and energy to rest and heal. We do this by eating and drinking healthy foods to support recovery. General performance foods for muscle recovery and overall health include:
- Carbohydrates. Consume sufficient amounts of carbohydrates during pre- and post-workouts.
- Proteins. Obtain ample protein intake during recovery — ideally within 30 minutes post-workout and between sessions, and always consume a high-quality protein source.
- Adequate fruit and veggies. Increasing fruit and veggie consumption helps decrease inflammation and muscle soreness and reduce oxidative damage, e.g., berries, cherries, purple fruits, and veggies with anthocyanins.
- Antioxidant-rich foods. Consume nuts and berries rich in antioxidant vitamins, such as vitamin E.
- Vitamin C. Ensure adequate vitamin C intake (antioxidant) to ensure high performance.
- Vitamin D. Make sure you obtain appropriate levels of vitamin D to minimize inflammation and help support the immune system.
- Maintain hydration. This could be by drinking a glass of milk, eating a bowl of cereal with milk, drinking a sports drink, or simply drinking water.
- Adequate sleep. Getting enough sleep helps to rest your muscles.
- Thermal therapy. Use ice packs or heating pads to decrease swelling, pain, and inflammation.
- Stretch. Always stretch before and after exercise and during rest periods. Stretching keeps the muscles loose to help prevent strains.
In general, ensure an overall well-balanced diet to provide you with the necessary vitamins to remain strong, perform well, and recover easily.
Who needs pain meds?
Who needs pain meds when nutritious post-exercise choices can improve muscle soreness and healing? While you still may need to reach for a muscle rub, anti-inflammatory pain medication (NSAID), or Tylenol®, recovery from muscle soreness and mild signs of EIMD may be possible by simply eating and drinking beneficial items.
Post-exercise recovery may occur simply by eating sufficient protein, especially dairy products, and a few fruits and veggies with polyphenol compounds to boost healing. So, next time you have a heavy workout, to ward off the muscle aches and pains, reach for a glass of milk or a bowl of cereal with milk, and eat some blueberries or cherries. Eating a well-balanced diet is always key, but sometimes certain foods provide immediate health improvements and are worth considering. In addition, making sure you don’t sustain injury or muscle damage after exercise will let you get back to working out much sooner.
- Cleveland Clinic. 5 Health Benefits of Anthocyanins.
- British Journal of Sports Medicine. Efficacy of a tart cherry juice blend in preventing the symptoms of muscle damage.
- Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism. Acute milk-based protein–CHO supplementation attenuates exercise-induced muscle damage.
- European Journal of Sport Science. Exercise-induced muscle damage: What is it, what causes it and what are the nutritional solutions?
- Current Opinion in Physiology. Recovery after exercise: what is the current state of play?