Sometimes a little muscle soreness can be pleasant: You worked hard and reached a new level of athleticism or strength.
But when the soreness gets severe, it can become a big ol’ pain in the gluteus maximus.
A lot of people make the mistake of dismissing recovery as something that’s too complicated or that they don’t have time for. They think of long, painful ice baths, massages that they really can’t afford, and ibuprofen or other NSAIDs that have side effects.
In fact, the most effective ways to accelerate recovery and reduce muscle soreness is with food. By using a few simple (and delicious) nutrition strategies you can target multiple systems in the body that get beat down by training.
For example, drinking caffeinated coffee can accelerate recovery by both reducing muscle soreness and restoring Central Nervous System function so you recuperate strength faster after an intense workout.
Here are ten more amazing foods that help reduce muscle pain and speed recovery so that you can hit it hard again and get more out of your body whether your goal is performance, muscle, or fat loss.
#1: Eat blueberries, tart cherries, and other dark-colored fruit to reduce DOMS.
Both blueberries and tart cherries have measured up in studies that found they reduce delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and may help recuperate strength faster. These dark-colored fruits have potent nutrients that accelerate the elimination of waste products produced during training.
Tart cherries provide the added bonus of raising the sleep hormone melatonin in the body so that you get better rest. It’s been found to help both good sleepers and those who suffer insomnia.
Other nutrient powerhouses include raspberries, strawberries, blackberries, and plums—all of which may be medicine for sick muscles, though they haven’t been specifically tested in exercise studies.
Dietary tip: Avoid drinking milk products at the same time as berries and cherries because there’s evidence that the proteins in milk will inhibit antioxidant activity in the body. Wait at least an hour after a whey protein shake to get your berries.
#2: Eat leafy green and cruciferous veggies to improve estrogen metabolism.
Green leafy and cruciferous veggies are jam packed with nutrients and provide compounds that improve metabolic processes. For instance, the cruciferous veggies (broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts) help the body safely eliminate the hormone estrogen.
Rainbow chard and collards have been found to reduce the insulin response and they are abundant in nutrients that can help eradicate free radicals that slow healing.
Besides providing compounds that reduce inflammation, these green vegetables provide low-glycemic energy and they won’t spike blood sugar. Eating the right carbs at the right times can make all the difference in what you get out of your training:
• They can lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol after training, which can improve body composition over time.
• They support function of the thyroid, which is involved in metabolic rate, and they provide the raw materials that are used to produce neurotransmitters that elevate mood and restore will power.
• They can improve hydration. Carbs require the body to store a lot of water, which is important when you’re training hard and have a high sweat rate.
When to eat them: Anytime! There’s no bad time to eat low-glycemic carbs since they are low in calories and high in nutrients. However, if your goal is to spike insulin and replenish glycogen, high-glycemic carbs are indicated. Read on…
#3: Eat high-glycemic fruits & starches to replenish glycogen fast.
High-glycemic fruits and starchy vegetables are excellent foods to eat post-workout if your goal is to rehydrate and replenish muscle glycogen store, which is the energy source of your muscles. In addition, many of these nutrient-rich foods contain unique antioxidant compounds that can aid tissue repair and recovery.
They also increase insulin, which has a protective antioxidant effect on muscle by suppressing inflammatory products that you produce during training. Here are a few high-glycemic plants that have performed well in exercise and metabolic studies:
• Watermelon was found to improve nitric oxide production, delivering nutrient-rich blood to damaged muscle tissue. Increased nitric oxide production is also associated with better oxygen use during intense exercise for better endurance performance.
• Potatoes contain a little bit of almost every nutrient we need and along with other starches, such as squash and sweet potatoes, they tend to be extremely satisfying.
• Pineapple and kiwi will raise blood antioxidant status and they provide compounds that help fight pain and inflammation.
Dietary tip: Wondering if whole fruit is better than juice? This comes down to preference and goals. If you’re trying to lose fat, avoid juice because it doesn’t contain fiber, is consumed much more quickly than food, and doesn’t require chewing. But, if you’re trying to put on weight or glycogen replenishment is the goal, juice is indicated.
#4: Drink water to reduce DOMS and repair strength loss.
No need to overthink things! Less muscle soreness and faster recovery may be as simple as drinking up, especially if you’re training in hot temperatures.
For example, a 2005 study found that when men did a downhill run in the heat that produced significant muscle soreness, those who became dehydrated had much greater muscle pain post-workout than a group that drank liberally throughout the run.
Why does dehydration influence recovery so profoundly?
Water is critical for proper body temperature regulation, as well as both muscle and heart function. A decrease in hydration of as little as 2 percent reduces maximal strength and athletic performance because it leads to a drop in blood plasma volume so that energy doesn’t reach the muscle cells.
There’s also evidence that dehydration will affect the testosterone-to-cortisol ratio, which is a common measure of recovery status as well as readiness to train.
Hydration tip: Drink frequently throughout the day—not just post-workout—and shoot for at least 0.7 ounces per pound of bodyweight.
#5: Eat cod, salmon, & other fish to support protein synthesis and reduce inflammation.
The omega-3 fats, DHA and EPA, from fish are the darlings of the recovery world because they improve cellular signaling and have anti-inflammatory effects.
They also may reduce muscle soreness slightly, though they haven’t been found to decrease severe DOMS. Of course, anyone who trains hard knows that severe DOMS is, well, severe, which is one reason why many therapies that speed recovery don’t have much effect on DOMS.
Researchers recommend fish oil for trainees who are under intense physical and environmental stress, such as competing at high altitudes or in extreme heat or cold because it fights oxidative stress and reduces waste production during intense eccentric exercise.
Dietary tip: Wondering if it’s better to eat whole fish or take fish oil? Fish oil can be convenient and provide highly concentrated doses of EPA and DHA, but there’s no reason you can’t rely on whole fish if you prefer. Both salmon and cod have performed well in studies aimed at reducing inflammation.
#6: Eat almonds & other nuts to accelerate repair of damaged tissue.
Eating a variety of fats from whole sources has a protective effect on the body because it provides the correct ratios of the different forms of fat. For example, bone repair is improved when the omega-3 fat and the omega-6 fats are balanced.
Almonds are an omega-6 fat source that have performed especially well in aiding recuperation from intense exercise. A study that had trained cyclists eat almonds daily for 4 weeks found that they improved time trial performance by boosting energy use and antioxidant capacity.
In the short-term this means healthy fats make you faster, but in the long run it means you’ll have a quicker recovery because the body will produce less oxidative stress during training.
Variety is best: Brazil nuts, most known for raising testosterone, are another powerhouse nut, containing selenium, magnesium, and zinc, a trifecta of minerals essential for hormone balance and recovery. Walnuts are also nutrient-rich and may have anti-fatigue effect due to their ability to improve energy use in the body.
#7: Use fermented foods to improve digestion & boost immunity.
If there is something off with your gut or digestion, you won’t recover efficiently. Think about it. A well functioning gut allows for all of the following key recovery actions:
• Full absorption of nutrients needed for tissue repair.
• The metabolism of waste byproducts produced during intense training.
• The eradication of oxidative stress and inflammation.
• The production of neurotransmitters involved in neural drive and motivation.
Eating a high indigestible fiber diet and plenty of probiotic foods can enable a gut that works like clockwork. Probiotics are found in fermented foods such as high-quality yogurt, fermented dairy, pickled veggies, and kefir (a fermented grain beverage), among other things.
Studies show that probiotic supplementation in athletes can reduce inflammation and boost immunity—both factors that support a speedy and pain-free recovery from a tough workout.
Dietary tip: Probiotic foods such as sauerkraut, kim chi, and pickled ginger add tang and spark to meals when used as condiments.
#8: Eat eggs to speed tissue repair.
Eggs are a perfect protein source, and they have the second highest concentration of leucine after milk, which is the most important amino acid for building muscle.
In a review that discusses egg protein, researchers write that eating eggs can enhance energy production, stimulate protein synthesis, and aid in recovery from intense training. In addition, eggs provide the antioxidants selenium, lutein, and zeaxanthin, and eating eggs has been found to reduce inflammation in the body.
Health tip: In case you haven’t heard, eggs have been vindicated as a delicious food to include in a healthy diet that’s low in refined carbs. They aren’t the deciding factor in elevated triglycerides, high cholesterol, or heart disease. High-carb, high-fat, refined foods and unhealthy lifestyle habits are.
#9: Use cinnamon to improve insulin sensitivity for faster tissue repair and glycogen replenishment.
Cinnamon improves insulin sensitivity and blood sugar tolerance. It’s known as a nutrient partitioner, diverting dietary carbs to be stored and muscle glycogen. This may have implications for tissue repair and recovery from muscle soreness by way of enhanced protein synthesis.
For example, a study of female martial arts athletes found that taking 3 grams of cinnamon powder with food reduced DOMS muscle pain after intense eccentric training.
Dietary tip: Cinnamon is delicious on just about everything: Add it to protein shakes, tea, coffee, yogurt, or cook with it. Try it on veggies in conjunction with other spices for a sweet, tangy flavor.
#10: Cook with turmeric and ginger to reduce DOMS.
Turmeric and ginger both come from rhizome plants and they have pretty powerful anti-inflammatory properties that have been found to accelerate recovery and reduce DOMS muscle soreness. For example, that same study that tested the effect of cinnamon on DOMS in martial artists showed that 3 grams of ginger was equally as effective for shortening recovery time.
Turmeric contains the anti-inflammatory, pain-killing compound called curcumin, which has been used for everything from wound healing to cancer treatment. It’s more recently been found to reduce DOMS in active men who did intense muscle-damaging exercise. Subjects took 200 mg of curcumin a day and in addition to less self reported pain, MRI scans showed lower evidence of muscle injury in the curcumin group compared to a placebo.
Cooking tip: Add diced fresh ginger to veggie stir fries for a pop or flavor, make tea, out of the root, or blend it with protein shakes.