The Best Foods for Post-Workout Muscle Recovery
We’ve been told since the dawn of dumbbells that there’s no gain without pain. Sore muscles are just something you have to accept after intense exercise, right?
While there is no one single “super food” that contains everything you need to recover from a workout, there are lots of simple steps you can take and small tweaks to your diet that will ensure quicker bounce-back, help maximize growth and reduce exercise-induced muscle soreness.
How to Eat for Recovery After a Workout
You want to build bigger muscles, but you also want to limit the screaming they do outside your workouts. These three tips cover eating for muscle growth as well as repair.
1. Emphasize protein
Naturally, you need protein to build muscles, but an effective hypertrophic diet doesn’t necessarily have to be protein-heavy. In most cases, it’s about balance over load. “Protein is important, but more is not necessarily better,” says registered dietitian nutritionist and National Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Mascha Davis.
“The academy recommends you get up to 35 percent of your total calories from protein when trying to build muscle.” Davis explains there’s little evidence supporting increased benefits from protein intake beyond 35 percent.
“Rather than the amount of protein, try and get good quality protein,” she explains. “Many high-protein animal products are also high in saturated fat, which should be consumed in smaller amounts. Limit full-fat dairy and red meat as much as possible, too.”
Davis recommends the following as sources of good quality protein:
2. Replenish carbohydrate stores
During exercise, your body burns glycogen, a stored form of carbohydrate that demands refilling before your next workout. But the concept of “carb loading” has benefits both pre- and post-workout.
“Carbohydrates post-exercise trigger insulin release that not only helps replenish muscle glycogen stores, but also increases uptake of amino acids — the building blocks of protein — into muscles, thus inhibiting the process of muscle degradation,” says says Krista Maguire, RD, CSSD, and nutrition manager for Openfit.
The amount of carbs necessary to replenish glycogen stores can vary wildly depending on workout duration and intensity, but both Maguire and Davis agree that smaller, more frequent snacking is ideal for restocking lost stores. “It’s best to consume carbs as soon after an exercise bout as possible,” says Maguire.
For specific examples of qualifying foods, Maguire ventures a little outside the box. “Think about the high-glycemic-index carbs you’ve been told to avoid when following a healthy diet. The ones with less fiber that quickly absorb and turn to sugar in the bloodstream.”
Davis also recommends swift timing, and careful balance. “Try and replace protein and glycogen no later than 15-30 minutes after a workout with a light snack. The optimal carb-to-protein ratio for a recovery snack is 4:1.”
Recommended post-workout recovery snacks:
- Sports beverages
- Granola bars
- Plain bagel
- Chocolate milk
- Yogurt with berries
- Apple and peanut butter
3. Don’t neglect micronutrients
When discussing carbs and proteins in relation to bodybuilding, the emphasis is usually on growth. But there are foods you can add to your diet that also make your post-workout life less painful to navigate; and better prepared for the next workout.
In addition to protein, you should pay attention to foods rich in compounds called phytochemicals. “Research has supported their role in reducing post-exercise delayed onset muscle soreness or DOMS,” says Maguire. “They can be found in foods, however the amounts needed to reap the most benefits post-workout would need to be consumed in extract/powder or some type of concentrated form.”
Maguire recommends the following as sources of muscle soothing phytonutrients:
- Tart cherries – “Anthocyanins are prominent in tart cherries and are the phytochemicals studied for their ability to dampen exercise-induced muscle soreness and loss of muscle strength.”*
- Pomegranate – “Ellagitannins found in pomegranate extract and juice have been shown to reduce post-exercise muscle soreness and improve muscle strength recovery 48 to 72 hours after strenuous exercise.”*
- Quercetin – “This flavonoid has been shown to help improve endurance performance because of its antioxidant properties.”
- Curcumin – “This compound is known for both its antioxidant properties and is thought to help support post-exercise recovery.”
While diet and timing are key, Davis is also quick to remind you of one very simple post-recovery routine that cannot be overlooked. “Keep in mind that factors other than diet influence your performance and recovery,” says Davis. “Get at least seven to eight hours of sleep for optimal results.”