Anyone who has taken more than one hiatus from exercise knows that it’s not that first return workout that you should be afraid of, but the day after.
However, preparing yourself with the best foods for post-workout recovery can help you overcome this grueling outcome and push through to the second workout.
Protein is a great start, but your ailing muscles require several other nutrients if they’re going to recover properly and at an accelerated rate.
First, it’s important to understand the basic science behind muscle fatigue and recovery so you can apply these concepts to your specific situation.
What’s Going On In There?
Every Twitch Is a Complex Reaction
Think of muscle contraction as really complicated chemical reactions. Each major step in this reaction requires certain fuels.
Short answer: there’s a whole lot going on in there (your muscle tissue) during and after exercise.
We’ll make this explanation as painless as possible—pun intended.
When exercising, your brain sends signals to your muscles via nerves that make the muscles contract.
After receiving this “excitatory” signal, your muscles activate a cascade of reactions that utilize sodium, potassium, oxygen, calcium ions (Ca2+), and other forms of fuel.
All of this ado just for a twitch, and the cycle repeats itself again and again.
When your workout is over, the muscle tissue enters repair and rebuild mode, a process that relies on protein, oxygen-rich blood, glucose, and many of the abovementioned nutrients that were just depleted.
Your Nervous System and Muscle Fatigue
This study by the Second Military Medical University of China found that chemical messengers sent by the central nervous system can influence exercise performance as well as soreness.
It may seem like an obscure link to nutrition, but these chemical messengers rely on certain nutrients to be replenished.
The Sodium-Potassium Pump
As part of the cascade of reactions we mentioned that take place during a muscle contraction, your body needs to move sodium and potassium ions in and out of cells (or else it’s a non-starter).
Replenishing potassium especially (most of us get too much sodium) is vital for those of us brave enough to push through the soreness of that first return workout to the second one a day or two later.
Oxygen- and Nutrient-Rich Blood
Finally, even when making the proper post-workout decisions nutritionally, your results will be hampered significantly if you can’t get all of these nutrients and oxygen to your tissues.
Thankfully, you can target this issue as well with nutrition using natural vasodilators, which we’ll cover below.
In summary, the nutritional connections to post-workout recovery include increasing blood flow, replenishing your muscle’s fuel sources, and contributing to the synthesis of chemical messengers that govern both workout and recovery.
As we’ve all heard echoed ad nauseam, protein is also very important for repairing and rebuilding muscle fibers.
It doesn’t hurt that many of these already healthy foods contain anti-inflammatory and antioxidant compounds that help decrease the tissue damage caused by vigorous exercise.
Recovery Nutrients and the Foods They’re Found In
To be clear, there are hundreds of foods containing pro-recovery electrolytes, anti-inflammatories, and other compounds beneficial for muscle tissue recovery.
The following foods were chosen for their post-workout recovery potency, taste, and accessibility.
Antioxidant and Anti-Inflammatory Foods
This academic review from the Lindenwood University School of Health Sciences in St. Charles, MO does an excellent job highlighting and explaining antioxidant and anti-inflammatory foods that can “prevent and attenuate exercise-induced muscle damage.”
The anti-inflammatory angle is pretty self-explanatory; the antioxidants are important because they boost the ability of your internally produced antioxidants to repair oxidative damage (as differentiated from inflammation) caused by exercise.
As it turns out, vegetable and tart fruit juices like cherry, pomegranate, and beetroot juice, along with green tea, contain generous amounts of these plant-based antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds.
Tart cherry juice was even shown by the review to “increase the rate of isometric force recovery following a bout of knee extensions.”
In other words, tart fruit juice is objectively proven to accelerate muscle recovery following a workout.
We’re going to borrow heavily from our Natural Vasodilators for Athletes article here, since vasodilation (widening of blood vessels) allows more nutrient- and oxygen-rich blood to reach muscle tissue.
Natural vasodilators are abundant in many healthy foods, including, but not limited to:
In many cases, you’re getting a healthy serving of antioxidants (e.g., blueberries) and healthy omega-3 fatty acids (e.g., salmon) as a bonus.
Point being, foods that promote vasodilation encourage more blood to reach your tissues after a workout, which allows all those pro-recovery nutrients we’ve been talking about to do their thing more efficiently.
We’ve only saved protein for last because it’s all you ever hear about.
Indeed, it may be the single most important nutrient for actually rebuilding muscle, considering it’s literally a building block for muscle synthesis.
All these other nutrients may help your muscle tissue repair itself, but without protein, there’s nothing to repair.
Complete proteins—those containing all the amino acids (protein building blocks) that our bodies don’t produce internally—like eggs, fish, meat, and some dairy are generally preferable to incomplete proteins.
Though it’s ideal to source protein from food, protein isolates (supplements that have had the protein stripped from everything else) have somewhat confusingly proven themselves more effective than naturally occurring proteins at reducing post-exercise muscle damage.
For example, this study from the University of Burgos in Spain demonstrated that pea protein was not as effective as a serum protein isolate at reducing post-exercise muscle damage in untrained male participants.
Still, with naturally occurring protein, you can take in extra fiber, vitamins and minerals, and other nutrients.
How Do I Apply This Information?
Here’s a summary of everything you need to know about how exercise damages muscles and what you can do about it.
We’ve covered a lot of ground, so here’s a quick recap:
Working out causes inflammation and oxidative damage to our muscle tissues while depleting them of key nutrients they need to perform.
Foods containing protein, potassium, vitamin C, magnesium, zinc, antioxidants, anti-inflammatories, and other pro-recovery nutrients can reduce soreness, rebuild and repair muscle, and accelerate recovery.
These nutrients are found in lean meats, fish, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, dairy products, and more.
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