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We know food is the body's principal fuel supply helping to get your body up to speed and race-ready but choosing the right sustenance is also vital in helping to repair any damage to your muscles afterwards. Your body is particularly receptive in the 30-35 minutes after exercising and this is the critical time for nourishing it. So what are the most effective muscle-mending foods?
In a 2010 study carried out on recreational marathon runners given either concentrated tart cherry juice or a placebo the cherry drinkers reported improved muscle recovery. They were found to have less damaged muscles immediately after the race, had lower levels of inflammation and recovered muscle strength quicker.1 Another study from 2014 on 16 trained cyclists split them into two groups: one given tart cherry juice for seven days, the other a placebo showed the riders who'd been downing the cherry concentrate showed significantly lower signs of muscle damage and inflammation than the placebo group.2
What is it that packs such a muscle-recovery punch? A concentrated amount of natural anti-inflammatory nutrients including anthocyanins, antioxidants and flavonoids. The cherries also contain melatonin (the sleep hormone) and have been shown to help improve the quality of sleep.
The go-to snack for exercisers on the go, these vitamin- packed fruits were the focus of a 2018 study comparing them to a sugary sports drink and plain water in post exercise recovery. The trial concluded bananas matched the sports drink when it came to preventing post-work inflammation.3 They also contain magnesium which is known to help muscle cramps.
Your body needs protein to stimulate muscle rebuilding and growth. Eating muscle-maintaining protein containing anti-inflammatory omega 3 fatty acids like those found in oily fish like salmon, mackerel or herring have been shown to help repair muscle tissue (along with immunity generally) and lower your likelihood of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) after exercise.4, 5 Omega 3 fatty acids have been shown to increase blood flow to muscles during exercise and there is increasing evidence that they can also help speed up your workout recovery time and markedly reduce your risk of DOMS and pain.6 Don't eat fish or enough of it? Take a supplement instead.
A 2012 study shows how these antioxidant and anthocyanin-rich little dark berries are bursting with nutrients that help accelerate recovery in muscle function and strength.7 Eat them on their own or add to plain unsweetened yogurt to add protein and a further anti-inflammatory boost.
This contains protein with which to feed your muscles, beneficial bacterial cultures to help digestion and immunity. It is also a rich source of the bone-building mineral calcium. Add fruit (like blueberries, as above) and you feed your body a helpful variety of nutrients including protein, carbohydrates, fat, calcium and vitamins.
These little nutritional powerhouses come in at around 70 calories and contain all nine essential amino acids (the building blocks of protein) which help to reduce muscle damage in the body. The yolks also contain anti-inflammatory omega 3 fatty acids and a small amount of immune-boosting vitamin D. Try a hard- boiled egg, egg sandwich or omelette.
Loaded with heart-healthy monounsaturated fatty acids these nutrient dense fruit are a good source of vitamins and minerals including magnesium and potassium and anti-inflammatory omega 3 fatty acids. They also contain vitamin K, essential for bone health and more cramp-reducing potassium than a banana.
Rich in antioxidants that help to reduce oxidative stress and omega 3 fats to help reduce inflammation, these are an easy on the go protein snack to keep with you at any time. A study has also shown how eating almonds improved endurance performance amongst cyclists.8 Nut butters like almond spread over apple or on sourdough or wholemeal toast are also a good post-work out quick snack option.
Drinking antioxidant-rich, free-radical fighting green tea has also been shown to have an anti-inflammatory effect on muscles. Packed with compounds called catechins. These have been shown to help reduce muscle damage caused by strenuous exercise.9 Try chilled green tea after exercising or take it in a supplement.
There is evidence to show drinking fermented milk can both prevent and reduce muscle soreness.10 Try a fermented milk drink like kefir, which is available from health food shops. Research also shows that drinking cow's milk can similarly help with muscle recovery.11 Add milk or yogurt to create a double whammy of muscle-recovery nutrients.
Nothing beats a healthy, balanced diet to provide all the nutrients we need. But when this isn't possible, supplements can help. This article isn't intended to replace medical advice. Please consult your healthcare professional before trying supplements or herbal medicines.
1Influence of tart cherry juice on indices of recovery following marathon running, Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports
2Montmorency Cherries Reduce the Oxidative Stress and Inflammatory Responses to Repeated Days High-Intensity Stochastic Cycling, Molecular Diversity Preservation International
3Metabolic recovery from heavy exertion following banana compared to sugar beverage or water only ingestion: A randomized, crossover trial, PLOS ONE
4The Effects of Dietary Omega-3s on Muscle Composition and Quality in Older Adults, Current nutrition reports.
5Effect of an acute dose of omega-3 fish oil following exercise-induced muscle damage., European journal of applied physiology.
6The effects of ingestion of omega-3 fatty acids on perceived pain and external symptoms of delayed onset muscle soreness in untrained men., Canadian Academy of Sport Medicine
7Effect of New Zealand blueberry consumption on recovery from eccentric exercise-induced muscle damage, Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition
8The effect of almond consumption on elements of endurance exercise performance in trained athletes, International Society of Sport Nutrition
9Effect of green tea extract supplementation on exercise-induced delayed onset muscle soreness and muscular damage., Physiology & behavio
10Fermented milk improves glucose metabolism in exercise-induced muscle damage in young healthy men, Nutrition Journal
11The effect of milk on the attenuation of exercise-induced muscle damage in males and females, European Journal of Applied Physiology.