Here’s what experts say you need to reduce soreness and optimize muscle growth.
Considering muscle growth and strength adaptations happen in the hours after exercising, it’s fair to say that a workout is only as good as its recovery. How you fuel yours can be the difference between optimizing your results and missing out on major benefits.
According to John Christie, registered dietitian and Tonal’s Director of Applied Training Science, there are three essential steps you need to take with your recovery nutrition: Rebuild with protein, refuel with carbohydrates, and rehydrate with fluids and electrolytes.
It’s possible to get all of these nutrients from foods in your everyday diet. However, if your daily diet isn’t balanced, you have certain dietary restrictions, or you want more convenient options, there are also supplements that will help with muscle recovery.
Here, Christie and Danielle Gaffen, MS, RDN, LD, founder of Eat Well Crohn’s Colitis, break down the nutrients you need post-workout and how to get them from both food and supplements.
After a tough workout, your muscle fibers are damaged, and you may start to feel soreness. To start the rebuilding process, you’ll need to initiate protein synthesis, the process by which the body’s tissues, including muscle, are built and repaired. So, to patch up the micro-tears you incur during a lifting session (and, thereby, grow bigger, stronger muscles), you need to eat an adequate amount of protein.
“Between 20 to 25 grams of high-quality protein maximizes the response of muscle protein synthesis after resistance exercise,” says Gaffen.
After consuming protein, the body’s digestive system breaks it down into amino acids. These molecular “building blocks” are then released into the bloodstream and processed by the liver.
While many athletes can accomplish protein goals with whole foods in their diets, it can be hard for others. Protein powders and shakes provide an easy way to rebuild, especially if you struggle to reach your daily protein goal or need a quick, portable snack for your commute between the gym and the office.
Meat, poultry, fish, and eggs are high in protein, but there are also plenty of plant-based protein sources. Tofu, some whole grains, like quinoa and millet, and most vegetables contain small amounts of protein (broccoli, for example, has about four grams per serving).
While typically categorized as pre-workout fuel, carbohydrates are equally important for post-exercise recovery. Once the body uses readily–available glucose, it taps into glycogen, which is stored in the muscles and liver. Depending on the length and intensity of your workout, your glycogen levels may be depleted after a sweat session.
Incorporating protein and carbohydrates in your post-workout meal addresses both your rebuilding and refueling needs. Here are Christie’s recommendations for the amount of carbohydrates to consume based on the length of your workout:
Eat on the lower end of the carbohydrate range if you’re looking to lose body fat and get lean, or the higher end if your goal is to build muscle. You can also use workout intensity to guide your carbohydrate intake. Eat less for low-intensity sessions and more after high-intensity ones.
Timing of carbohydrate intake is a factor, too, says Gaffen. “The highest muscle glycogen synthesis rates have been reported when large amounts of carbs are consumed immediately after exercise and at 15- to 60-minute intervals thereafter for up to five hours after exercise,” she says. “Delaying carbohydrate intake for too long after exercise reduces muscle glycogen resynthesis.” Simply put, it’s best to eat carbs right after your workout, but it’s still worth refueling even if you miss that window.
Energy bars, gels, chews, and drinks are packed with easy-to-digest carbohydrates that can help fuel recovery. These are good choices if you’re out on a long run or bike ride and need quick, easily digestible energy. Gaffen notes that these products can be useful to athletes on-the-go but cautions against becoming too reliant upon them.
“Many fitness-minded and athletic individuals use these products, generally recognized as safe, as a convenient way to enhance their diets. However, if they are substituted in place of whole foods on a regular basis, they can deprive the athlete of a well-balanced diet,” she says.
Healthy dietary sources of carbs include whole grains, vegetables, and fruit.
Fluids and Electrolytes
Proper hydration is critical to muscle recovery (and pretty much every biological function). “The goal with fluids is to replenish what you’ve lost,” says Christie. “That’s roughly 5 to 8 ounces per 15 minutes [of exercise] or, if you’re tracking it, 20 ounces per pound lost.” Depending on the intensity of your workout and your personal sweat rate, you might need more or less fluid after exercise. Any water you drink during the workout also contributes to this total.
To find out how much water you’re losing during exercise, try performing a sweat rate test by weighing yourself before and after a workout. Otherwise, pay attention to other signals like your thirst and urine color (darker yellow urine indicates underhydration).
You’ll need more than just water to rebalance your fluids after exercise. When you sweat, your body loses electrolytes which need to be replaced as well. Electrolytes are minerals such as sodium and potassium, that help maintain and restore hydration by pulling water into the bloodstream.
Electrolyte-replacement drinks are popular among athletes. If you’re an especially salty sweater, look for products that contain more sodium. Consider adding electrolyte supplements after workouts that are high-intensity, longer than an hour, or performed in hot and humid conditions. This is often more applicable to endurance exercise than strength training because it involves longer workouts and more sweat loss.
Electrolytes are found in a wide array of foods. Some of the most popular sources for post-workout consumption include coconut water, watermelon, bananas, oranges, and salty snacks such as pretzels or pickles.
Additional Nutrients and Supplements for Muscle Recovery
Consuming protein, carbohydrates, fluids, and electrolytes will go a long way in your muscle recovery. However, if you want to round out your diet or get an added boost, there are more supplements you can add to your routine. Consider these “nice to haves” to incorporate once you’ve locked down the must-haves above.
In addition to consuming amino acids through food, you can also get these “building blocks” directly from branched-chain amino acid (BCAA) supplements. The research on BCAAs stimulating muscle protein synthesis is mixed, though. Some studies show that taking BCAAs increases post-exercise muscle protein synthesis stimulation, while other research concludes that BCAAs on their own are ineffective.
When choosing a BCAA supplement, focus on the concentration of leucine. Scientific literature suggests it may be the primary amino acid that drives protein synthesis. Christie explains that you need to consume 2.5 grams of leucine to “flip the switch to signal muscle protein synthesis” after exercise. You’ll also hit this leucine threshold by eating 20 grams of a complete protein.
Gaffen believes that BCAAs may be an appropriate supplement for muscle recovery for vegetarians and vegans. “Since animal foods are good sources of BCAAs, people on plant-based diets may especially benefit from a plant-based supplement that contains BCAAs,” she says.
Beta-alanine is a non-essential amino acid, which means that it’s produced by the body. Essential amino acids, on the other hand, must come from food). Beta-alanine helps delay muscle fatigue by supporting the synthesis of carnosine, a muscle compound that buffers exercise-induced acid.
“Although carnosine is synthesized from two amino acids, beta-alanine and histidine, its synthesis appears to be limited by the availability of beta-alanine, thus taking supplemental beta-alanine can increase carnosine levels,” Gaffen says. “This proposed benefit would help increase an athlete’s capacity for training and increase time to fatigue.”
According to an International Society of Sports Nutrition position statement, athletes see improvements in performance after 2 to 4 weeks of taking 4 to 6 grams of beta-alanine daily. Christie recommends supplementing with beta-alanine before your workout to boost performance.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids, a type of polyunsaturated fat, support the production of signaling molecules that maintain the immune system, lower inflammation, improve blood flow, and decrease pain. There’s also some evidence that suggests omega-3 fatty acids may reduce exercise-induced muscle soreness. Christie says you don’t need to worry about consuming omega-3s immediately after exercise. Rather, include them in your regular diet between workouts.
You’ll find omega-3 fatty acids in cold water fish (e.g., salmon, herring, and sardines) and fish oil. They also occur naturally in plant sources, including walnuts, flax seeds, and chia seeds.
Supplements are an option, too, if you don’t regularly eat any omega-3-rich foods. “Supplemental omega-3 [which are typically available in fish oil capsules] may especially be recommended when the diet is deficient [in omega-3 fatty acids],” Gaffen says. This may be true for people who don’t like seafood or live in an area where seafood isn’t readily available.
Known for its immune system-bolstering capabilities, vitamin C may also aid in muscle recovery. In one study, participants performed 70 eccentric elbow extensions. Everyone was sore, but the group that took vitamin supplements before and after lifting experienced significantly less discomfort, as well as a decrease in other markers that indicate muscle damage.
You can get your vitamin C from supplements or food. Oranges and other citrus fruits are the most well-known sources. It can also be found in a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables, including bell peppers, strawberries, and broccoli.
Nitrates, like those found in beetroot juice, are often included in pre-workout supplements. They’re known to expand your blood vessels, enabling better blood flow and nutrient delivery. Athletes take them to boost circulation and improve oxygen and nutrient delivery to the muscles. Some research shows that nitrates may also help reduce post-workout muscle soreness.
Beetroot and beetroot juice, along with other vegetables, such as arugula, spinach, swiss chard, and watercress contain nitrates.
Beetroot is also available in pill and powder form. Some research indicates that supplements may not deliver quite the same levels of nitrates and antioxidants as fresh juice, but they still may be beneficial.
Tart Cherry Juice
Thanks to its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, tart cherry juice has gained popularity among athletes looking to repair muscle damage after a tough workout. According to one meta-analysis, drinking tart cherry juice had a small effect on reducing muscle soreness and a moderate effect on strength and power recovery.
Even though tart cherry juice is useful for recovery, a review of studies found it’s most useful as a “precovery” supplement. In other words, you’ll get the most anti-inflammatory benefits by consuming tart cherry juice in the days leading up to strenuous exercise than if you wait until after your workout to drink it.
How to Choose Supplements for Muscle Recovery
If you choose to go the supplement route, it will take some research and experimentation to find what works best for you. With any supplement you try, Christie says, “give it enough time to make a difference [and] don’t expect results overnight.” Before you add any supplements to your nutrition plan, consider the following.
- Consult a medical professional. Some supplements are contraindicated for people who have certain health conditions or are on medications. If you have any questions about the safety of a supplement, consult your doctor or registered dietitian before taking it.
- Take care of your gut. Check labels for artificial sweeteners like sucralose, sorbitol, and other sugar alcohols. These ingredients are known to cause intestinal distress and discomfort. Added fat and fiber, while more wholesome-sounding, can also cause gas, bloating, and diarrhea in some people.
- Stick with what works. Trial and error is part of the process of picking supplements. Once you’ve figured out what products give you noticeable benefits and agree with your digestive system, it’s best to stick with those, especially on days when you want to perform your best or have an athletic competition. If you have an adverse reaction (see gastrointestinal symptoms above), it’s much better to experience it in a low-stakes situation (and in the privacy of your own bathroom, just in case).
- Look for NSF certification. Supplements are not regulated by the FDA. Instead, look for a certification from the National Sanitation Foundation (NSF). This indicates that the product has been tested by a third-party organization and meets basic safety standards.
- Check the calorie count and nutritional info. Some protein drinks and energy bars are high in calories, fat, and sugar. If you’re trying to stay within a specific calorie range or are tracking macros, make sure you’re taking into account all the ingredients on the label.
Additional reporting by Karen Iorio Adelson