How to Recoup with Food
What you eat and when you eat it could fast-track the muscle-repair process. Follow these rules for a double-duty diet.
If the multibillion-dollar protein powder industry tells us anything, it's that there's a link between what you eat and how your body performs.
"Food supplies our body with the nutrients necessary for a wide range of recovery processes to take place", says Ryan D. Andrews, RD, a principal nutritionist at Precision Nutrition and a certified strength and conditioning specialist. Those processes include rebuilding muscle and connective tissue; regulating inflammation caused by stress, intense exercise or trauma; and promoting the production of hormones needed for muscle repair and growth.
"Food supplies our body with the nutrients necessary for a wide range of recovery processes to take place".
Ryan D. Andrews
RD, principal nutritionist at Precision Nutrition and a certified strength and conditioning specialist
But instead of focusing on what you eat right after a session (the mighty post-workout meal), taking a holistic approach to your diet can help you bounce back faster. Follow these nutrition guidelines throughout the day and week, and feel the difference.
01. Emphasise whole sources of protein.
Your muscles are mainly made of protein, which is why you need to consume the macronutrient. It helps repair damaged muscle tissue after exercise and leads to new growth. But instead of over-relying on a protein powder, you should opt as often as possible for whole foods that are rich in protein, says Andrews. A recent review published in Nutrients found that these foods provide other essential nutrients (vitamins, minerals and antioxidants) as part of their natural matrix that may give you an extra recovery boost. In other words, you get more bang for your buck (and calorie) by eating, for example, wild salmon than you do by sipping on a smoothie.
"When you're training hard, aim to get at least 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight per day", says Andrews. For a 68-kilogram person, that would be about 109 grams of protein. That might look like two eggs or oatmeal with nut butter at breakfast, chicken or tempeh with quinoa and broccoli at lunch, Greek yogurt with a tablespoon of hemp seeds for a snack and a piece of fish with a potato and greens for dinner.
After an intense workout, like a cardio or HIIT session lasting longer than an hour, try to get the bulk of that protein as soon after the session as possible. Doing so will help decrease muscle-protein breakdown, kick-starting your recovery, says Andrews.
02. Get your omegas.
Omega-3s are fatty acids that the body can't make on its own. "Known for their anti-inflammatory properties, these are also essential for improving bone repair while reducing muscle soreness", says Vanessa Rissetto, RD, the co-founder of Culina Health, a nutrition service based in Hoboken, New Jersey. Women should get 1.1 grams per day, while men should aim for 1.6 grams per day, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Seafood, such as salmon, mackerel and oysters, offers tonnes. But you can also get omega-3s by mixing hemp seeds, chia seeds or walnuts—each of which have 2.5 grams or more of omega-3s per serving—into your oatmeal or yogurt, or sprinkling them onto your salad.
03. Say no to no carbs.
These days, low-carb diets are all the rage, but athletes would be wise not to hop on board. "Carbs provide energy [in the form of glycogen] back into the muscles after it was 'spent' during exercise", says Rissetto.
Even a two-hour delay in getting carbs in your system post-workout could lead to as much as 50% lower rates of glycogen synthesis, says Rissetto, which means your muscles will receive less fuel to repair damage. She suggests having one serving of complex carbs, like whole grains, at every single meal, including the one you eat within an hour after a workout. (No need for more unless you trained for longer than an hour.) Some good sources recommended by the experts include sweet or white potatoes, quinoa, oatmeal, barley and fruit.
04. Eat the rainbow.
"Our nutrient requirements tend to go up when we're really active because we're stressing the body and expending a lot of energy", says Andrews. B vitamins, for instance, help your cells produce usable energy so your muscles can patch up tears, says Rissetto. Vitamin C can also help manage soreness, according to research.
Andrews emphasises that the easiest way to ensure you get what you need on the micronutrient spectrum is to eat plenty of colourful fruits and vegetables. You don't need to go crazy trying to tick off the letters of the alphabet. "Just try to eat red, purple [or blue], green, orange and yellow fruits and vegetables daily", says Rissetto, or at the very least, most days of the week.
05. Get cultured.
Probiotics, the good bacteria known for aiding gut health, can reduce muscle damage and speed up recovery, particularly when paired with protein, found a study published in the journal PeerJ. The thinking: Bacillus coagulans, a common type of probiotic, produces digestive enzymes that can fast-track your body's digestion of protein, so the nutrient goes to work faster.
Andrews recommends including whole or minimally processed foods that have naturally occurring probiotics in them, such as yogurt, sauerkraut, kombucha or kimchi. Pair them with a protein source to maximise their effect.
06. Spice it up.
To supercharge all these recovery-enhancing foods even more, try giving them a kick with certain spices. There's turmeric, which has curcumin, a polyphenol-rich compound that's been shown to temper muscle damage and inflammation when taken before and after exercise. There's ginger, which can help you regain muscle strength faster after a tough session, according to a study published in Phytotherapy Research. And then there's cacao: some research suggests that its antioxidants can help your body release blood flow, enhancing nitric oxide, which could mean more oxygen and nutrients to your muscles, fast. You'd probably need about two tablespoons, five days a week of any one of these to notice a difference, but adding some to your meals throughout the day couldn't hurt.
07. Sip on something sour.
More specifically: tart cherry juice. Several studies have suggested that consuming around 700 millilitres of the drink for at least seven consecutive days before and after an intense workout, such as a long-distance run, can help reduce muscle soreness and pain. Why? Mainly thanks to antioxidants that fight inflammation.
Of course, food will take your recovery only so far. You still need to let your muscles physically recoup with a stretching routine and, most importantly, a good night's sleep. But eating can be a bit more fun than stretching (and honestly, sleeping), if you ask us.