How To Choose Foods to Foster Muscle Recovery, According To Registered Dietitians
Support muscle recovery with these top picks by health professionals.
After an intense workout, you might turn to one (or even two) recovery methods, such as making a trip to a sauna, hopping in an ice bath or doing some light foam rolling. But did you know that there are certain foods you can eat for muscle recovery after a workout?
Read on to learn why it's wise to eat something (even if it's small) after a sweat sesh, and learn tips to pick the best muscle recovery foods.
Your Guide to Muscle Recovery Nutrition
When you exercise, your body recruits glycogen, the stored form of glucose, situated in your muscles and liver. Vicki Shanta Retelny, RDN, stressed the importance of eating straight after a workout. That way, you'll replenish your glycogen stores, help your muscles recover and stabilise your blood glucose levels.
The specific foods you eat can have a direct impact on your recovery. For example, while taking in carbohydrate-rich foods refills those glycogen stores, eating protein helps repair and rebuild the muscle tissue that was damaged during a workout, explained Heather Mangieri, MS, RDN, CSSD, LDN.
When It Comes to Refuelling, Don't Stress Too Much About Timing
"The typical advice is to eat within an hour of completing a workout", Retelny said. "However, whether you should follow this advice depends on how well you tolerate food after exercising", she said.
Research has suggested that when you consume protein might not be so important. According to a review, found in a 2017 issue of the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, protein helps with muscle protein synthesis (the process in which amino acids are incorporated into skeletal muscle proteins) irrespective of whether it's consumed before or after resistance training.
On the other hand, it's best for endurance athletes to take in fast-digesting carbs before a lengthy workout. That way, whether you're engaging in an intense bike ride, run or swim, your body won't turn to muscle tissue after it depletes its carb and fat stores.
"The optimal time period during which to ingest protein is probably a matter of individual tolerance", the authors wrote. Again, protein takes more time to digest than carbs or fats, so for some, protein is tolerated best after a workout.
Include These Macros in Recovery Meals
"Athletes should consume a mix of carbs and protein in their recovery meals or snacks", Mangieri said. Carbohydrates replenish glycogen, which is used in both endurance and resistance exercise. Carbs are the most important nutrient for muscle recovery, she added.
For example, one small-scale 2021 study, which looked at 323 recreational athletes who completed a 15-kilometre road race, revealed that those who supplemented with a carbohydrate placebo drink (versus a dairy-based protein supplement) for three consecutive days post-race experienced less muscle soreness.
That said, consuming protein is also key for muscle recovery, but especially after resistance exercise. According to a study found in a 2017 issue of the journal Nutrients, protein helps maximise muscle protein synthesis, which enables muscle growth. The study also pointed out that consuming protein after exercise may reduce post-workout feelings of muscle soreness. To maximise muscle protein synthesis, according to the National Academy of Sports Medicine, eat one or two small, protein-rich meals within three hours of strength training sessions.
"Whether or not you add fat to your recovery snack or meal depends on your situation and goals", Mangieri said. According to NASM, fats help reduce inflammation, supply energy and enhance recovery. However, they can also slow digestion, Mangieri pointed out. "So, to refuel quickly, your recovery meal should be low in fat", she said.
But, if you've finished your physical activity for the day and don't have another strenuous workout planned the following morning, consider opting for a balanced meal with carbohydrates, protein and some dietary fats.
The Best Muscle Recovery Foods
"There are endless combinations of foods that can provide the carbohydrate and protein combination recommended after exhaustive activity", Mangieri said.
"Try the following meals and snacks, aiming for foods that your body can digest easily, so nutrients can reach your bloodstream quickly", Retelny said.
- Chocolate milk: both Mangieri and Retelny suggested this portable option. In addition to including carbs and protein, it offers recovery-promoting fluid and electrolytes.
- A bowl of cereal with milk: choose a milk with protein, such as cow's milk or soya milk. Look for a whole-grain cereal with no or very little added sweetener.
- Greek yoghurt: Greek yoghurt, Retelny said, is higher in protein than traditional yoghurt. She suggested sprinkling berries and hemp seeds on top for added flavour and nutritional value. Or, make a smoothie by blending the yoghurt with your milk of choice and frozen fruit.
- Cottage cheese: "this dairy product contains casein protein, which can inhibit muscle breakdown and increase muscle building capacity", Retelny said. Plus, it has a high protein-to-carb ratio. To make this snack more delicious, dollop it over sliced fruit, she suggested.
- Scrambled eggs with vegetables on wholegrain toast: "eggs contain high-quality, easily digestible protein", Retelny said. According to a review found in a 2017 issue of the Journal of International Sports Nutrition, "Egg protein may be particularly important for athletes, as this protein source has been demonstrated to significantly increase protein synthesis of both skeletal muscle and plasma proteins after resistance exercise".
- A ham or turkey sandwich: choose this meal for lean protein and carbs in one convenient package. Liven it up with a small amount of mustard or sliced apple.
- A bowl of chicken and rice soup: as with a sandwich, this meal delivers lean protein plus carbs. Squeeze in some fresh lemon juice to add flavour.
A sports drink paired with beef jerky: you get net hydration and electrolytes from the sports drink and protein from the snack. When it comes to meat, NASM suggested grass-fed, pasture-raised sources.
Don't Forget To Drink Water and Electrolytes
"Hydrating after exercise is an absolute must—especially if you didn't consume fluids during your workout", Mangieri said.
"Rehydrating with fluids and replacing electrolytes that were lost from sweating are key aspects of post-workout nutrition", she said. Just bear in mind that while water and sports drinks can be ideal ways to rehydrate, beer, wine and cocktails aren't in the same category.
After all, alcohol can negatively impact recovery if it's consumed post-exercise in place of carbohydrates, protein and water, or other hydrating beverages. Along with impairing sleep (during which the body repairs cells and tissues), alcohol can also make it more difficult for your cardiovascular system to recover at night.
Words by Dina Cheney