To help your muscles bounce back after a tough workout, focus on a well-rounded diet featuring tart cherry juice, fatty types of fish, watermelon, and whey protein. Techniques like massages, using a foam roller, and getting enough rest can also make a difference.
If you enjoy heavy workouts, long bike rides, or challenging trail runs, you’re probably no stranger to sore muscles afterward.
Feeling sore can be more than just uncomfortable—it can hinder your future exercise sessions and everyday tasks.
Luckily, there are various methods to lessen muscle pain, reduce damage from your workouts, and speed up your recovery time.
This article outlines the top 10 foods and beverages that can aid in muscle recovery.
1. Tart cherry juice
Tart cherry juice is good for both pro athletes and workout beginners. Research indicates that it can help with muscle recovery and ease the pain from delayed-onset muscle soreness, also known as DOMS.
DOMS happens when you engage in intense or unfamiliar exercise, leading to symptoms like limited movement due to pain, swelling, and stiffness.
Working out also increases stress at the cellular level, causing cell damage and inflammation. The good news is that foods and drinks rich in antioxidants can help counter these negative effects.
Tart cherry juice is loaded with plant-based compounds known as anthocyanins, which are strong anti-inflammatory and antioxidant agents. These can help lessen muscle pain and reduce the damage done to muscles during workouts.
A comprehensive review from 2021, which included 15 studies specifically on tart cherry juice, found that it sped up muscle recovery, eased DOMS, and reduced inflammation markers post-exercise.
Other research also supports the idea that tart cherry juice, or supplements derived from it, can improve muscle recovery and reduce DOMS.
However, it’s worth noting that tart cherry juice works best when you start taking it a few days before your workout and keep it up for several days afterward, usually for a total of 8–10 days.
2. Watermelon and watermelon juice
Watermelon is not just a tasty and hydrating fruit; it’s also nutrient-packed and could help your muscles recover faster after exercise.
The fruit is high in an amino acid called L-citrulline, which is a key component for protein formation. This amino acid might also function as an antioxidant and boost nitric oxide levels, which improves blood flow to your muscles and enhances cellular energy levels.
Some research indicates that watermelon juice could decrease muscle soreness and damage after physical activity. For instance, a 2013 study involving 7 athletes discovered that consuming about 17 ounces (500 mL) of natural watermelon juice or a version enriched with L-citrulline eased muscle soreness more effectively than a placebo, 24 hours post-exercise.
However, it’s worth mentioning that most of these studies used watermelon juice that was enriched with extra L-citrulline, so it’s not clear if regular, natural watermelon juice would offer the same benefits.
Even without that specific benefit, watermelon provides other nutrients that can enhance your workout performance and speed up your recovery, such as carbohydrates, additional amino acids, and antioxidants. This makes watermelon a solid choice for those who exercise regularly, whether or not it directly alleviates muscle soreness.
3. Fatty fish
Fatty fish such as sardines, salmon, and trout are packed with nutrients essential for muscle recovery.
Fish is a readily absorbed source of protein, crucial for mending muscle cells that get damaged during workouts.
Some health pros recommend taking in about 1.1 ounces (30 grams) of protein post-exercise for the best muscle recovery. To give you an idea, a 4-ounce (113-gram) serving of cooked salmon has almost 1 ounce (29 grams) of protein.
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Fatty fish also offer omega-3 fats, which can ease delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS), counter inflammation, and encourage muscle growth.
The suggested dose for maximizing muscle recovery is between 0.06–0.11 ounces (1.8–3 grams) of omega-3s after your workout. You can easily meet this requirement by eating a serving of fatty fish like salmon or by taking an omega-3 supplement post-exercise.
4. Pomegranate juice
Pomegranate juice is packed with polyphenols, plant-based compounds known for their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits. Drinking this juice could help your muscles recover faster after exercise.
A 2017 study involving 9 elite weightlifters found that consuming 8.5 ounces (250 mL) of pomegranate juice three times daily for three days leading up to Olympic weightlifting sessions made a difference. Participants also had an additional 16.9 ounces (500 mL) an hour before their workout. The juice lowered levels of malondialdehyde (MDA), a marker indicating oxidative stress, and boosted antioxidant defenses. This suggests that pomegranate juice can help with muscle recovery.
Other research also supports the idea that pomegranate juice and supplements made from it can lessen muscle soreness, reduce inflammation, and speed up muscle healing after exercise.
5. Beet juice
Beets are rich in dietary nitrates and a type of pigment known as betalains.
Dietary nitrates can help improve oxygen flow to your muscles and boost the effectiveness of mitochondria, which are the energy-producing components of your cells. Betalains, on the other hand, may lessen inflammation and oxidative damage to your cells.
One study in 2016 that included 30 active men showed that drinking beetroot juice right after strenuous exercise, as well as 24 and 48 hours later, eased muscle soreness and sped up muscle recovery more effectively than a placebo.
A more recent study from 2021 involving 13 soccer players found that beetroot juice consumed for 3–7 days before exercise, on the day of the exercise, and for 3 days afterward reduced the symptoms of delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and even enhanced athletic performance during the recovery phase.
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6. Whey protein shakes
Whey protein is often cited as beneficial for muscle recovery after exercise, for both athletes and everyday exercisers.
In a study that lasted five days, 92 obese men took whey protein at a dosage of 0.4 mg per pound (0.9 grams per kg) of body weight, split into three doses daily, before doing fitness tests. The whey protein was effective in lowering indicators of muscle damage when compared to a control group, although it didn’t make a difference in delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
Whey protein might also enhance muscle performance after resistance workouts.
However, the evidence isn’t unanimous. Some studies have found that whey protein doesn’t significantly improve muscle recovery post-exercise.
So, more studies are needed to solidify the benefits of whey protein for muscle recovery. That said, protein shakes can still help you meet your daily protein needs and potentially maximize muscle growth, making them a good option to consider.
Eggs are highly nutritious and popular among athletes for their abundant, easily absorbed protein. Consuming them post-workout can aid in muscle recovery.
While many people prefer just the egg whites, research indicates that eating the whole egg might be more beneficial after exercising.
A small study from 2017 involved 10 men who ate meals containing either whole eggs or just egg whites right after resistance training. Despite both meals having an equal amount of protein, the meals with whole eggs led to increased muscle growth.
Experts believe this may be due to the yolk’s rich nutrient profile, which includes vitamins, minerals, and fatty acids like vitamin A, selenium, zinc, and palmitate. These nutrients might speed up the process of muscle protein synthesis.
Milk and dairy products like yogurt and cottage cheese are popular choices for refueling after exercise, and it’s easy to see why.
Milk is protein-rich, providing the essential building blocks your muscles need for repair. This could help lessen exercise-induced muscle damage (EIMD).
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Not just high in protein, milk and dairy also offer carbs. Combining carbs with protein is a good strategy for muscle growth and replenishing glycogen, which is basically stored sugar that your muscles use for energy. Plus, milk contains sodium, key for rehydrating your body.
Some research even indicates that cow’s milk can notably improve both your exercise performance and your muscles’ ability to recover afterwards.
A review in 2019, which looked at 12 different studies, suggested that chocolate milk could enhance both exercise performance and recovery. However, the researchers noted that we still need more high-quality evidence to fully confirm these benefits.
9. Starchy vegetables
Intense workouts deplete glycogen, the stored form of sugar in your muscles. Having enough glycogen is crucial for top-notch athletic performance, so refilling these reserves post-workout is essential. This is especially true if you’re an athlete engaging in strenuous exercise.
Eating foods high in carbohydrates helps to restore muscle glycogen. Healthy starchy veggies such as sweet potatoes, butternut squash, and regular potatoes are excellent post-workout choices for carbs.
Pairing these starchy vegetables with a protein like eggs or chicken can be a delicious and effective way to not only refill your glycogen levels but also provide your body with the protein needed for muscle repair.
Having a cup of coffee before or after your workout might help lessen muscle soreness.
The reason for this is that caffeine, a key component in coffee, blocks adenosine receptors. Adenosine is a chemical released after injury, and it triggers pain receptors in your body.
One study from 2013 with 9 men who generally consumed little caffeine found that taking caffeine an hour before a vigorous upper-body workout noticeably reduced muscle soreness on the second and third days after exercising when compared to a placebo.
Another study in 2019 discovered that having caffeine 24 and 48 hours following intense exercise helped both men and women recover muscle power and feel less sore, compared to a placebo. Interestingly, men experienced a greater decrease in soreness with caffeine than women did.
Effective doses of caffeine for reducing soreness are around 2.3–2.7 mg per pound of body weight (or 5–6 mg per kg). To put it in perspective, an 8-ounce cup of coffee has roughly 95 mg of caffeine. That would be around 345 mg of caffeine for someone weighing 150 pounds.
However, some studies have offered mixed results on whether caffeine truly lessens DOMS, so more research is needed to make a definitive conclusion.
Summary: After a strenuous workout, certain foods and drinks may help reduce soreness. These include starchy vegetables, eggs, coffee, beet juice, and fatty fish.
Nondietary tips to relieve sore muscles
Besides what you eat and drink, there are other ways to speed up muscle healing and ease soreness after a workout.
Check out these proven methods to help your muscles recover:
- Prioritize sleep. Skimping on sleep can negatively affect your workout performance and slow down your healing process.
- Try compression gear. Wearing compression clothing can speed up muscle healing after exercise and potentially enhance muscle strength and function.
- Heat and cold treatments. Dunking in cold water could aid in healing muscle tissues, lower swelling, and lessen muscle pain.
- Use a foam roller. Rolling on foam can ease muscle pain after exercising and could improve your athletic performance.
- Consider massage. Studies indicate that massage can boost muscle function and alleviate muscle soreness.
Not every approach will be a good fit for your body or lifestyle. The best way to discover what works for you is to test them out.
Summary: Sleep, thermal therapy, compression therapy, foam rolling, and massage can help muscles recover and reduce DOMS.
Nutrition plays a crucial role in helping your muscles bounce back after exercise.
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While your total diet is the most important factor, incorporating specific foods and beverages like tart cherry juice, oily fish, watermelon, and whey protein can hasten your muscle healing and alleviate discomfort caused by workouts.
Additionally, treatments like massages, using a foam roller, and ensuring adequate sleep can aid in your post-gym recovery and make you feel more comfortable.