Usually you look for certain foods in hopes of losing your love handles or packing on slabs of muscle. But you can just as easily fuel your body with foods and drinks that can do those things—plus boost recovery. You don't have to hobble around for days after you hammer your legs if you choose the right post-workout eats. Here, nutritionist Kristen Carlucci, RD, highlights a range of foods you can eat at every meal of the day so you can enhance your workout recovery whether you like to exercise first thing in the morning, in the afternoon, or at night. Stock your fridge and pantry with these ingredients, and start feeling the difference.4 Tips to Speed Up Muscle Recovery >>>
1. Cottage Cheese
"Cottage cheese provides two different types of protein: whey and casein," Carlucci says. "While whey protein is most known for its role in replenishing muscles quickly post-workout, casein is a much slower-acting protein, making cottage cheese an ideal snack before [you work out] because it allows your muscles to continue recovering even as you sleep." Cottage cheese is also packed with live cultures (good bacteria) that helps break down and absorb nutrients that can help make you bigger and stronger. Eat it plain or topped with fruit for breakfast or a midday snack.
Research from the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition and more published in Antioxidants in Sport Nutrition suggests tart cherry juice can minimize post-run muscle pain, delay time to fatigue, and promote muscle recovery for runners; it also has the potential to improve performance and reduce post-exercise recovery time for lifters. You can also snack on the dried fruit. "Eating dried tart cherries after workouts can dramatically reduce muscle breakdown, pain, and inflammation within the body," Carlucci says. Eat them plain, or add some to post-workout oatmeal or salads. (Just watch portions as dried fruit often packs a decent amount of sugar.)
Mānuka honey isn't the same sticky stuff you have in your pantry. It's a monofloral honey, meaning it predominantly comes from the nectar of one plant species called the Manuka bush in New Zealand. Mānuka honey has a distinctive flavor that's milder than typical honey; it's also much thicker. It's considered one of the most beneficial forms of honey in the world. "Manuka Honey is a potent anti-inflammatory that helps to suppress exercise-induced inflammation in the body," Carlucci says. "It’s also rich in carbohydrates, which are needed to refill glycogen stores and deliver protein to your muscles." Try drizzling some onto yogurt, or into tea.
"Nuts and seeds provide essential Omega-3 fatty acids to fight inflammation, protein for muscle synthesis and growth, electrolytes for adequate hydration, and zinc to boost immunity (just to name a few)," Carlucci says. Not only are nuts and seeds a great source of protein and fiber for vegans and vegetarians, they're also the perfect plant-based snack for meat-eaters on the go.
Turmeric is full of the inflammation-fighting antioxidant curcumin, which has been shown to decrease what’s called delayed onset muscle soreness, according to research published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology. "Compounds in this spice help reduce muscle damage and inflammation, and promote muscle repair, guaranteeing a higher level of athletic performance," Carlucci explains. Curcumin also eases pain and swelling by blocking the effects of pro-inflammatory enzymes and chemical pain messengers. Pretty impressive, huh? Carlucci suggests adding turmeric into soups or making a turmeric latte (also called “golden milk”) by combining 2 cups heated cow or almond milk + 1 teaspoon turmeric + 1 teaspoon ginger.
"Spinach is one of the most popular superfoods out there, and for good reason: This antioxidant powerhouse fights free radicals in your body to not only prevent serious diseases like cancer and heart disease, but also quickly rebound from strenuous exercise," Carlucci says. It's also an excellent diet staple for promoting good health and strengthening your muscles (it has to do with its nitrates), according to this study from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. Spinach is packed with magnesium, which helps maintain normal muscle and nerve function, and has also been shown to help regulate blood sugar and blood pressure to boot. Make it the base of your salads, a side to your dinner, or toss a handful in your smoothie.
"Salmon contains inflammation-fighting omega-3 fatty acids, plus it's packed with lean protein—a key component for muscle restoration and building," Carlucci says. If you're working out in the early or late afternoon, cook up some salmon for lunch or dinner. "Just make sure to always eat protein within 45 minutes after your workout for adequate recovery and strength," Carlucci advises.
Add sweet potatoes to your post-workout meal and you can say goodbye to sore muscles. "The starchy vegetable replenishes glycogen stores, which become depleted after a tough workout, and are a great source of beta carotene and vitamin C to keep your body healthy and strong," Carlucci says. Bake them on the grill or slice them up and cook in the oven with olive oil and spices. Experiment with lots of salt and pepper, garlic, paprika, chili powder, garlic powder, and/or cinnamon.
"Green tea is abundant in anti-inflammatory antioxidants making it the ideal pre- or post-workout drink to prevent muscle and cell damage related to exercise," Carlucci says. "It also helps athletes stay hydrated, which is vital for training and recovery." Drink it hot or cold.
"Cacao has high levels of antioxidants, magnesium, and B-vitamins to reduce stress in our bodies related to exercise, balance electrolytes, and boost energy levels," Carlucci says. Those antioxidants, called flavanols, are even able to boost the production of nitrous oxide in your body, causing your blood vessel walls to relax and open—lowering blood pressure and promoting overall health. Add some cacao nibs to your smoothie, or add a scoop of cacao powder into a glass of milk post-workout.