Tearing up a new workout routine guarantees you’ll be sore tomorrow. But add a few antioxidants to your post-workout drink and you may be back in the gym faster, according to a new study in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition.
When Skidmore College researchers gave 60 guys different recovery drinks after strength-training sessions, those who downed a mix of whey protein plus an antioxidant-rich blend reported less muscle soreness and more muscle function 24 hours later compared to guys who drank just a protein shake or a sugar-water carb drink.
How does the supercharged shake help reduce aches? When you lift weights, the micro-damage you’ve incurred on your muscles sets off a chain reaction including a cascade of inflammation, which helps clear out the biological debris and repair the tissue. Certain antioxidants in berries (called anthocyanins) blunt this inflammatory cascade, and because pain is a result of the inflammation, you’re blessed with less muscle soreness and therefore better muscle function, allowing you to get back into the gym faster, explains lead study author Paul Arciero, Ph.D., director of Skidmore College's Human Nutrition and Metabolism Laboratory.
In the study, Arciero’s team had the guys focus on eccentric workouts to make their muscles as sore as possible. Even if you don’t do eccentric workouts, Arciero says, the antioxidant aid will probably help reduce the aches that come after any high-intensity, exhausting workout—as long as the workout is difficult enough to cause muscle damage.
Plus, previous research suggests the same supp may help your performance: When trained athletes took 100mg of anthocyanin pills daily for six weeks, their VO2 max improved (though the supplement had no effect on body fat, lean mass, or water retention), according to a 2014 study published in the International Journal of Preventive Medicine.
Even then, it’s still unclear how long one should take antioxidants—they might hinder long-term muscle adaptation by reducing the inflammatory “cascade”—but Arciero says small antioxidant doses for short periods of time don’t affect your ability to rebuild muscle.
Our recommendation: Add the nutrients to your muscle-building meal plan the week you start a new routine, since that’s when you’ll be the most sore.
In the study, researchers added an anthocyanin-rich powder, OptiBerry, into typical whey protein shakes. (The supplement company had no involvement in the research, which is definitely a mark in the study’s favor.) The study participants said the blend didn't taste any better or worse than pure protein, so it's actually drinkable (which is kinda crucial here).
And while it’s always tempting to rely on supplements, Arciero says you can probably attain similar effects from eating real, whole berries, too. For the ideal protein + carb + antioxidant post-workout meal that’ll soothe sore muscles and help build bulk, he recommends one of the following recipes:
- Blend together 20-40g of whey or brown rice protein, 8oz of water, and ½ to 1 cup of fresh berries (blueberry, blackberry, raspberry, bilberry, tart cherry, strawberries—the more variety, the better).
- Make a PB&J with whole grain bread, 2 tablespoons berry jelly (that’s fresh—none of that sugar-laden processed kind), half a banana, and 1 to 3 tablespoons nut butter.
- Construct a parfait with 1 cup whole milk Greek yogurt, 1 cup fresh berries, and (optionally) 2 tablespoons nuts or 1 tablespoons honey.