Nutrition for Muscle Recovery: Why it's Important

Nutrition for muscle recovery is crucial for multi-day events since it can enhance muscle tone and strength, improve immunity and reduce fatigue. I scouted through some of the recent studies and text books to put together some basics for all of you die-hard adventure junkies looking to increase your strength and stamina so you can get out there and get after it tomorrow too!

After exercise, not during, is the time when all the magic happens: muscle repair, protein synthesis, and fat burning. Nutrition for muscle recovery can increase strength and energy levels the day following an intense day in the gym. Building muscle and gaining endurance requires stressing the body with specific exercises and then allowing time for recovery and adaptation.

soles of womans feet, stretching, sitting on ground with body folded over legs, Vibrant Nutrition RD

Understanding Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness

DOMS, or Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness. It is the painful sensation we feel in our muscles the day after intense physical exertion. DOMS temporarily reduces strength, energy and endurance for up to 3 days. This can be detrimental to our backcountry objectives, especially if you are going to be in remote locations for a couple days with little time for slowing your pace. 

Proper recovery nutrition can reduce the effects of DOMS and reduce exercise induced muscle damage. In addition to walking or light exercise, nutrition is the most important component to reducing soreness.

It is even more beneficial than stretching, according to recent scientific literature. Now let’s look at some particular nutrients, their preferred timing and the specific amounts you will need maximize their healing properties.

Post Exercise Recovery Drinks: Fluids and Electrolyte

Rehydrating after exercise is important for the body’s ability to regulate temperature, remove metabolic waste, support the cardiovascular system and lubricate joints among other things. 

Though most people drink fluid during exercise, most of us still end up with a fluid deficit. Dehydration in the form of lack of water and electrolyte losses can cause dizziness, fatigue, nausea, heart palpitations and muscle cramps.

When exercising at moderate intensity for more than 2 hours, consider replacing electrolytes. 

The most important electrolytes are sodium and potassium because it helps balance the fluids in your body. Carbohydrates also enhance fluid absorption. This is why popular sports drinks contain potassium, sodium, sugar (typically fructose) and of course water. 

Aim to replace about 125-150% of the water you lost during exercise

Shoot for around 1 liter over the course of an hour. The GI tract is unable to absorb a surge of fluids all at once. If the body if overhydrated, it will simply be discarded in urine, or in extreme cases electrolyte imbalances may occur due to dilution. 

water bottle, peoples feet in the background, sunny day at the dock, Vibrant Nutrition RD

The most accurate way to measure fluid loss is to weigh yourself before and after exercise. Bear in mind how much water your drank during that time period, so you can subtract that water weight. Losing 1 pound of body weight is equal to 16 oz of fluid, so you would want to replace that with about 24 oz of fluid. This can be in the form of water, soups, teas, juices or any other non-alcoholic fluid.


Replenish Your Glycogen Stores with Slow Carbs

During exercise, our bodies use glycogen (i.e. glucose stored in muscles and the liver) and glucose from food to obtain energy. Breaking down fat for energy is a much slower process, so our bodies tend to burn fat when we are at rest and do not need immediate energy. This is sometimes referred to as the ‘after burn’.

When we run out of glycogen during exercise, we experience sudden lethargy and fatigue. This can not only be uncomfortable, but actually dangerous if we are on a long run, bike ride or hike in the backcountry. This is part of the reason people carb load the day before a competitive event, so that glycogen stores are stocked up.

It is vital to our recuperation process that we eat carbohydrates following exercise. It reduces muscle degradation, especially when combined with high quality protein.

The recommended intake for recovery is 1–1.2 g per kg of body weight per hour during the first 4–6 hours. So for a 150 pound person, consuming 150 grams of carbohydrates in the first 2 hours is recommended, but keep snacking for a couple more hours too.

This can be achieved with 1 cup of rice or pasta with 2 pieces of toast, a clif bar with a banana, sweet potato and bean enchilada, or 1 cup of oatmeal with honey, fruit and toast.

Aid Muscle Synthesis with High Quality Protein

Protein consumption promotes protein synthesis, increases muscle growth and reduces soreness. Most literature suggests that 20-40 grams of protein with in 2 hour recovery period is recommended.

After this initial recovery phase, athletes should continue to consume up to 50 additional grams of protein for the following 12 hours to maximize protein synthesis.

sunny side up egg on a plate with toast

The most important amino acid that supports protein synthesis is leucine. The highest concentrations of leucine are found in dairy and meat products. However, plant foods such as soybeans, beans, nuts and seeds are excellent plant-based sources

Chocolate milk is commonly thought to be an excellent recovery drink because of it is high in leucine, carbs and calcium. However, dairy and the abundance of processed sugar contribute to inflammation and pain. Use this exercise recovery drink with caution. 

Eggs are my preferred protein source when considering nutrition for muscle recovery. The protein contained in them is easy to absorb. Plant protein powder (pea, soy and brown rice proteins) or branched-chain amino acid supplements are also excellent choices!


Minerals: Why Are They Important for Muscle Recovery?

Potassium

Potassium loss post exercise is a known culprit of muscle fatigue. Potassium is not only important for muscle contraction of skeletal muscle groups, but also for our hearts and lungs. Along with sodium, this electrolyte helps balance fluids in the body. Restoring potassium can be achieved through eating potatoes, bananas, tomatoes, beets and beans.

Sodium

Over hydrating with out proper sodium intake can lead to ‘water intoxication’ which may cause confusion, dizziness and other adverse symptoms. 

While it is not difficult to achieve adequate sodium intake, it is very important. Sodium can be found in nearly all processed foods, salty pretzels or chips should do the trick. 

You won’t need to drink an electrolyte sports drinks to replenish this nutrient!

Iron

This mineral is part of our blood cells and therefore helps transport oxygen to muscles and organs. It becomes particularly relevant for those living above 6,000 ft. 

Consuming enough iron is an obvious benefit for those exerting themselves at high altitudes. You can find iron in beans, nuts, meat, tofu and dried fruit such as apricots and raisins. 

Vitamin C can enhance absorption of iron, so eat some citrus with the foods listed.

woman running stairs, Vibrant Nutrition RD

Anti-Inflammatory Nutrients: Reduce Pain and Inflammation

Exercise can increase oxygen consumption by up to 15 times compared to that which is consumed at rest. This can cause oxidative stress on cells, which creates free radicals that wreck havoc on our bodies. Though our cells are equipped with their own anti-oxidant defense system, consuming foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants and polyphenols can offset this oxidation and reduce the pain associated with inflammation.

black cherries hanging from tree

Research shows that foods rich in polyphenols, such as pomegranate, cherries and berries, can significantly reduce muscle soreness. The raw juice of these fruits is the potent form of polyphenols and will reap the best results when it comes to muscle recovery.

Brightly colored produce, ginger, turmeric and garlic will also supply a bounty of anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory nutrients that will help you get back on the trail.

Similarly, foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids can also reduce inflammation. Consider using oils such as canola or flax, or eating cold water fish, chia seeds and walnuts to maximize your intake of these beneficial fats.

Do Supplements Assist Muscle Recovery?

Normally, I am not a big promoter of supplements but in an effort to be unbiased and transparent I will share my findings on a few beneficial supplements. 

Taurine

“Taurine is an organic acid found in skeletal muscle and has many biological functions such as membrane stabilization, antioxidant capacity, osmoregulation and calcium homeostasis regulation,” (Jooyoun, 2014). Studies show that 50 mg of taurine daily reduced DOMS and oxidative stress.  When taken in combination with branched chain amino acids, it also reduced post exercise inflammation.

Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAA)

Proteins are made of smaller molecules called amino acids, three of them are known as branched chain amino acids: leucine, isoleucine and valine. 

They are easily converted into glucose for energy.
When we exercise at high intensity and run out of glycogen, our bodies will attack our muscles to scavenge for these BCAAs. Therefore, BCAA supplementation can reduce muscle damage, protein breakdown and soreness. BCAAs exist in normal food however, so their supplementation is not necessary. However it does offer a quick and easy way to ensure your muscles are protected from exercise induced damages.

Caffeine

Caffeine can spare glycogen use and help our bodies use more fat for energy during exercise, thereby reducing the effects of DOMS. 

A recent study shows that consuming 5 mg of caffeine per kg of body weight 24 hours after exercise can be effective at reducing muscle soreness and enhancing recovery. 

For a person weighing about 150 lbs, that is a couple cups of coffee the day after working out. This seems counter-intuitive since caffeine is a known diuretic, however combined with its high anti-oxidant content, coffee can be safely included into your recovery routine even if it is nearly a day after!

Collagen

Collagen hydrosylate is beneficial for the injured athlete or those who experience tendon and cartilage joint pain. This product is simply made from animal products, but a great vegan substitution is pectin.

Taking 15 g of gelatin prior to rehabilitation exercise can enhance the healing process for injured athletes, and reduce exercise induced joint pain in non-injured athletes.

Simply add some to your smoothies or make jellies from this product for best results. 

Putting it All Together: Snacks and Meals for Muscle Recovery

1. Wild caught salmon with baked potatoes and arugula salad 

2. Smoothie with chia seeds, RAWrLIFE plant protein, banana, spinach, mixed berries, spirulina, matcha powder

3. Oatmeal, chia seeds, banana chips, peanut butter and beet root powder (If you are on the trail for a couple days, this is the ultimate light weight breakfast!!)

4. Greek yogurt parfait with 1 cup full fat, *organic Greek yogurt, 3 table spoons of chia seeds, 2 tablespoons of honey, 1/2 cup of blueberries. Add 2 pieces of toast with peanut butter, honey and banana

**organic dairy has several proven health benefits, dietitian recommended

5. Baked tofu sandwich with red bell pepper, zucchini, flax oil drizzle, onion and spinach on a whole wheat ciabatta with a side of cherry-beet juice (here is a similar recipe for inspiration: tofu sandwich)

6. Avocado toast with cottage cheese and tomatoes

7. Sweet potato, squash and black bean enchiladas

8. Tofu, turmeric, brown rice bowl

9. Chia pudding

10. Tuna salad sandwich whole wheat

*try it with flax oil instead of mayo for extra anti-inflammatory fats!

11. Egg salad sandwich with tumeric, flax oil, lettuce, tomato and onion on toasted wheat bread

12. Add a “health shot” to your meal: garlic, honey, lemon juice, turmeric, kale, banana, and super greens powder (spinach powder, spirulina, probiotics). Stick it in a blender with water, bottoms up!