Foods and drink for exercise recovery

Best Food and Drinks for Active Recovery

A day or two after working out that uncomfortable feeling settles in – stiff, sore muscles that are sensitive to the touch, making even the lightest of daily activities a challenge. DOMS, also known as delayed onset muscle soreness, happens after strenuous exercise and causes tiny, microtears in muscle fibers. These microtears occur when force is applied while the muscles are lengthened, known as an eccentric muscle action. DOMS can occur around 12 hours following the exercise but typically peaks around 24-72 hours. And for those less experienced with exercising and weight training, not effectively managing DOMS can leave them sitting on the sidelines.
Through carefully conducted studies, scientists have unlocked some of the mysteries surrounding the human body to determine some of the best foods for recovery – helping refuel the body and rebuild muscles stronger. Let’s dig into the nutritional science behind some of the best food for muscle recovery and how Evolution Nutrition can help get your clients (or you) off the bench and back in the gym!


During exercise and weight training, muscle is broken down with microtears, glycogen stores are burned, and electrolytes are expelled through fluid loss. While it sounds concerning, muscle breakdown is a good thing – muscles can then be rebuilt stronger. What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, right? Full of protein, chicken and turkey also comes packed full of the amino acids arginine and glutamine which may also aid in recovery and healing.
Ingesting a high-quality, lean protein following exercise can optimize protein synthesis to repair muscles and promote muscle growth. It’s recommended to consume around 1.2-1.5 grams of protein per pound of targeted body weight daily. Not a fan of poultry? Here are 5 other great sources of protein for muscle recovery:

  • Eggs
  • Dairy
  • Salmon
  • Canned tuna
  • Whey protein powders

Tart Cherry Juice

Healthy carbohydrates play an invaluable role in human physiology by supplying muscles with the fuel needed to function. When consumed, carbs are broken down and converted into glycogen which is stored within muscles. During exercise, those glycogen stores are tapped into and depleted. Fueling the body with the right carbohydrates following a workout can help replenish glycogen stores and aid in protein absorption. A study from the Journal of The International Society of Sports Nutrition showed that tart cherry juice can decrease muscle soreness and inflammation due to its high amount of the plant compound anthocyanins.
But not all carbs are created equally, so hands off the candy bar. If your client doesn’t care for tart cherry juice, stick to other natural sources of carbohydrates such as:

  • Starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes, lentils, beets, and squash
  • Berries
  • Watermelon juice

Salmon or Tuna

Although typically limited within a healthy diet, fats shouldn’t be cut out completely. Studies have shown that fats like omega-3 help fight inflammation, boost muscle growth, and reduce the effect of DOMS. During the recovery process, fats can provide an energy source while glycogen stores are being replenished. An easy way to incorporate healthy fats into a diet is through fish like salmon and tuna, which also deliver a good source of protein. Some additional sources include:

  • Nuts and seeds
  • Eggs


Fluids are lost during exercise through thermal regulation mechanisms, like sweating. Being properly hydrated before, during, and after training helps the body run efficiently.
Sweating isn’t just the loss of fluids though, it also means the loss of important electrolytes needed for muscle activation and recovery. There’s a reason why so many sports drinks advertise electrolytes on the label. Whether through food, supplements, or water additives, try boosting these electrolytes following a tough workout to avoid unpleasant side effects that accompany dehydration like cramps, fatigue, and dizziness:

  • Sodium
  • Potassium
  • Chloride
  • Magnesium
  • Potassium


Coffee and tea lovers rejoice! While many turn to these beverages for energy boosts, science has shown that caffeine can actually help reduce the effect of DOMS. This is because caffeine blocks receptors for adenosine, a chemical that’s released after injury and activates the pain receptors in the body. Remember that strenuous exercise creates microtears in muscles which the body views as injury and responds accordingly.
While more research is needed, a 2013 study featuring 9 men and 9 women showed that consuming low amounts of caffeine 1 hour before working out significantly lowered the levels of muscle soreness experienced on days 2 and 3 after exercise. The benefits don’t stop at pre-workout though. A 2019 study went on to find out that caffeine consumption 24 and 48 hours after intense exercise also improved the recovery of muscle power. Clients should take caution when consuming caffeine as it acts as a diuretic, which could lead to dehydration if they aren’t drinking enough water throughout the day.
In addition to foods and nutrients that can nurture the body and help repair muscles after training, clients can also incorporate spices that help reduce inflammation.


Cinnamon, made from the bark of trees of the Cinnamomum family, is a flavorful spice that has been shown to have positive benefits in humans. A meta-analysis of 12 studies found that consuming cinnamon daily significantly reduced inflammatory markers in over 690 participants compared to a placebo. The review also found that cinnamon raised the levels of antioxidants within participants, helping to neutralize free radicals and unstable molecules that can harm cells.
As with anything, too much of a good thing can also be harmful. Too much cinnamon could be problematic. High levels of coumarin, the compound within cinnamon, have been linked to liver damage according to toxicology studies. Adults should limit cinnamon consumption to no more than one teaspoon a day.


Another common spice that has been used in traditional medicine for thousands of years is garlic – and for good reason. Throughout the years garlic has been used as a treatment for several ailments, from high blood pressure and cholesterol to influenza and chronic bronchitis. A meta-analysis of garlic found that participants who took garlic supplements significantly reduced the levels of the CRP inflammatory marker. Just like cinnamon, studies have shown that garlic may also increase antioxidant levels within the body.

Nondietary Tips

Being couchbound may seem appealing for individuals who are suffering from symptoms of DOMS, it’s important to continue some form of light activity. Complete rest with no activity could make symptoms of stiffness and tight muscles worse. If muscles are too sore for weight training, try lighter cardio activities that include functional movement and blood flowing.
Clients can also kick muscle recovery up a notch with a relaxing massage. A 2017 meta-analysis review showed that muscle soreness decreased significantly when participants received massage therapy following strenuous exercise.
While we can optimize nutrition plans to take advantage of the science behind the recovery process, sometimes the body just needs time to rest. Getting an adequate amount of sleep helps the body focus its energy and efforts on repairing. When muscles are afforded the time to recover adequately, they are more likely to come back stronger and full of energy. Individuals should aim to get between 7 and 10 hours of solid, deep sleep.


There are a variety of food and drink sources that have been shown to reduce the effect of DOMS, fight inflammation, and aid in muscle recovery. One key takeaway on foods for recovery is that clients should focus on eating whole foods that contain a variety of proteins, vitamins, minerals, and other macronutrients that can stimulate the post-exercise muscle recovery process.
Evolution Nutrition is here to help trainers maximize their efforts by making professional meal planning quick and easy. Evolution Nutrition can help ensure clients are getting the right food before and after a tough workout with the vitamins, minerals, and macronutrients needed to promote muscle recovery – allowing clients to come back stronger and train harder.


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