Skipping out on leg day because you’re still recovering from chest and tris? We get it. We’ve all played hooky on a workout when our muscles are just not feeling up to it.
When just getting dressed, squatting down to the toilet, or picking up your bag feels worse than the workout itself, you’re probably dealing with DOMS—or delayed onset muscle soreness. When you work out, you cause little micro-tears in your muscles, and when those fibers rebuild is when you gain strength and mass.
While this is technically part of the muscle-building process, by complementing your workout with the right diet, you can minimize the response and get moving again the next day. Here are the best and worst foods to help your aching muscles.
Foods That Help Sore Muscles
Research on professional athletes has shown that tart cherry juice can help improve recovery time, decrease muscle pain, and reduce muscle damage compared with other beverages. Throw a little into your post-workout smoothie or enjoy a short glass of it as a pre-workout snack.
With about 27 grams of mighty protein per cup, cottage cheese is the go-to post-workout snack in the fitness community for a reason. It’s one of the best sources of casein protein, the slow-digesting fuel that is fantastic for rejuvenating sore muscles as you sleep.
One study found that when athletes worked out in the evening and were given casein protein shortly before bed, they saw a spike in muscle synthesis compared to a placebo. Plus, the unique branched-chain amino acid, leucine, found in abundance in cottage cheese, has been specifically found to speed recovery and pain.
Enjoy it as a parfait with fruit and nuts, puree it into smoothies, or use it as a protein-rich base for pancakes or baked goods.
While we’re not giving you the green light on eating a box of Cinnabons or gingerbread cookies post workout, a sprinkle of soothing spice may help those muscles calm down. Research found that when compared with a placebo group, trained women who were given cinnamon or ginger described having significantly less muscle soreness after working out. Add a generous sprinkle to your morning oats, latte, toast or sweet potatoes for a calorie-free flavor boost.
Is there anything this powdered gold can’t help? Early research on turmeric’s active ingredient found that a curcumin supplement helped reduce the pain associated with delayed onset muscle soreness, reduced injury and improved recovery of muscle performance. Add a generous sprinkle of curcumin-loaded turmeric to oatmeal, eggs, smoothies, coffee and baked goods to get the effect.
Good news for coffee lovers. Research suggests that a moderate dose of caffeine (about 2 cups of coffee) can reduce post-workout pain by 48 percent! Another study found that when caffeine was given along with other pain-relieving pharmaceuticals, 40 percent fewer drugs were needed to provide the same level of relief. Caffeinated and motivated—that’s our new motto!
Loaded with anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats, antioxidants, and muscle-building protein, salmon is a close-to-perfect post-workout food. Research on omega-3 consumption in athletes suggests that it may specifically help prevent DOMS, inflammation, and muscle soreness after exercises like a bicep curl. Throw a can on a green salad, grill up some filets, or mix them with potatoes for salmon cakes.
There’s nothing quite as satisfying as biting into a cold, juicy piece of watermelon after a serious sweat session. But research on watermelon’s key amino acids, l-citrulline, suggests it might also soothe those sore muscles too.
One study found that giving athletes watermelon juice—which contains the rind, the highest source of l-citrulline—post workout helped reduce recovery heart rate and muscle soreness after 24 hours. The natural sugars will also help drive protein into the muscles and replenish low glycogen stores, while the high water content is essential to preventing muscle-cramping dehydration.
Throw a little watermelon into your smoothie, add it to a crunchy salad, or get fancy and throw it on the barbecue for a naturally sweet treat.
Protein is the essential building block of muscles so it’s not surprising that research has found that adding a source of protein, like eggs, during or after an intensive endurance exercise may help reduce the risk of DOMS.
Like cottage cheese, eggs are an amazing source of leucine, which is linked to muscle recovery. And with an impressive six grams of protein in each 70 calorie egg, we suggest prepping a big batch of hard-boiled eggs at the start of the week for an easy post-workout snack.
Bananas are an easy-to-digest source of quality carbohydrates that help spike your insulin just enough to drive protein into the muscle to stimulate muscle rebuilding and growth. They’re also one of the best sources of the electrolyte potassium, which research suggests may help reduce muscle soreness post gym. Pop one into a smoothie, slice them onto oats, or simply enjoy it au naturel for a quick snack.
Foods to Avoid When You Have Sore Muscles
Now that we’ve got the good stuff down, let’s review what we should probably avoid. Sadly, neither of these should surprise you much.
Since muscle pain is considered a form of inflammation in the body, it makes sense to aim to cut back on inflammatory foods on days you work out—most notably refined carbs like sugar.
One study found that drinking just one can of sugary soda daily increased inflammatory markers. Other refined carbohydrates (think white bread) may have a similar effect. The good news is that natural forms of sugar in foods like fruits, milk, whole grains, and veggies don’t yield the same effect, so get your fix from whole foods when you can.
While it’s not advised to plan a workout after too many tequila shots for some pretty obvious reasons, even a little booze can cause post-workout pain or even up your risk for injury. Alcohol dehydrates cells, resulting in soreness, cramps, and potential strains. Research also has shown that it can interfere with how effectively your body breaks down lactic acid, which also increases perceived soreness.