Do you still remember how sore your muscles felt after your first weight training session? For some people, it’s a challenge to move the next day! Uh-oh! If you take a long break from training or and come back or overload your muscles more than they’re accustomed to, you may experience it again. The technical term for post-workout muscle discomfort is delayed-onset muscle soreness or DOMS. It’s delayed onset because the symptoms don’t usually appear until 24 to 48 hours after a workout. You’re more likely to experience DOMS when you do workouts that emphasize the eccentric segment of a movement, when the muscle elongates under tension, for example, when you lower the weight during biceps curls or run downhill.
Nutrition for Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness
Although there’s no sure-fire way to ensure you won’t experience delayed-onset muscle soreness, nutrition does appear to play a role in keeping it in check. Though there is evidence that nutrition helps reduce DOMS, it’s not clear exactly what causes it. Some possibilities include damage to connective tissue surrounding the muscle, muscle spasm, inflammation, build-up of free radicals, leakage of calcium from muscle cells and lactic acid build-up.
What is clear is that DOMS is a product of muscle damage, microscopic tears to muscle fibers. One marker for muscle damage, creatine kinase, rises in response to muscle injury and serves as a marker for muscle stress. Now, let’s look at dietary components that may help keep DOMS in check or at least reduce its severity.
A number of small studies support the idea that caffeine diminishes DOMS, possibly by its effects on the central nervous system. A small, double-blind, placebo-controlled study showed healthy participants who drank roughly the equivalent of 2 cups of coffee 24 and 48 hours after exercise developed less post-workout soreness relative to those who drank a placebo drink. Other small studies also show caffeine may offer some protection against DOMS. Plus, caffeine also has performance enhancing benefits, as well. Research shows that it boosts exercise endurance during both short-term and prolonged exercise.
Since inflammation may play a role in delayed-onset muscle soreness, a few studies have looked at the effects anti-inflammatory foods have on post-workout soreness. Fatty fish, rich in long-chain, anti-inflammatory omega-3s show promise. A number of small studies have looked at whether supplementing with long-chain omega-3 fatty acids or fish oil prevents DOMS. While many studies demonstrate benefits, others do not. It makes sense that omega-3s would be effective because they reduce the production of inflammatory prostaglandins.
How much do you need? The dose used in studies was between 1.8 and 3 grams daily, but you could get similar benefits by eating 2 servings of wild-caught salmon weekly. With salmon being a low-calorie source of protein, it’s the ideal training food.
Salmon isn’t the only food that has anti-inflammatory benefits. Do you enjoy the mouth-puckering flavor of tart cherries? Tart cherries are rich in chemicals that reduce inflammation and protect against oxidative damage. One study showed runners who drank tart cherry juice, versus a placebo drink, 8 days prior to an intense race experienced less post-race soreness. Tart cherries have another surprising benefit – they lower your risk for gout.
Some spices have anti-inflammatory properties: two of the most promising for relieving DOMS are turmeric, a spice that contains the active ingredient curcumin, and ginger. A study showed consuming ginger, raw or cooked, significantly reduced pain in volunteers subjected to exercise-induced muscle damage, and you can enjoy the benefits with as little as 2 grams of ginger daily.
Curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, blocks the same inflammatory chemicals that non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications do – without the side effects. Garlic is another popular spice with strong anti-inflammatory activity. Take advantage of these “multi-functional” dietary components that not only improve the taste of the food you eat but have health benefits as well.
Fruits that are rich in chemical components called polyphenols also help tame delayed-onset muscle soreness. We already mentioned tart cherries, but pomegranates and blueberries fall into this class too. Small studies show pomegranate and pomegranate juice both reduce muscle soreness after exercise, but only upper body soreness. Plus, these colorful fruits are loaded with natural chemicals that could lower your risk for other health problems as well.
Sip a Cup of Tea or a Glass of Chocolate Milk
You hear so much about green and white tea and their abundance of anti-oxidant chemicals called catechins, but don’t dismiss black tea. A study involving college-age males showed those who supplemented with an extract of black tea experienced less DOMS, had less evidence of oxidative stress, experienced increased performance and had a better post-workout recovery. The active component in black tea, theaflavins, has natural anti-inflammatory activity.
Don’t like black tea? Maybe chocolate milk is more of your style. Research shows chocolate milk is a powerful exercise recovery drink, although it may not significantly reduce delayed-onset muscle soreness. What makes chocolate milk so special? It has a 4 to 1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein, a ratio considered optimal for recovery.
Eat a Balanced Diet
We’ve discussed specific foods that may help your achy muscles, but you’ll experience the most benefits when you consume a healthy, balanced diet with adequate amounts of each macronutrient. Be sure you’re consuming protein and carbs during the post-exercise “window” where your body can best put those macronutrients to use. Research suggests that consuming carbs and protein in a ratio of 3 to 1 or 4 to 1 within 2 hours after a workout may aid muscle recovery. Nutrition counts when it comes to fitness performance AND recovery.
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