By Isadora Baum
The “no pain, no gain” philosophy may sound bad-ass, but in real life, having tight muscles all the time can be a major downer.
Plus, constant cramps may indicate a bigger problem, like dehydration, mineral deficiencies, or even nerve and circulation disorders. Not fun.
“Muscle soreness that is felt the next day or two after intense exercise, commonly known as delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS), is a function of oxidation and inflammation induced by the broken-down muscle fibers and free radical accumulation,” says Kacie Vavrek, registered dietitian at OSU Wexner Medical Center.
Here’s the good news: Eating strategically can help mitigate the pain and prevent muscle damage.
“Eating a combination of foods high in magnesium, potassium, and calcium can help relieve muscle aches,” says chiropractor and clinical nutritionist Dr. Josh Axe. Such foods include avocados, coconut water, melon juice, nuts, seeds, kefir, leafy greens, and lean meats, he notes. Here are some items that may be especially helpful:
“The general population needs an average of 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (g/kg). Though the amount of protein required depends on a few factors, like age and body weight, on average it should make up about 15 to 25% of your daily calories. So, for instance, if you’re sedentary and weigh 140 lbs., 53g of protein per day might be sufficient; however, if you’re active, you’ll need to increase that number. As the workout intensity and duration increases, so will protein needs, Cederquist says. Another way to determine your protein needs: Multiply your weight in pounds by 0.36, if you lead a sedentary lifestyle. If you’re active (you work out for an hour daily), you’ll need to double it and multiple by 0.72. Consider how active you are, and increase relatively from there.
Cederquist recommends eating cottage cheese or Greek yogurt post-workout, or when your muscles are tensing up. One cup of cottage cheese offers 14g of protein, while Greek yogurt provides 11g of protein per 1-cup serving. Top either with blueberries, whose superstar antioxidant content may help protect against cellular damage, she adds.
If you’re vegan, plant proteins can also do the trick. Dr. Cederquist recommends eating shelled edamame (9g of protein per ½ cup serving), chickpeas (20g protein per ½ cup), or nuts (6g of protein per 23 almonds, or 8g protein per 2 Tbsp. of peanut butter).
Cherries are known for their anti-inflammatory properties, which can alleviate muscle tension and cramping, says sports nutritionist Heather Caplan. Basically, they act as NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen and aspirin) do to decrease soreness and improve recovery post-workout.
Concentrated tart cherry juice can repair muscles due to its high antioxidant content, which fights inflammation, says Vavrek. You do need quite a bit of it to work. Research shows that consumption of cherry juice, equivalent to 50 to 60 cherries (around 12 oz.) consumed twice per day for 5 to 7 days prior to exercise or an athletic event has reduced pain associated with exercise-induced delayed onset muscle soreness.
Drink pure juice to avoid excess sugars, says Vavrek, or eat tart cherries, if you prefer food to liquids, Caplan says. If you like the taste of dried, combine with fresh to keep sugar count low, as dried tends to be higher in sugars.
If you’ve been hitting the gym before brunching on Sundays, good for you: Those eggs are beneficial for your muscles, says Vavrek, because they’re a good source of taurine, an amino acid that research suggests may help speed recovery, especially when it comes to higher-intensity training.
Along with eggs, you’ll find taurine in fish, chicken and dairy products. So have that omelet, or try a tasty salmon sweet potato cake, with a touch of avocado, since healthy fats also can relieve muscle pain.
Go ahead, grab that coffee or tea–some research indicates that caffeine intake after exercising can help improve muscle repair and fight DOMS, says Vavrek.
That doesn’t mean you should double-fist the Ventis: “On average, one cup of coffee has around 95mg of caffeine, but this can vary greatly,” Vavrek says, noting that some brews can have as much as 130mg per cup. To reap the benefits, use your weight and body size to determine a good amount. For instance, a 135-lb. woman would find relief by consuming around 350mg, which works out to about 2.5 to 3 cups of coffee. Avoid having it late in the day, as it could disturb your sleep.
Feel free to add some milk to that coffee, as it’s packed with vitamin D, calcium, and potassium to build bone mineral density and speed recovery, says registered dietician Elizabeth Ann Shaw.
Speaking of potassium, you may be able to avoid the soreness altogether by eating a banana before working out, says registered dietitian Natalie Rizzo. “Rather than easing muscle soreness, bananas prevent muscle cramps during a workout,” she says.
“Most Americans don’t get the recommended 3,500mg of potassium per day, so it’s essential to include potassium rich foods like bananas in the diet,” she adds. “A medium banana will provide 400mg or about 11% the daily value of potassium.”
Other great sources of potassium include 1 cup of coconut water (600mg per 1 cup), a medium baked potato or sweet potato (610mg and 694mg, respectively), white beans (595mg per 1/2 cup), winter squash (896mg per cup), chicken (218mg per 3-oz. serving), and pistachios (296mg per oz.).
Now that you know what to emphasize, here’s what to avoid: The old culprits of soda, sugar, alcohol, and processed foods, as they can increase inflammation in the body, which prolongs muscle tension.