What Should Athletes Eat?
The greatest athletes in the world demonstrate their prowess time and time again. Simply put, they are consistently great.
To build consistency, athletes must train hard to break down their bodies and recover fast to get ready to train again. This cycle of training and recovery is crucial to an athlete’s success.
One of the biggest issues for endurance or strength athletes is delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). DOMS is different than the mid-exercise pain of lactic acid buildup, as it usually sets in 1-2 days after training. This type of pain can derail an athlete’s training schedule, which can seriously compromise their performance in competition.
Even if you are a beginner in the world of fitness, you are an athlete too! Whether you are a professional athlete or an occasional weight lifter, delayed onset muscle soreness can hamper your potential and leave you feeling uncomfortable throughout the day.
Fortunately, while life is chock-full of uncontrollable events, you can decide which foods to put in your body every day to combat your muscle soreness.
Let’s take a dive into some nutrition research to determine the foods that can help you recover faster and train harder.
7 Essential Foods to Reduce Muscle Soreness
In 2013, researchers from Spain gathered a group of 20 men and sent them through a grueling endurance workout. Beforehand, half the participants were given a drink of blended watermelon and the other half received a placebo.
Lo and behold, the group who drank the watermelon juice experienced a significant reduction in muscle soreness and recovery heart rate compared to the placebo group. (1)
2. Tart Cherries
While the sweet cherry may be a more enjoyable snack, it may not provide the same athletic benefits as its more acidic cousin, the tart cherry.
Researchers from the University of Vermont organized a group of 14 male college athletes. For eight days, half of the students drank tart cherry juice and the other half drank a cherry placebo.
Halfway through the experiment, the athletes completed several rounds of bicep curls. During the two days afterwards, the tart cherry group experienced far less muscle soreness than the placebo group. Not only that, but those who drank the tart cherry beverage were able to lift more weight after intense training (2).
Watercress is a vitamin-packed dark green leafy vegetable. This member of the broccoli family was put to the test in 2012 in a randomized controlled trial conducted at Edinburgh Napier University.
This time, researchers sought to determine if both short- and long-term consumption of watercress could affect an athlete’s DNA damage induced by strenuous exercise.
After the 8-week trial, blood work was taken from the group of 10 healthy male participants and the researchers reported that the antioxidant power of watercress consumption does in fact significantly reduce DNA damage caused by exercise. (3)
Less damage to individual cells results in healthier muscles and diminished delayed onset muscle soreness.
Blueberry consumption may be able to offset the inflammatory response in our bodies that occurs after intense exercise. In one 2011 study out of Appalachian State University, 25 athletes were randomized into a blueberry consuming group and a non-blueberry consuming group before running for 2.5 miles.
Unsurprisingly, those who ate the blueberries one hour before running were found to have “reduce[d] oxidative stress and increase[d] anti-inflammatory cytokines” compared to the non-blueberry group. (4)
Once again, research consistently demonstrates the importance of eating antioxidant rich foods that decrease inflammation.
In 2014, a group of researchers from the University of Medical Sciences in Iran administered a daily dose of spinach leaves to ten healthy male volunteers for two weeks. The other ten males received a placebo.
Then, the group of twenty participants ran a half marathon (21.1 km). After taking tests of the volunteers, the researchers concluded that spinach consumption significantly lowered important markers of oxidative stress and muscle soreness compared to the placebo group.
If you are going on a run, it could be a good idea to eat a spinach salad a couple of hours before! (5)
6. Black Currant Juice
The black currant is a small, slightly tart berry that boasts an impressive antioxidant profile.
In 2014, 16 college students in San Antonio, Texas, were randomly selected to drink black currant nectar or a placebo drink for three days.
On the fourth day, the students did some heavy lower body weightlifting. After analyzing the bloodwork from the participants after lifting weights, researchers found that those who drank the black currant juice experienced a massive drop in a biomarker for muscle soreness.
While the participants themselves reported little major differences in muscle soreness, drinking some black currant juice before a workout can only have positive side effects (6).
7. Turmeric (Curcumin)
Turmeric is a bright orange-yellow spice with a mild peppery flavor. While its color is noteworthy, turmeric contains an active ingredient known as curcumin that is even more impressive.
Although curcumin’s anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties are well documented, researchers in New Zealand developed an experiment to test whether turmeric could be used to prevent muscle soreness.
In the study, 17 males took a turmeric supplement or a placebo two days before completing a single leg squat exercise. The results? Just two days after exercise, “curcumin caused moderate-large reductions in pain during single-leg squat” (7)
Turmeric is easy to find in any spice aisle. You can add some to your smoothies or season your vegetables with it.
Evidently, it comes as no surprise that eating more fruits and vegetables can help reduce inflammation and even improve delayed onset muscle soreness.
Although these studies were conducted with very small sample sizes, they still serve as preliminary evidence that some foods have medicinal benefits to help combat muscle soreness.
Of course, “proving” the validity of these benefits would require hundreds of more studies with thousands of participants. That being said, we don’t need to wait to start incorporating these foods into our pre-workout routines.
So, go ahead. Add your watermelon, tart cherries, watercress, blueberries, spinach, black currants, and turmeric to your smoothies. Unlike some over the counter pain medications, there aren’t any negative side effects to eating more fruits and veggies!