They say, “No pain, no gain.” However, while some muscle soreness after exercise is inevitable, you don’t have to feel like a stiff board with muscles that you didn’t even know existed aching! When taken right before or after exercise, these foods can help muscle soreness.
- Why Muscle Pain Occurs After Exercise?
- Can’t I Just Take NSAIDs like Ibuprofen?
- Foods that Reduce Muscle Soreness
- The Best Way to Prevent Muscle Soreness?
Why Muscle Pain Occurs After Exercise?
Surprisingly, we still don’t know that much about what causes the pain after exercising known as Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness, or DOMS.
DOMS often occurs when first starting to exercise. However, even trained athletes can get DOMS if they do a very intense workout or train muscles that don’t get used often.
DOMS is thought to be caused by micro-tearing in muscle tissue. The tears expose nerve receptors and sensitive pain further. Thus, studies have focused on how rebuilding muscle tissue can help relieve DOMS pain.
The role of the nervous system in muscle pain shouldn’t be overlooked. The team of one study even referred to DOMS as “neurological growing pains.” Thus, some of the best foods for muscle soreness are ones that support the nervous system.
Chemical Reactions in the Body
The micro-tearing of muscle fibers causes chemical reactions in the body. White blood cells kick into gear to heal the torn muscles. They release enzymes, hormones, cytokines, and other chemicals into the body.
Pain Science suggests to look at muscle cells like little chemical factories. While performing an important job, they do produce some unpleasant chemical byproducts.
It is unclear exactly what role these chemicals have in muscle pain. However, studies have looked at how substances which help remove metabolic chemicals from the body reduce pain.
The stress put on your muscles during exercise causes damage on a cellular level. Fluids are allowed to enter cells as a way to hydrate and isolate them. This results in inflammation.
Inflammation by itself can cause pain. However, some surprising studies have found that inflammation actually increases as you continue to exercise, but DOMS pain will decrease. Thus, the evidence shows that it isn’t inflammation which causes muscle soreness from exercise. Rather, the inflammation is a reaction to whatever is causing the pain.
Lactic Acid Does NOT Cause DOMS
Contrary to common belief, lactic acid does not cause muscle soreness after exercise. The lactic acid which builds up in your muscles from an intense workout is gone within a few hours. It isn’t the cause of the pain you can feel for days after a workout.
If you are getting sharp, stabbing pains during exercise though, this is not DOMS. Talk to your doctor as these pains could be signs of something seriously wrong.
Can’t I Just Take NSAIDs like Ibuprofen?
One of the most common remedies for exercise-induced muscle pain is to take an NSAID medication like Ibuprofen.
These medications work by stopping the body’s inflammation response. Since inflammation is behind some of the post-workout pain, these meds will reduce muscle pain.
However, studies have shown that long-term use of NSAID medications can inhibit muscle growth. So, don’t take them frequently for muscle pain. Try natural muscle pain remedies instead.
Foods that Reduce Muscle Soreness
Luckily, there has been a lot of research on muscle soreness and DOMS. While there is no one “best” food for muscle pain, nor a food which will completely cure muscle pain, these ones are proven to help.
1. Eat More Calories
Combining dieting with exercise is the best way to lose weight. However, if you are on a strict diet, you might not be getting enough nutrients.
Without adequate nutrients, your body won’t have the building blocks required to rebuild tissue and reduce inflammation.
Even if you are eating enough calories, you could still be malnourished. Instead of counting calories, focus on eating quality, nutrient-dense foods.
2. Turmeric and Ginger
When it comes to anti-inflammatory foods, turmeric and ginger are always at the top of the lists. These superfoods have been extensively studied.
Of the two, turmeric might be more effective. In addition to its ability to reduce inflammation, it appears that turmeric contains agents which inhibit pain directly.
3. Tart Cherries and Dark Berries
When your bodies is injured (as your muscles are after an intense workout), free radicals are released in your body. These free radicals scavenge oxygen and damage cells in the process. Antioxidants keep free radicals in control.
Some of the best sources of antioxidants are dark colored berries like blueberries. Tart cherries have been particularly studied for muscle pain and found to improve recuperation. Tart cherries also have the benefit of increasing melatonin levels to help you get a better sleep after exercise.
Other sources of antioxidants are also likely good for muscle pain. However, these haven’t been tested as thoroughly as berries and tart cherries.
While pomegranate is a great source of antioxidants, its nitric oxide properties are what make it a great food for muscle soreness.
Nitric oxide is a chemical in the body which is responsible for relaxing blood vessels. After a workout, it is very important for making sure we have good blood flow so nutrients can get to damaged tissues.
The polyphenol antioxidants in pomegranate help turn dietary nitrites into nitric oxide. In one study, it was found that subjects who drank approximately 1 cup of pomegranate juice 2x daily had significantly less DOMS than the control group.
*As an added bonus, pomegranate is also great for sexual function!
During the chemical inflammatory process that occurs with DOMS, fluids and electrolytes shift in cells. You need to have a steady supply of electrolytes to make sure that fluids remain in balance in your muscle tissues.
While bananas are often most talked about as a source of potassium (an electrolyte), you might want to consider melons like cantaloupe or honeydew. Melons are rich in fluid, electrolytes, and also a good source of vitamin C. Vitamin C is important for building new tissues, thus is important for the muscle healing process.
7. Vitamin A Foods
We don’t talk too much about vitamin A, but the nutrient is crucial for producing white blood cells. Since white blood cells are the “soldiers” who go into battle to heal an injury, they are very important for muscle healing.
Foods rich in vitamin A include:
- Leafy greens
- Sweet potatoes
- Sunflower seeds.
Consider adding some greens to your post-workout smoothie to get more vitamin A to help with muscle pain.
8. Sockeye Salmon
Fish is a great food for muscle soreness because of its high amount of Omega 3 to Omega 6. Numerous studies have shown how important getting Omega 3 is for reducing inflammation and the pain it can cause. Omega 3 also helps with cell signaling.
However, it isn’t just the Omega 3 of sockeye salmon which makes it a great natural remedy for muscle pain. Sockeye salmon is also rich in an antioxidant called astaxanthin.
Astaxanthin has been shown to speed muscle recovery time and reduce DOMS. In mice studies, it was also shown to help your body metabolize fat, so it is a win-win.
Other good sources of astaxanthin include algae, lobster, crab, and seafood which is pink when raw or cooked.
Your body needs to repair muscles faster. While sports nutrition experts can’t agree on exact numbers, the general consensus is that you need to consume approximately 20 to 40 grams of protein post-workout.
10. Vitamin D Foods
Vitamin D doesn’t necessarily have a role in exercised-related muscle soreness. However, vitamin D deficiency can cause muscle pain as a symptom.
Because of how much time we spend indoors, vitamin D deficiency is very common. If you are deficient in vitamin D, it will definitely make your exercised-related muscle pain worse.
The best source of vitamin D is from the sunshine. However, you can also get vitamin D from certain food sources such as:
- Wild-foraged mushrooms
- Wild-caught fatty fish
- Beef liver
- Egg yolks
- Fortified dairy
11. Vitamin B Foods
B vitamins as a group are incredibly important for cellular metabolism. They also are important for producing red blood cells and immune cells. Thus, B vitamins have a direct role in muscle building and recovery.
Vitamins B6, B9 (folic acid), and B12 are particularly important for reducing homocysteine levels. Homocysteine is an amino acid in the blood. Levels of homocysteine increase due to exercise, especially when it is high intensity.
High levels of homocysteine can cause inflammation, irritated blood vessels, heart disease, and muscle pain. Eating vitamin B foods like these will help keep levels down.
- Liver (which is also a good source of vitamin A and D for reducing muscle pain!)
The Best Way to Prevent Muscle Soreness?
Eating a healthy diet which is rich in antioxidants, protein, and anti-inflammatory agents can go a long way to reducing muscle pain after exercising.
However, the best way to prevent muscle soreness is to simply start slowly.
There is no need to immediately grab the heaviest weights in the gym, or try to keep up with the seasoned athletes. Your first training session should feel like you are hardly pushing yourself at all
I know that you might feel like a wuss lifting dinky 5lb weights on your first session. But, trust me, it is better to go slow than spend the next week feeling like a stiff board in constant pain!
Once you see how your body reacts to this level of exercise you can increase intensity. Your muscles will quickly adapt to exercise, so you’ll build up to those heavier weights in no time.
Even if you are more experienced in the gym, you still can get muscle soreness. Stop rushing and gradually increase the intensity of your workouts.
The gradual method means that you won’t create as many micro-tears in your muscles. With good nutrition, these tears will heal quickly and you can be back to working out hard in the gym. As a general rule, never increase exercise intensity by more than 10% at a time.
More pain does NOT equal more gains.
It is true that “no pain = no gains.” However, soreness is a very poor indicator of how much muscle gains are occurring. Pain just means that you shocked your muscles from the amount of stress put on them.
In fact, as Josh Henkin warns, “Muscle soreness on a consistent basis can be a sign of doing too much work and leading you down a path of overtraining. Many top athletes train without any desire to experience muscle soreness as it impedes their ability to perform.”
The bottom line is that you’ve got to take exercise slowly. Pay attention to your body and treat it well by giving it nutrient-rich foods to reduce muscle soreness.