During that long run or right after an intense workout, grabbing a cool sports drink can be refreshing, but also helpful to hardworking muscles. “A healthy, balanced sports drink helps keep the body in aerobic metabolism, burning sugar and fat, longer,” Dr. Hirt says, adding, “When you run out of sugar stores to burn for fuel during exercise, you enter anaerobic metabolism, which is associated with higher acid buildup, which can damage or irritate tissues, or create cramps.”
Is a tall glass of chocolate milk a good thing after a work out? Yes and no, according to Collier. “Chocolate milk is high in carbohydrates and has a decent amount of protein (eight grams), so that makes it a good recovery drink after endurance events (think long distance cycling) or high intensity exercise,” she says. But unfortunately this childhood favorite has some downfalls. She points out that chocolate milk is “high in sugar with 24 grams and calorically dense at 200 calories per eight-ounce serving,” so “chocolate milk may not be the best choice for a recovery drink for average Joes and Janes, especially those concerned with fat loss or weight maintenance.”
That cup of Joe in the morning can definitely give your brain a jump start, but it also can give your muscles a boost. Some researchers say that the caffeine in coffee directly stimulates the muscles. Drinking coffee a couple hours before your workout can help you to lift longer and push out more repetitions. This in turn, can help build muscle mass and strength.
Waking up sore the day after a hard workout is not fun, but Dr. Hirt offers a food tip to help. “Ginger is an herb with lots of natural anti-inflammatory ingredients that make it a safe therapy for reducing pain due to inflammation,” he says. Vigorous activity, he explains, “causes muscles to have micro tears that have to be repaired. This process involves the release of chemicals that trigger repair cells to come fix the damage. When this fix-it process gets a bit out of hand, we call it inflammation. That is when ginger (teas, extracts, candied) can help cut back on the exuberant release of inflammatory chemicals and provide some much-needed relief.”
Foods rich in antioxidants like blueberries, grapes, beans, and fish, taste good but they also benefit your muscles. Antioxidants help to strengthen internal defenses against free radical formation and damage. “A free radical is a damaged cell that can be formed through the oxidative process,” says Collier, referring to the consumption of oxygen. “Muscles need oxygen to contract,” she continues, “so just by breathing or by performing a muscle contraction so that you can do a squat or pull up, free radicals are being formed.” Ms. Collier also says, “Antioxidants can help to repair these cells and alleviate soreness caused by micro tears during exercise.”
Tart cherries are not only what make that cherry pie delicious, but they also can help with muscle inflammation. “Tart cherries are a source of natural aspirin-like compounds which can reduce inflammation,” says Hirt. “Unchecked inflammation can damage muscle, joints, and other tissues.” However, he cautions, “Using tart cherries (or any other fruit) does not come cheap in terms of calories, so make sure you have the extra 'fruit' calories to burn or you could end up packing on unwanted body fat.”
Ever been on the treadmill and get a stitch in your side? Cramps can really be a damper on a workout. “Cramps are often due to imbalances in electrolytes.” Dr, Hirt explains, “If you do not replace the electrolytes adequately when they are needed, the electrical system cannot function properly and can trigger the muscles to spasm.” Magnesium is one of those electrolytes so chow down on foods rich in magnesium rich like dark leafy greens, nuts, and whole grains to replenish that electrolyte store.
It’s true that nuts are high in fat, but sometimes that can be a good thing. Nuts contain both protein and fats, essential for training according to Collier. “Proteins are essential for muscle building and repair,” she says. “If you don’t consume adequate amounts of fat, your body will use protein as its main energy source, causing you to lose muscle tissue.” That’s no good. Plus, these little guys are great for a little boost in mood and in energy as “both protein and fat are energy sources,” according to Collier.
Proteins like eggs, lean meats, salmon, and chicken, not only help with muscle recovery but are also essential to building muscle. Unfortunately, as Hirt puts it, “Exercise breaks down muscle, which then needs to be repaired.” As muscle is mostly made up of protein, he adds, “It is easiest for it to use like materials to build like tissues. Like builds like. So build muscle proteins with dietary protein.” Collier concurs. “Consuming adequate protein post-workout helps to ensure that breakdown doesn’t exceed synthesis, thus sparing lean mass,” she says.
Yogurt, especially Greek yogurt, is definitely having a moment right now, and for good reason. “Some yogurts, particularly ‘authentic’ Greek yogurt, are high in protein,” Collier explains. “Protein is essential for muscle recovery especially after strength training.” She does caution that while “most Greek yogurts boast 15-20 grams of protein per serving, fat-free and low-fat ‘fruit on the bottom’ have only eight grams or fewer per serving and are usually very high in sugar.” Yogurt can be great for your muscles, but the wrong kind can be less beneficial to the waistline.
Iron is found in many everyday foods, like lean beef, chicken, turkey, beans, and spinach, as well as iron-enriched products. Not getting enough iron can lead to anemia. Anemia can cause weakness or tiredness because your muscles are not getting enough oxygen. Iron deficiency can also prohibit you from getting a sufficient amount physical activity in order to keep your muscles healthy. How do you think Popeye got to be so strong?