If you’re an early gym-goer like me, you know that the struggle to wake up before the sun is completely, totally real.
My alarm chimes at 4 a.m. every morning; the sound is familiar—part of my daily routine—yet I can find so many excuses to stay in bed, snuggled in the sheets and pillows and blankets, for an extra couple of hours.
For example: I’m exhausted. My shins hurt. I have an ingrown toenail. Or: It’s Monday. It’s Friday.
However, despite these excuses, I still manage to get up most mornings and hit the gym with the best of them—or, at least, alongside the three other people at my gym who regularly rise and shine at the same hour.
For those of us who are that dedicated to our workouts—who know that regular exercise combined with a balanced diet is the simplest equation to help us reach our health goals—it’s a little disconcerting to look in the mirror and fail to see the results we’ve been training for.
So, how do we get the most out of our workouts? It turns out that how we recover post-exercise plays a significant role in muscle development and health gains.
“During your workout you’re breaking down muscles; it’s after your workout that you actually get stronger,” explains Brendan Brazier, a former professional Ironman triathlete and the formulator of Vega plant-based nutritional products.
Emerging research is showing that a protein-enriched, high-carbohydrate meal or supplement post-workout has long-reaching benefits for facilitating muscle recovery.
“Look for recovery supplements with a large carbohydrate-to-protein ratio, as this will help synthesize glycogen in the muscle tissue, speeding muscle recovery,” suggests Sarah Ouano, ND, the lead practitioner at Pharmaca Integrative Pharmacy. “The supplement should also have electrolytes, which are key to replenishing what was lost in sweat, and helpful anti-inflammatory herbs like turmeric or Boswellia.”
Dr. Ouano notes that a whole-foods approach can be effective as well. She recommends:
- Avocados and macadamia nuts, which are full of heathy fats
- Bananas, which provide natural electrolytes and trace minerals
- Chicken or tuna, lean protein sources that are rich in amino acids
- Sweet potatoes and spinach, two versatile and vitamin-rich veggies
Brazier agrees that nutrition has a big impact on energy, health gains, and the ability to achieve our fitness goals. By encouraging our muscles to recover more quickly—and supporting those efforts with the right foods—we reduce our risk for injury and avoid the temptation to forego a workout due to annoying aches and persistent pains.
“Feeling stiff and sore for days after training can significantly reduce your ability to train again and get even stronger,” he says. “Active recovery techniques such as foam rolling and stretching are important, but post-workout nutrition can make the biggest difference in your performance.”
“Hooray! Can I go eat now?”
Brazier’s top four foods for muscle recovery include:
Nuts & Dried Fruit
“As you work out, your body starts to deplete the levels of glucose in your blood, and it must turn to glycogen—carbohydrates stored in your liver and muscle tissue—to fuel your movement,” says Brazier. He suggests eating a snack with a 4-to-1 ratio of carbs-to-protein to speed the uptake of glycogen back into the muscles and initiate muscle building: “I usually grab a handful of almonds and dried fruit, like raisins, to replenish muscle glycogen immediately post-workout, or sip Vega Sport Recovery Accelerator.”
Plant-Based Protein Powder
Include protein from a variety of sources as part of your post-workout meal—this will provide the body with a full spectrum of amino acids, which are the key to building muscle. Brazier formulated Vega Sport Performance Protein specifically for the needs of athletes. He also recommends beans, nuts, legumes, and organic soy.
“Dark leafy greens such as kale, Swiss chard, and collard greens are rich in antioxidants and an important post-workout food,” says Brazier. “Antioxidants help manage inflammation post-workout. While inflammation is a natural response by your body to stress, it can cause stiffness and soreness and limit your ability to feel great tomorrow.”
“Tart cherries contain compounds called anthocyanins, which block inflammation while preventing muscle damage,” Brazier explains. Look for unsweetened dried tart cherries or tart cherry concentrate.