Can nutrition assist post-exercise recovery?
We have all felt the symptoms of exercise-induced muscle damage (EIMD) when our muscles feel fatigued or painful due to overexercising or perhaps just working out for the first time in a while. While this is a normal part of improving our fitness, there are ways we can support and potentially speed up our recovery using targeted nutrition.
When you exercise your muscles, the very point is to place strain on them, to push them to the limit of what they are able to do, so that the body can rebuild them stronger. If each workout becomes increasingly more difficult then the body will meet that demand time and time again until your fitness is much improved from where you started. We ADAPT, the body is great at doing this which is one of the most impressive aspects of our physiology.
One thing that we’d all like to avoid getting in the way of our fitness regime is injury. Soft-tissue injuries, those affecting muscles, tendons, and ligaments, are extremely common at all levels of sport. Sometimes unavoidable but often not, they can set you back on your training goals.
To start with we must be mindful not to overtrain but we also need to make sure we are providing the body with everything it needs to fuel and repair successfully. How often you train as well as what you do in between training sessions to aid recovery is important to prevent injury. For post-exercise recovery we refer to the 4 Rs:
- Rehydration (to restore fluid and electrolyte losses)
- Refuelling (to restore glycogen/energy)
- Repair and Remodelling (tissue repair, adaptation to training load)
- Rest (reduce inflammation & time for repair)
Whilst rehydrating and refuelling are ESSENTIAL to post-exercise recovery, below I am going to focus on how you can reduce inflammation in the body to help you get back to training as quickly as possible.
Inflammation is a normal physiological process which kick starts the healing & repair processes, but it can at times become chronic and long lasting and that’s where nutrition can come in. First let’s take a quick look at what exactly inflammation is.
When we injure ourselves in any way (a cut, a graze, a fracture) immune cells are called to the area of trauma to mop up the debris, fight any potential invaders/pathogens, and rebuild damaged tissues. It is inflammation that calls these cells to the affected area, like waving a big red flag at the site. Signs of inflammation can include redness, swelling, pain, loss of function, and heat, and once it has served its purpose of recruiting immune cells, it should then ‘switch off’ as the big red flag is no longer required. During exercise, tiny ‘microtears’ are made in your muscles and inflammation sparks the repair process to rebuild these muscles back stronger.
If overexercising the big red flag can stay constantly waving and recruiting immune cells to the area. Now as you can imagine we have a limited pool of resources within the body and we want to be using them efficiently. If you are experiencing chronic inflammation and your immune cells are overworked, you may find you are less efficient at repairing cells and fighting infections, but chronic inflammation can also cause far-reaching side effects in the body – not just at the site of infection, such as mood disorders, gastrointestinal discomfort, frequent infections, joint and mobility issues, fatigue, and tissue damage. So combatting inflammation can help reduce the chances of further muscle damage and speed the recovery period.
To create an anti-inflammatory state in the body it is important to reduce:
- Simple sugars, refined carbohydrates, & high-glycaemic foods, such as cakes, biscuits, pastries, white bread, sweets.
- Trans fats, and hydrogenated oils, found in fried foods, fatty fast foods such as crisps, take-aways, cakes, margarine, frozen pizza.
- Whole grains & legumes, plenty of vegetables and fruits such as cherries & berries
- Oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, herring (just 2 palm sized portions per week), and/or plant-based omega-3 rich foods such as hemp/chia/flax seeds and walnuts, or an algae-oil supplement.
Oxidative stress is what happens when we accumulate free radicals in the body as a result of normal physiological processes such as energy production. This will take you back to GCSE chemistry – when an atom is short of an electron in its outer shell, it will steal an electron from another atom in order to stabilise itself. The atom it stole from will then do the same and on and on, creating a chain reaction of free-radical damage which damages tissues. It’s a normal process but like inflammation we don’t want it to get out of hand, so the body has the answer. We can make our own antioxidants to combat this process and stabilise all the unstable outer shells. It’s amazing! But can the body keep up with the demand for antioxidants if we are throwing extra exercise at it (along with other free radicals coming from our lifestyle, foods, and environment)? Perhaps not, so this is another area nutrition can really help.
Consuming an antioxidant-rich diet can help to clean up the free radicals produced as a result of exercise. A diet high in antioxidants can reduce tissue damage and consequently reduce inflammation. Try to ‘eat a rainbow’ as each different colour pigment in the skins of plants contains a different type of antioxidant and when we eat a variety of antioxidants together, they recycle themselves! Aim to include:
- Berries & purple fruits, the dark purple skin contains anthocyanins
- Citrus fruits contain lots of vitamin C, an antioxidant vitamin
- Orange/yellow/red fruits & vegetables – these pigments contain beta-carotene
- At least 5 portions per day of plant foods
The active component of Turmeric is Curcumin, a potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant which is great at down regulating inflammation and oxidative stress in the body, as well as decreasing pain and muscle damage, aiding recovery and muscle performance. Now this could be any type of inflammatory disorder or it could be inflammation caused by exercise. Be sure to also rest, refuel and rehydrate but alongside these, adopting an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant-rich diet can aid exercise recovery massively.
One interesting study looked at the effects of curcumin supplementation on delayed onset of muscle soreness (DOMS) in young premier league football players, when consumed 12 and 36 hours after a 90-min match. The findings were that when taken less than 36 hours post-match, curcumin supplementation reduced DOMS and improved muscle function, consequently providing a quicker exercise recovery for players. Curcumin reduces inflammation in a similar way to non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), but without the side effects such as impaired muscle regeneration and gastrointestinal distress.
The most effective dosing appears to be taking a curcumin supplement immediately after exercise to reduce muscle soreness and aid recovery, although benefits may also be seen taking the supplement prior to exercise or both. Most evidence supports the use of curcumin supplementation for high intensity exercise and is limited elsewhere, although more studies are needed to assess the effect on endurance exercise.
It may be difficult to achieve a noticeable effect from consuming culinary turmeric powder alone, as the curcumin content may be as little as 2-3%. Whilst there is no downside to using food-form turmeric powder, you may need to take 2-4 teaspoons per day for a curcumin dose of 120-240 mg which is a relatively low dose. An easier alternative may be supplementing with a higher dose curcumin supplement, especially in liposomal form which is more bioavailable to provide a big curcumin kick!
If you’re looking for ways to exercise more often or increase your exercise intensity, but are held back by extended periods of muscle soreness or slow recovery, firstly make sure you rehydrate, refuel, and rest sufficiently between training sessions, and ensure your diet is full of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory foods. Getting on top of your nutrition not only impacts your performance during exercise, but also may help to speed up your recovery enabling you to train harder and more frequently which will ultimately result in quicker progress and less injury. You could also try the Zooki turmeric supplement for an extra boost!
Ref 2 - curcumin in plasma samples
Ref 3 - oxidative stress
Ref 4 - antioxidant foods
Ref 5 - curcumin & exercise recovery
Ref 8 - DOMS
Ref 10 - supplements for exercise recovery
Ref 11 - curcumin for muscle repair
Ref 12 - curcumin & EIMD