Strategic Diets: What to Eat If Your Muscles Are Sore

Hobble to the kitchen for foods that will reduce inflammation, ease the pain and promote recovery.

Welcome to Strategic Diets, a deep dive into specific nutritional needs for your desired outcome—from fitness goals to personal aspirations. 

After a few months of sticking to your fitness routine, your results began to plateau. So you head to a CrossFit class to mix things up.

After pounding out burpees, pull-ups, and box jumps you leave drenched in sweat and feeling like you exhausted every muscle in your body—mission accomplished.

The next morning you cannot move any of your limbs.

After five minutes of rolling around like a turtle on its back you manage to get yourself out of bed and hobble along to the kitchen. Obviously today is going down in the books as a rest day.

Luckily, what you decide to whip up to eat can help aid in your recovery and get you back into the gym sooner. Here’s what’s happening in your body, and what to put on your plate.

Understanding Why You Can Barely Sit Down

So you’ve lived through enough of them to know that a particularly tough workout causes some major post-exercise soreness. But what exactly is going on in your body that causes the soreness to slowly creep up on you until you wake up two days later unable to move? 

Blame it on the DOMS

Delayed-onset muscle soreness—or DOMS—is what’s going on when you wake up the morning after a bootcamp and can’t move anything. It can occur in any muscle in the body that is engaged in unfamiliar or intense exercise. For some of us it may take even longer to fully set in: we steadily feel the stiffness and pain setting in and until we wake up on day two and can barely manage to get out of bed.

“Delayed soreness typically begins to develop 12-24 hours after the exercise has been performed and may produce the greatest pain between 24-72 hours after the exercise has been performed,” according to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM).

This pain is different than acute soreness, which develops while you’re actually performing the activity. DOMS develops as a result of microscopic damage to muscle fibers that occurs during exercisewhich happens at a greater rate when performing unfamiliar or especially intense exercise.

“Activities which cause DOMS all cause muscles to lengthen while force is applied. This is eccentric muscle action,” wrote the ACSM. “Examples of eccentric muscle actions include the lowering phase of a bicep curl exercise or the lengthening of the thigh muscles while the limb brakes against your body’s momentum as it walks or jogs down a hill.” But even a jog on a flat surface can cause this type of soreness if your body isn’t used to that type of activity.

Some of the wonderful sensations you can attribute to DOMS (that can last days) include swelling of the affected limbs, stiffness of the joints, tenderness to the touch and temporary reduction in range of motion and strength.

It Will Be Better the Next Time

Luckily, the more you perform an exercise, the less severe the DOMS will be. We tend to experience these can’t-get-out-of-bed reactions when we mix up our routine by trying a new exercise or significantly upping the intensity of our current routine.

“The severity of soreness normally becomes less as your body becomes adapted to work it regularly performs,”according to the ACSM. “Just one bout of soreness-producing exercise actually develops a partial protective effect that reduces the chance of developing soreness in that same activity for weeks or months into the future.”

While ice pack application, massage, and oral pain relief agents may be useful in easing pain, what you put on your plate can also help.

Stay Hydrated

The first step: Make sure you’re sipping water before, during and after your workout. A study published in The Journal of Athletic Training found that when men ran in a hot environment and had fluids restricted they reported quadricep pain that was significantly higher at 24 and 48 hours post exercise. Overall, the perceived leg pain was significantly higher for the dehydration group, versus those that were able to rehydrate during exercise.

Researchers concluded that skeletal muscle microdamage was exacerbated in participants dehydrated by exercising in the hot environment.

What to Eat Before a Workout to Minimize the Pain

If you’re hell bent on trying something new, and pushing yourself to your limits, expect to pay the price. That being said, there are some foods, and specific nutrients, that can help minimize the exercise-related muscle soreness that developing in the first place.


To get a big dose, rely on fruit, which has some major anti-inflammatory properties (which you’re going to need after all those burpees). Antioxidants help to reduce inflammation in the body, which in turn, helps decrease your post-workout soreness.

Tart Cherry Juice: Researchers found that people who drank an ounce of concentrated cherry juice twice daily for a week prior bounced back faster from an intensive leg-resistance training session on day 8 than those who skipped the juice. The reason: the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties in tart cherries—and other fruit juices like grape, pomegranate, acai, blueberry and cranberry—act as natural anti-inflammatories increasing total antioxidative capacity, reducing inflammation and exercise-induced muscle damage, and aiding in the recovery of muscle function.

Blueberries: Research published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine found that blueberries encouraged a faster rate of muscle recovery when consumed before and after exercise-induced muscle damage. The study suggested that the antioxidants in blueberries may help ward off muscle fatigue by getting rid of the excess free radicals that muscles produce during exercise.

Snack on Nuts

Fat has a protective effect on the body, and studies show that nuts like almonds, which are rich in omega-6 fats, help aid in the healing from intense exercise. Plus they may enhance your performance, minimizing the stress placed on the body during exercise: A study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that cyclists who ate almonds daily for four weeks showed improved trial times thanks to increased energy use and antioxidant capacity.

After Your Workout: Eat Within 30 Minutes

Be sure to eat a balanced meal within two hours of working out: the combo of protein and carbohydrates is important for replenishing the glycogen stores that you depleted during your workout. Plus, it “helps repair and recover muscle tissues which have gone through damage during the workout,” said Tehzeeb Lalani, Mumbai-based nutritionist and health counselor, and owner of the wellness center, Scale Beyond Scale.

And instead of grabbing a Gatorade at the deli around the corner, reach for a chocolate milk instead. “It has everything you need in one glass: carbs and protein for muscle recovery, water content to replace the fluids lost as sweat and calcium, sodium and sugar,” said Rene Ficek, RD, the Lead Nutrition Expert at Seattle Sutton’s Healthy Eating (SSHE). “This combination of macronutrients and vitamins help you recover faster, retain water and regain energy.”

The Day After: Foods That Reduce Inflammation

So you logged your tough workout, sipped some chocolate milk and called it a night. When you awake, you can’t raise your arms above your head or put on a pair of pants without wincing. Once you’re already sore a whole new list of foods need to be added to the grocery list. Here’s your diet plan of attack:

Make Eggs for the Morning-After Breakfast

Eggs are high in leucine, an amino acid that’s important for building muscle, and contain antioxidants that can help reduce inflammation in the body. And research shows that eggs can aid in recovery from intense training. Research published in the The Journal of Nutrition indicates that eating 20-30 grams of protein sources rich in leucine, such as egg or whey, has been shown to promote muscle repair and glycogen resynthesis. 

Wash It Down With a Cup of Coffee 

A study published in The Journal of Pain found that two cups of brewed coffee consumed after exercise led to a reduction in pain resulting from eccentric exercise-induced DOMS.

Make Fatty Fish Your Protein of Choice

When it comes to lunch and dinner, opt for fish. Salmon, cod and other fatty fish contain omega-3 fatty acids, which are known to have anti-inflammatory properties. A study published in PLOS One found that the anti-inflammatory amino acids arginine, glycine and taurine in cod protein beneficially influence the inflammatory response during recovery following skeletal muscle injury.

Plus, the protein may do you some good, too. After DOMS was induced by a 30-minute downhill run, researchers found that the ingestion of a single post-exercise protein mixture increased the rate of force and power restoration after two days, suggesting that protein may aid the recovery process during the DOMS period.

Utilize Your Spice Cabinet

While you’re cooking up your meals, be sure to reach for spices to add some flavor—and help aid in your recovery.

Cinnamon: A study published in the International Journal of Preventative Medicine found that the ingestion of cinnamon and ginger resulted in a significant decrease in muscle soreness when compared to a placebo group.

Ginger: Another study published in The Journal of Pain found that daily ginger supplementation reduced exercise-induced pain by 25 percent in participants who performed exercises designed to strain their muscles.

Turmeric: A study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that curcumin—the active ingredient in turmeric—has the potential for preventing DOMS, with positive effects on pain intensity and muscle injury. Participants that were given 200 milligrams of curcumin twice daily (before and after the workout) reported less leg pain after a downhill running test than subjects in the placebo group, and significantly fewer subjects in the curcumin group had MRI evidence of muscle injury in both thighs.

Add Some Probiotics

Add a dose of probiotics to your meal while you’re at it. A study showed that probiotic supplementation in combination with protein reduced muscle damage, increased recovery and helped maintain athletic performance after muscle damaging exercise. Adding sauerkraut or kimchi to a sandwich or salad along with a protein source (or taking a probiotic supplement with your meal) following intense exercise may help increase absorption of the amino acids and reduce inflammation.

Have a tough workout scheduled this week? Here are 6 recipes to add to the menu.