Delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS, is an experience many of us are all too familiar with! The discomfort you might feel in the days after a workout is a sign that change is taking place in your muscles, so DOMS isn’t really a bad thing. But feeling a little sore can often put us off exercise for a few days and it certainly makes toilet trips a pain in the… Here are the nutrition strategies for reducing DOMS and the best food for muscle recovery and reducing soreness.
First, what is DOMS?
DOMS refers to the prolonged muscle soreness you might feel after a tough workout or exercise session that usually has a delayed onset, peaking around 24-48 hours post-exercise. This pain may last a few days. You might be familiar with having a tough time sitting down or walking up the stairs the day after a legs session or a hard run!
For something that’s so common among athletes and active individuals, we don’t actually know the exact cause of DOMS. More research is needed in this area. DOMS is more likely to occur if you’ve increased your exercise intensity or weights in resistance training (particularly eccentric lengthening exercises), started an exercise you aren’t accustomed to, or are getting back into exercise after a long break. During these types of sessions where we push our muscles to their limits, micro-tears to the muscle tissues occurs. This also results in an accumulation of lactic acid to the muscles. Post-exercise muscle soreness is believed to be due to this small amount of damage as well as various biochemical changes and inflammation that occur after the muscle damage.
Putting our muscles under this type of stress is actually beneficial. Our muscles recover by repairing those micro tears, making the muscles a little bigger and stronger as they’re exposed to this stimulus over time. So, this feeling of muscle soreness in the days following exercise is an indication that this repair and recovery process is happening. While this is all part of the process, some nutrition strategies might help to minimise the soreness and help you get moving again the day after your workouts.
The best food for muscle recovery and soreness
There are plenty of gaps in the research when it comes to DOMS and why exactly it occurs. So while we can’t definitively say that nutrition will prevent DOMS (especially if it’s a new workout or it’s been a while between sessions) we can recommend good recovery nutrition strategies that science suggests can reduce soreness. Here are the best food for muscle recovery and reducing DOMS.
Caffeine has been shown in studies to help reduce the onset of DOMS. In two studies, participants were either given caffeine pre- and post-exercise or given no caffeine at all. Both groups were given the same exercises to perform in a high rep range. The results showed those who ingested the caffeine reported reduced DOMS compared to those who didn’t consume any caffeine. How does this translate for your own workouts? It looks like your regular coffee could actually help reduce the chances of post-workout DOMS! Keep in mind that caffeine is also beneficial for performance when consumed prior to your workout. However, remember to keep your caffeine intake in check to prevent sleep issues that can negatively impact your recovery!
2. Omega-3 fatty acids
A few studies have suggested that omega-3 fatty acid supplementation on a regular basis could reduce DOMS, due to the anti-inflammatory effect of EPA (type of omega-3 fatty acid) reducing biochemical markers in the muscle that are associated with inflammation and potentially DOMS. The key here is that the omega-3 fatty acids were given over a period of time, so it is important to think about what your normal omega-3 intake is like. Try to include omega-3 rich foods into your diet on a daily basis. These include chia seeds, walnuts and flaxseeds, and oily fish such as salmon, tuna, herring and sardines.
Polyphenols are a phytochemical (also known as an antioxidant) found in many plants. Studies have looked at the potential for foods rich in these polyphenols for reducing DOMS post-exercise, particularly tart cherry juice and pomegranate juice. Both of these were given to study participants regularly over a period of time, but found that the reduction in DOMS wasn’t effective for all types of workouts. Focus on regularly consuming foods that naturally contain polyphenols as this may have the potential to help reduce the likelihood of DOMS. Think plenty of fruit and vegetables in your diet!
Don’t forget the 4 Rs of recovery
While specific nutrients have been examined in the research for their effect on DOMS, eating on a balanced diet is also key for your post-workout recovery. A really easy way to remember this is just to think of the 4 Rs of recovery.
Refuel your body after tough workout sessions! This is key to help replenish the carbohydrate stores you have just used, and to provide protein for your muscles.
Some ideas for refuel meals and snacks include:
- Chicken and salad sandwich or roll
- Tuna or salmon sushi and sashimi
- Homemade protein blueberry smoothie
- Tinned tuna on crackers
Help your muscles to repair with protein, the building block of muscles! Remember that while a post-workout hit of protein is essential, so is consume protein across the day with each of your meals. Your body is in recovery for up to 24-48 hours post-workout so every meal and snack is an important opportunity!
Quality protein sources include:
- Meat and poultry
- Fish and seafood
- Milk, yoghurt and cheese
- Nuts, seeds, legumes
Rehydrate your body after your workout sessions to replenish lost fluids and electrolytes. Water is always optimal, however in hot weather or when you have had a large fluid losses (>2% of body weight lost) then electrolytes may also be necessary! Milk is a great option as it contains protein for muscle repair and electrolytes for rehydration.
It’s not just protein and carbohydrates that help your body to recover! Vitamins and minerals are also essential, particularly the antioxidants that could help with muscle soreness. Eat plenty of fruit and vegetables and prioritise rest to help your body recover.