12 Foods to Eat to Avoid Sore Muscles

food for sore muscles

Story at-a-glance -

  • Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), a condition you may face when taking up a new type or intensity of exercise, is a bodily response that can be addressed through diet
  • The best recovery foods to eat after an intense workout are raw, organic whole foods containing healthy amounts of carbs and protein
  • Some of the specific foods shown to soothe muscle soreness include bananas, cacao, coffee, eggs, salmon, spinach, sweet potatoes and watermelon, as well as spices like cinnamon, ginger and turmeric
  • Two substances you should avoid combining with exercise are alcohol and sugar, both of which cause inflammation

By Dr. Mercola

The reality of sore muscles (or the fear of them) is a common source of discouragement for anyone new to exercise and those desiring to increase the intensity of their workout. While it is perfectly normal to experience a condition called delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) when taking up a new type or intensity of exercise, the truth is you may be confronted with DOMS even if you exercise regularly.

Becoming familiar with DOMS and food-based methods to speed up healing may encourage you to stick with your workout program even when faced with muscle soreness and stiffness. One way to support your body post workout is to consume particular foods known to promote muscle recovery and growth. Let's take a look at 12 of the best foods for sore muscles and two substances you should avoid when exercising.

What Causes Post-Exercise Soreness?

You may experience muscle stiffness after starting a new exercise program, adding a new exercise to your current program or increasing the intensity and duration of your routine. This stiffness is often accompanied by discomfort and pain and also may involve cramping.

If you've been exercising for any length of time, you may already know working out causes microtears in your muscles that contribute to DOMS. Even though the microtears cause muscle soreness and stiffness that can be uncomfortable a day or two after your workout, the good news is you gain muscle mass and strength when those fibers rebuild.

Any movement may result in DOMS discomfort, but jogging, pushups, squats and weightlifting are more commonly associated with the condition. You are likely to notice DOMS-related effects when performing routine activities such as getting out of bed, putting on your shoes or doing other tasks that require bending and lifting.

Fortunately, stiffness associated with exercise is not usually a cause for concern and can be treated at home. It is quite simply the cost of strengthening and toning your muscles. Notably, the sensation of DOMS discomfort occurs more frequently after you perform new eccentric physical activity.1

By way of explanation, when your muscles move through an exercise, they make both concentric and eccentric movements. During a concentric movement the load being lifted is less than your muscle's maximum force. Each contraction shortens your muscle, such as when you raise a weight while doing a bicep curl.

On the other hand, eccentric muscle contractions happen when the load on your muscle increases to a point at which the external force on your muscle is greater than the force it can generate. Even though your muscle may be fully activated, it is forced to lengthen due to the high external load.

Think of the same bicep curl: As your arm is extending, the muscle is lengthening yet is still activated to control the extension. This is eccentric motion and it causes structural disruption in your muscle fibers, microtears and the subsequent muscle pain and soreness.

12 Foods You Can Eat to Soothe Sore Muscles

Because muscle soreness is a natural part of working out, you can help your body recover faster by complementing your workout with the right foods. Assuming you can tolerate them, below are 12 foods you can eat to help soothe tired, aching muscles:2,3

Cacao — If you are a chocolate lover, you'll be happy to know adding some cacao nibs to your postworkout smoothie may help take the edge off aching muscles.

Registered dietitian and nutritionist Kristen Carlucci, wellness coach for the more than 1,600 employees of New York City-based Bloomberg, said, "Cacao has high levels of antioxidants, magnesium and B vitamins to reduce stress in our bodies related to exercise, balance electrolytes and boost energy levels."4

Research suggests the antioxidants (flavanols) in cacao are useful to boost the production of nitrous oxide in your body.5 Nitrous oxide causes your blood vessel walls to relax and open, thereby lowering your blood pressure. In addition to cacao, arugula and other leafy greens are great sources of healthy nitrates.

Coffee — A small study involving college-aged females found a moderate dose of caffeine — about 2 cups of coffee — reduced postworkout pain by 26 percent for eccentric exercise and 48 percent for exercise involving isometric contractions.6

A JAMA review of 30 clinical studies involving more than 10,000 patients over a 20-year period validated caffeine as an "analgesic adjuvant."7 Researchers found giving caffeine along with pain-relieving pharmaceuticals resulted in 40 percent fewer drugs being needed to achieve the same level of pain relief. Be sure to choose organic fair trade coffee.

Eggs — Because protein is the essential building block of muscles, it makes sense that researchers have found adding a source of protein like eggs to your postworkout eating plan may help reduce your risk of DOMS. Just be sure that the eggs are organic and pastured (not pasteurized).

A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests consuming protein along with other nutrients in whole food sources may be more effective at sparking muscle growth than eating protein alone.8 Specifically, the test group consumed three whole eggs, totaling 18 g of protein and 17 g of fat. By the way, I recommend you eat only organic free-range eggs. The study authors stated:9

"We show that the ingestion of whole eggs immediately after resistance exercise resulted in greater stimulation of myofibrillar protein synthesis than did the ingestion of egg whites … Our data indicate the ingestion of nutrient- and protein-dense foods differentially stimulates muscle anabolism compared with protein-dense foods."

Ginger and cinnamon — Iranian research involving 60 healthy female taekwondo athletes, ages 13 to 25 years, underscores the anti-inflammatory value of dietary ginger and cinnamon for postworkout muscle soreness.10

The women were randomly categorized into three groups — receiving 3 g of either cinnamon, ginger or a placebo daily for six weeks — with muscle soreness evaluated at the beginning and end of the study. The study authors noted a decrease in muscle soreness in the cinnamon and ginger groups.

Green tea — About green tea, which will serve you best if you choose an organic brand, Carlucci comments, "Green tea is abundant in anti-inflammatory antioxidants making it the ideal … postworkout drink to prevent muscle and cell damage related to exercise. It also helps athletes stay hydrated, which is vital for training and recovery."11

A 2018 Brazilian study published in the journal Physiology & Behavior12 evaluated the effect of green tea during a 15-day study involving 20 nontrained men who performed sessions of triceps exercises to induce DOMS. Using a visual scale and blood samples, researchers evaluated the effect of green tea on muscle soreness, muscle damage and oxidative stress, arriving at a mixed result. They said:13

"[Green tea extract] supplementation reduced muscle damage but muscle soreness did not change. Plasma oxidative damage marker and antioxidant status did not show an effect of supplementation.

As a conclusion, green tea extract supplementation did not reduce the sensation of DOMS, but reduces the marker of muscle damage after exercise. [This study] suggests green tea extract supplementation has positive effects on muscle recovery after strenuous exercise."

Manuka honey — Manuka honey has a long history of use as an anti-inflammatory agent. This prized (and pricy) monofloral honey originates from the nectar of the Manuka bush that is found in New Zealand. Manuka honey is thicker than regular honey and has a distinctive flavor.

"Manuka honey is a potent anti-inflammatory that helps to suppress exercise-induced inflammation in the body," Carlucci asserts. "It's also rich in carbohydrates, which are needed to refill glycogen stores and deliver protein to your muscles."14

Keep in mind there are many fake Manuka honeys on the market so be sure to research the brands and check the ingredient labels carefully.

Nuts and seeds — As a healthy source of plant-based omega-3 fatty acids, which fight inflammation, organic nuts and seeds also provide protein for muscle synthesis and growth, electrolytes to promote hydration and zinc to boost immunity, notes Carlucci.15

According to U.S. News & World Report health contributor Brendan Brazier, plant-based nutrition expert and author of the "Thrive" book series, foods with higher carbs and lower protein, such as a handful of almonds and dried fruit like raisins, will help replenish your glycogen stores after a workout. (Be mindful, dried fruit contains extremely high amounts of fructose, so eat it in moderation.) Brazier says:16

"As you work out, your body starts to deplete the levels of glucose in your blood, and must turn to glycogen — carbs stored in your liver and muscle tissue — to fuel your movement. A 4-to-1 carb-to-protein snack speeds the uptake of glycogen back into your muscles and initiates muscle building."

Wild salmon — A great source of anti-inflammatory animal-based omega-3 fats, antioxidants and muscle-building protein is wild Alaskan salmon. Some consider salmon to be an ideal postworkout food because research on omega-3 consumption in athletes suggests it can help prevent DOMS and inflammation.17,18

States Carlucci, "Salmon contains inflammation-fighting omega-3 fatty acids, plus it's packed with lean protein — a key component for muscle restoration and building. [M]ake sure to eat protein within 45 minutes after your workout for adequate recovery and strength."19 Always choose wild-caught and avoid all farmed salmon.

Spinach — Spinach has long been recognized as an antioxidant powerhouse known to fight free radical damage in your body. Not only can spinach protect you from serious illnesses like cancer and heart disease, suggests Carlucci, but this healthy green can also help you rebound after strenuous exercise due to its nitrate content.20 

Spinach also contains magnesium, which helps maintain normal muscle and nerve function, among other benefits. Be sure to choose organic or, better yet, grow your own spinach.

Sweet potatoes or yams — Because they are starchy, carb-rich vegetables, eating organic sweet potatoes or yams after intense exercise is a great way to replenish your glycogen stores.

In addition, sweet potatoes and yams have a low glycemic index, meaning they release sugars into your bloodstream slowly, which will help you maintain energy. Also, they are great sources of beta carotene and vitamin C — antioxidants that support your immune system and help reduce oxidative stress.

Tart cherries — Tart cherries have been shown to improve athletic performance, endurance and recovery, as well as reduce post-exercise inflammation and pain.21,22 Tart cherries and cherry juice also help relieve and prevent arthritis and gout.23

The same anthocyanins and antioxidants that help with this also are believed to relieve cardiovascular disease and diabetes.24 However, it's important to remember that 1 cup of cherries has 13.6 grams of sugar in it, so it's important not to overindulge.25

Turmeric — Research26,27 on the golden spice turmeric's active ingredient — the powerful antioxidant curcumin — suggests a curcumin supplement can help reduce DOMS-related pain, lower your risk of injury and improve muscle performance recovery.

Keep in mind curcumin from turmeric is poorly absorbed, which means if you add turmeric to your food, you'll be absorbing around 1 percent curcumin. To increase your intake you can:

Boil the powder — Boil 1 tablespoon of turmeric in a quart of water for 10 minutes to create a 12 percent solution that you must consume right away to ensure its effectiveness

Make a microemulsion — Mix 1 tablespoon of raw turmeric powder with two egg yolks and 2 teaspoons of melted coconut oil and drink it immediately

Purchase a high-quality curcumin supplement — Look for an extract containing 100 percent certified organic ingredients with at least 95 percent curcuminoids. Choose a sustained-release formula that is free of additives and fillers.

Bodybuilding.com recommends doses of 3 to 4 grams daily, noting the addition of piperine in curcumin supplements can boost its bioavailability.28

With such a generous selection of healthy foods from which to choose when nourishing your body postworkout, I'll close by mentioning two items you most certainly want to avoid: alcohol29 and sugar. They are two inflammatory substances that do not combine well with exercise or healthy living.

While your body needs carbs during the recovery phase, I recommend you choose foods containing both carbs and protein from one or more of the whole food sources mentioned above. By choosing the right foods to help your body recover after an intense workout, you will likely feel better and experience less muscle soreness — factors that may encourage you to exercise more often.