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22 Foods to Fight Post-Workout Pain

Feeling the burn is proof you had a good workout for many. However, it’s not fun hobbling up stairs leaning on the railing for support after leg day. What techniques can you use to dial that agony down to a more reasonable level? The foods you choose play a role.

While there’s no magic bullet, the right array of nutrients provides your body with what it needs to fuel your recovery and return you to peak performance more quickly. What should you eat after a workout? What role does timing play in selecting your meals? Here are 22 foods to fight post-workout pain and advice for when to consume them for maximum benefit.

1. Foods High in Magnesium, Selenium and Zinc

Have you ever wondered how exercise helps you burn fat? Here’s the skinny — when you work out, your body converts fat to carbon dioxide and water. You urinate the excess fluid and exhale the carbon dioxide. Your respiration increases to deliver necessary oxygen to your muscles to keep them going.

However, your body eventually can’t keep pace as you tire and the lack of oxygen creates lactic acid buildup in your muscles. While this substance isn’t harmful — it helps your muscles convert carbohydrates to energy — some people believe an excess contributes to the delayed onset muscle soreness you feel after a vigorous workout.

What you need are foods that lower your lactic acid levels. Three magic minerals do the trick — magnesium, selenium and zinc.

Where can you find these minerals in the greatest abundance? Nuts and seeds are your best plant-based sources. You can find them in the following foods:

  • Walnuts
  • Pepitas
  • Brazil nuts — a single one contains your whole day’s RDA of selenium
  • Cashews
  • Peanuts
  • Almonds
  • Hazelnuts
  • Chia seeds
  • Pili nuts
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Pistachios

What’s terrific about using these foods in post-workout recovery is twofold. One, they are the perfect light snack, making them ideal for grabbing on your way from the gym. Furthermore, they perform other groovy roles in your body, like improving your mood. They might even help you grow a thicker beard so you can rock that logger look at the local microbrewery.

2. Foods High in Vitamin C and E 

Vitamins C and E are antioxidants, meaning they help scoop up damaging free radicals produced by the oxidative stress of exercise and whisk them out of your body. Here’s the first area where when you consume foods high in these nutrients may matter as much as the substances themselves. Why?

During intense exercise, the production of free radicals increases, leading many to take these supplements before a workout to combat the effects. However, scientists suspect the type of free radicals produced during movement may play a role in improving aerobic capacity and muscle growth. Therefore, you might be proverbially shooting yourself in the foot if you pop that multi right before hitting the gym.

Your body absorbs nutrients from foods more effectively than supplements, anyway, so save your loading of these vitamins for post-workout and chow down on the following food to ease the pain:

  • Avocados
  • Kiwi fruit
  • Currants
  • Mangoes
  • Blackberries

Post-workout smoothie, anyone?

3. Foods High in B Vitamins 

Finally, exercise taps your body’s energy reserves. B vitamins help you form new red blood cells to replace those lost and convert food into a usable form — glucose.

Foods high in B vitamins include the following:

  • Dark, leafy greens
  • Legumes
  • Yogurt
  • Milk
  • Eggs 
  • Most meats and organ meats

However, what matters when fighting post-workout pain isn’t only what you choose to consume. It’s when.

Timing Is Everything When Using Nutrition to Prevent Post-Workout Pain

You leave the gym. Then, you eat a steak. Isn’t that the way to bigger muscles? Not quite.

Here’s the deal — your body uses energy during your workout, so anything you put in immediately following it will go directly toward restoring your glycogen levels. Protein is heavy and slow to digest, and you’ll use most of the good stuff to restore your body’s glycogen stores instead of building muscle.

The best foods to eat right after your workout are those containing plenty of healthy carbohydrates. Notice the word “healthy.” Filling up on Wonder Bread and Saltines isn’t the best approach because white, refined flours absorb as quickly as sugar, causing an energy spike followed by a crash — during which you’ll probably feel even worse. That’s not the goal.

You want carbs that release rapid energy but also provide enough nutrients and filling fiber to replenish your body’s stores. The best thing to eat immediately after a heavy gym workout is a smoothie containing some of the foods listed above and a small pack of trail mix or a handful of nuts and seeds. Keep it light.

You should wait at least an hour or so before sitting down to a big meal after a tough workout. Doing so gives your body time to flush free radicals out of your muscles before devoting energy to digestion and muscle building.

Go ahead and eat a hearty steak if you like, but it’s probably not necessary for muscle gain. Many Americans consume too much protein, excreting the excess in their urine. You spend considerable money — have you seen meat prices lately? — and you may unwittingly harm aquatic habitats by filling them with nitrogen. Yikes.

Fight the Burn By Eating Right

Post-workout pain might feel like a friend, a reminder of the good time you had in the gym. It’s all fun and games until you limp into that budget meeting and people raise their eyebrows, wondering if you’re sick.

The right foods can help you fight post-workout pain. Consult the list above and refuel your body the healthy way.

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