The Best Recovery Foods for Runners (To Reduce Inflammation)
- December 31, 2019
- Last Updated: January 1, 2022
- 5 Comments
- Sports Nutrition
This post reviews some of the best recovery foods for runners, why they’re important and how to include them in your diet.
I like to talk about recovery for runners because it’s an important topic. We often put so much focus on the training and actual race/run that we are likely to forget about the recovery process and what’s necessary.
While my post about a marathon recovery plan did touch slightly on nutrition, I wanted to go more into depth specifically about food for muscle recovery soreness and different post workout recovery supplements that I get questions about.
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First, let’s talk a little about what happens in the body during exercise and recovery.
Table of contents
- Does Exercise Cause Inflammation in the Body?
- What is the Difference Between Short Term and Prolonged Inflammation?
- What Foods For Muscle Recovery Soreness Are Best?
- High Antioxidant Foods
- Tart Cherry Juice
- Vitamin D
- Omega 3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids (PUFAs)
- Nitric Oxide and Nitrates
- Herbs and Spices
Does Exercise Cause Inflammation in the Body?
Yes, exercise does lead to some short term inflammation in the body. It’s called exercise-induced inflammation.
Acute, or short term inflammation, is how the body normally responds to exercise.
However, this can lead to chronic inflammation if a person doesn’t eat enough, doesn’t recover properly and/or is overtraining, or has other serious medical conditions.
The Process of Inflammation (Simplified)
- The immune system responds to exercise by causing swelling and pain.
- Blood flow increases to the area of interest (injury or muscles that have been worked)
- White blood cells are carried in the blood help ameliorate inflammation
- This later leads to training adaptations and the recovery process in acute inflammatory states.
We can measure inflammation in the body through different biomarkers of inflammation, muscle damage and oxidative stress.
Some of these biomarkers include creatine kinase (CK), lactate dehydrogenase (LDH), cardiac troponin T (cTnT), γ-glutamyltransferase (γGT), and C-reactive protein (CRP) (1).
In trained individuals, inflammation is usually generalized to the muscles and tissues worked (ie – biceps in bicep work and legs/hamstrings/quads in running).
In short, exercise can decrease inflammation to an extent, but it also causes inflammation, which generally helps the body adapt to future training sessions (2).
What is the Difference Between Short Term and Prolonged Inflammation?
Well, short term, or acute inflammation, usually goes away within a few hours or days, while chronic sticks around for much longer.
Because it sticks around in the body, it is more likely to cause fatigue and soreness to muscles and cells.
Chronic inflammation can also affect training progression, by limiting muscle growth and increasing muscle loss. This is because the body is unable to recover properly.
Therefore, controlling chronic inflammation may enhance recovery and reduce muscle soreness.
Although the inflammatory response is necessary for muscle repair, it also has deleterious effects on exercise performance because of the increased production of reactive oxygen species (ROS).
That’s why we’re going to talk about some of the best foods for muscle recovery that also aid in reducing ROS and inflammation.
What Foods For Muscle Recovery Soreness Are Best?
While there isn’t one best post workout recovery supplement, I’m going to outline some of the best foods for muscle recovery, including:
- Tart Cherry Juice
- Vitamin D
- Omega 3‘s
- Nitric Oxide and Nitrates
High Antioxidant Foods
The best antioxidant foods will be those high in Vitamins A, C and E.
These include foods like:
- dark leafy greens and broccoli (like this strawberry chicken salad)
- nuts and seeds
- citrus fruits
- sweet potatoes and potatoes (sweet potato beet smoothie is a favorite)
- beets (beet goat cheese avocado sandwich for the win, or a tropical beet banana smoothie)
My italian sweet potato pizza crust is a great antioxidant rich option and can be topped with additional leafy greens, tomatoes, peppers, or whatever you’d like.
It is preferred to get antioxidants through foods rather than excess antioxidant supplementation.
Antioxidant supplements are usually in much higher amounts than we need, and they can actually impair training adaptations and disrupt balance by overriding and shutting off our own antioxidant systems.
Additionally, research shows that the health benefits of the phytochemicals and nutrients within antioxidants were observed predominantly when being consumed within their natural foods, like in fruits, vegetables and grains (3).
Tart Cherry Juice
You guys have heard me talk about tart cherry juice before so this is nothing new!
What is Tart Cherry Juice Good For?
Tart cherry juice is high in antioxidants, specifically, anthocyanins.
A study published in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance found that tart cherry juice can accelerate recovery after intermittent exercise (4).
As I’ve discussed previously, the anthocyanins in tart cherries have also been shown to reduce inflammation and oxidative stress, thereby reducing muscle damage and helping with pain relief.
The health benefits of tart cherry juice extend to beyond just reducing inflammation and muscle damage. Tart cherry juice and sleep has also been highly researched, due to its endogenous melatonin content.
A double-blind, placebo-controlled study found that among those who supplemented with tart cherry juice before bed experienced higher melatonin contents, increased time in bed, increased total sleep time and increased sleep efficiency, compared to those who took a placebo (5).
The tart cherry juice concentrate dosage was
For some tart cherry juice recipes, try:
- Tart Cherry Gummies
- Peanut Butter Cherry Trail Mix Bites (Can use dried cherries)
- Cherry Chocolate Coconut Milk (can also add tart cherry juice concentrate to these)
While we do make Vitamin D in our bodies, sunscreen, skin color, location and latitude can impact how much Vitamin D we absorb from the sun and can actually make.
Why is Vitamin D Important for Athletes?
Vitamin D is important for athletes because it plays a role in optimal bone health and bone mineral density, and can reduce the risk for stress fractures, total body inflammation and impaired muscle functioning (6).
Actually a hormone, Vitamin D is also a modulator for thousands of genes involved in cellular growth, immune function and protein synthesis.
A greek yogurt smoothie is a great way to get Vitamin D from your diet after a workout, along with calcium, protein, antioxidants and more.
These 30+ happy healthy smoothies will help elevate your post workout smoothie.
Many athletes are deficient in Vitamin D, due to low sun exposure during the peak hours of 10am and 2pm.
Think about it, most runners are running early in the morning (before the sun rises or before it’s potent enough). Plus, athletes who compete indoors or wear lots of equipment while outdoors aren’t getting optimal absorption, either.
Foods high in Vitamin D include:
- fatty fish
- egg yolks
- fortified dairy products (dairy products also have leucine which is a great recovery amino acid!)
- some mushrooms
How Much Vitamin D For Athletes Is Necessary?
Recent findings recommend that vitamin D status is regularly checked among athletes to reach the recommended serum 25(OH)D concentrations of ≥32 ng/mL and preferably ≥40 ng/mL.
Some research even points to optimal performance with levels higher than 50 ng/mL (Source).
According to the Collegiate and Professional Sports Dietetics Association, typical needs range from 2000-5000 IU of Vitamin D per day, though individual needs depend on a person’s diet and outdoor activity.
Needs likely aren’t that high for the average person who exercises.
It’s best to have your levels tested and work individually with a dietitian or doctor to see how/if you need to optimize your levels.
While the old adage of eating only protein to support body building is out the window, it is important to eat protein at regular intervals throughout the day.
Adequate protein helps support immune cell synthesis and helps reduce the exercise-induced muscle damage that happens as muscles are broken down after exercise sessions.
Eating enough protein helps ensure they can be rebuilt properly.
It’s recommended to consume 20-30 grams of high quality protein after exercise.
In general, balanced meals should provide 20-30 grams of protein, and I advise to include protein in snacks, too.
That way, you’re getting protein in consistently throughout the day.
Some of my favorite ways include:
- high protein vegan bars paired with a glass of milk or yogurt (20+ grams)
- easy turkey burgers
- protein smoothies
- sweet potato beet smoothie (add a scoop of protein powder to reach 20 grams)
- orange creamsicle post workout smoothie (25 grams protein)
If you’re just looking for an easy post workout recovery drink recipe, combine 1 cup of your choice of milk with frozen fruit, a banana, 1/2 cup greek yogurt and cinnamon.
If you’re using a non dairy milk with little to no protein (you can see protein content of non dairy milks here), I’d suggest also adding some protein powder.
Omega 3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids (PUFAs)
Omega 3‘s for athletes are very helpful for inflammation and offer many benefits, though few studies have specifically evaluated the impact of omega 3 supplementation on performance.
PUFAs can decrease the production of inflammatory eicosanoids, cytokines, and reactive oxygen species.
They also offer immunomodulatory effects and can attenuate inflammatory diseases.
Foods high in omega-3 fatty acids include:
- fish (salmon, tuna, herring, mackerel)
- chia seeds
How Much Omega 3 is Needed To Counteract Exercise-Induced Inflammation?
1-3 grams a day is recommended, in a ratio of EPA to DHA of 2 to 1 (Source).
Try to include omega-3 rich foods in your diet, and if you also want/need supplementation, I recommend Pure Formulas or the Nordic Naturals brand.
Nitric Oxide and Nitrates
Nitrates convert to nitric oxide (NO) in the body, which can be beneficial for several reasons.
Nitric oxide is known for increasing blood flow through the body, which can help reduce inflammation and enhance recovery.
NO can also modulate the release of various inflammatory mediators from a wide range of cells participating in inflammatory responses (e.g., leukocytes, macrophages, mast cells, endothelial cells, and platelets).
It can also help the activity of numerous enzymes, all of which can have an impact on inflammatory responses (7).
High nitrate foods include:
- beets (many reasons to eat more beets!)
- leafy greens
Herbs and Spices
We also know that certain herbs and spices can help with inflammation, such as turmeric, ginger, garlic and cinnamon (8).
So yes, turmeric for runners can be very helpful but not necessarily warranted through a supplement. These are easy additions to your diet by adding them to meals.
For example, cinnamon is an easy topping for oatmeal or banana baked oatmeal, and I sprinkle turmeric on to my roasted parsnips and baked cauliflower.
Do you experience more muscle soreness after certain exercises?
- Bessa, Artur et al. Exercise Intensity and Recovery: Biomarkers of Injury, Inflammation and Oxidative Stress. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2016;30(2):311-319. doi 1519/JSC.0b013e31828f1ee9
- Woods JA, Wilund KR, Martin SA, Kistler BM. Exercise, inflammation and aging. Aging Dis. 2012;3(1):130–140.
- Bouayed J, Bohn T. Exogenous antioxidants–Double-edged swords in cellular redox state: Health beneficial effects at physiologic doses versus deleterious effects at high doses. Oxid Med Cell Longev. 2010;3(4):228–237. doi:10.4161/oxim.3.4.12858
- Quinlan R, Hill J. The Efficacy of Tart Cherry Juice in Aiding Recovery After Intermittent Exercise. International Journal of Sport Physiology and Performance. 1-7. https://doi.org/10.1123/ijspp.2019-0101.
- Howatson, G., Bell, P.G., Tallent, J. et al. Effect of tart cherry juice on melatonin levels and enhanced sleep quality. European Journal of Nutrition. 2012; (51):909. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00394-011-0263-7
- Larson-Meyer D, Kentz S. Vitamin D and Athletes. Current Sports Medicine Reports. 2010; 9(4):220-226. doi: 10.1249/JSR.0b013e3181e7dd45
- Wallace, J. Nitric oxide as a regulator of inflammatory processes. Mucosal Inflammation Research Group. 2005;100(1):5-9.
- Akhtar, Nahid, and Tariq M Haqqi. Current nutraceuticals in the management of osteoarthritis: a review. Therapeutic advances in musculoskeletal disease. 2012; 4(3): 181-207. doi:10.1177/1759720X11436238
Lots of great information here, Sarah…Thank you!!!
Great post, thank you. For some reason the dosage of tart cherry juice concentrate is not showing up. Do you know what the recommended daily dose is? I’ve also heard that you should not eat high antioxidant foods right after exercise and should wait a few hours so as to not interfere with your body’s adaptation process. Any truth to that?
Thanks for sharing your research!
I had to do some digging, but it seems like 16-24 ounces is what people drank in studies. Some studies also included 480 mg of tart cherry powder https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27231439. In terms of antioxidants, I haven’t heard that. Maybe it stems from the idea that inflammation peaks up to the 24 hours after exercise? I think it’s also important to note that antioxidant foods usually bring other nutrients too (Vitamin C, carbohydrates, potassium) which are good for recovery.
I’m not a big cherry fan but seeing that study that says people who drank tart cherry juice have increased sleep makes me want to try it. Happy New Year Sarah!
I’m curious about it for sleep, too! Happy New Year, Maureen!