Thursday, 22 August 2013

No Pain, No Gain? My Favourite Post-Workout Recovery Foods

All the fixins for a Vanilla Cherry Chai smoothie!
Anyone who’s ever exercised is likely all too familiar with the phrase “no pain, no gain”.  One should never exercise to the point of injury, but soreness the next day is normal and something you just have to live with… right? 

In short, not so much.

To expand on that, if you’re new to a certain type of exercise, be it cardio kickboxing, high-rep barbell workouts, Zumba, yoga, rock climbing, or what have you, chances are you’ll experience soreness or stiffness in muscle groups, joints, and fascia that may not see much action on a regular basis.  Many people will be discouraged from exercising again anytime soon, due to this soreness and not wanting to make it worse.

Making sure you stretch properly before and after a workout can help reduce that soreness the next day.  Dynamic stretching before a workout and static stretching afterward are gaining more recognition as effective for injury prevention and recovery.  Active recovery means that you’re still doing some exercise, but at a lower intensity – walking, gentle Hatha yoga, and tai chi are good active recovery options.  This type of movement, as well as massage – whether you see your RMT, trade massages with your partner, use those fancy chairs at the gym, or just do it yourself – can help the body move metabolic waste buildup (e.g. lactic acid produced during certain types of exercise) out of the muscles via the lymphatic system, helping to reduce inflammation.

Aha – inflammation.  When something is inflamed in the body, usually it hurts.  Exercise produces micro-tears in the muscle tissues and lactic acid produces inflammation around these tissues, which leads to that stiff, achy soreness that can last for days.  The body needs protein to repair these micro-tears.  This is where muscle building can occur, and why protein is considered so important for exercisers and athletes.

Protein and Glutamine
One of the amino acids found in protein that is particularly good for tissue repair is glutamine.  Glutamine is a non-essential amino acid, which means your body can make it, but the body may not make enough to repair muscles after intense exercise.  High-protein foods including beans, nuts, seeds, and some green vegetables, as well as animal foods, will usually contain glutamine.  In addition, one can supplement with l-glutamine in capsules or powder.  My favourite post-workout protein powder, Vega Sport Performance Protein, contains a whopping 5000mg (5g) l-glutamine per serving (1 scoop), making it fantastic for muscle repair and recovery.

In addition to glutamine-rich sources of protein, I’ve got several other potent recovery tricks up my sleeves.

Ginger, Turmeric, and Cayenne
These spices are featured in a variety of world cuisines, and in addition to lending flavour and colour to the dishes that use them, they pack a great anti-inflammatory wallop!  The active components of these spices – gingerol, curcumin, and capsaicin, respectively – have been shown to effectively counter inflammation, not just after a workout, but that due to injury, illness, or chronic inflammatory condition.  When combined with piperine, the active component of black pepper, curcumin is boosted as much as 2000% in efficacy.  I love to add these spices to stir-fries, soups, and curries, and even to smoothies and chai tea as part of my post-workout recovery.

Cherries, Blackberries, and Blueberries
These deliciously dark summer fruits are loaded with antioxidants, specifically anthocyanins.  Anthocyanins are not only responsible for the deep purple-blue-black colour of these berries, but have also been shown to improve strength recovery, as well as reduce inflammation and post-workout pain.  A recent study using cherry juice with marathon runners showed promise in this regard, as well as potential applications with rheumatoid arthritis and gout.  Remember that berries are among the EWG’s Dirty Dozen fruits and vegetables that are most contaminated with pesticide residues, so be sure to buy them organic.  They may also be available frozen.  I love PC Organics’ Power Fruit Blend, which includes all 3 of these fruits!

Pineapple, Mango, and Papaya
Into the drink! Pineapple Coconut Ginger Smoothie
These sunny, bright-coloured tropical fruits all contain digestive enzymes such as bromelain and papain.  They’ll help you digest the protein in your post-workout meal or snack, as well as aid in the breakdown of metabolic waste products such as lactic acid to improve muscle repair.  Remember that these fruits tend to be quite high in sugars, so a little goes a long way.  Slow the release of that sugar by combining the fruit in a smoothie with protein and healthy fats – did someone say piña colada?

Piña Colada Smoothie
1 cup fresh pineapple chunks
½ banana (optional)
Handful leafy greens
1 scoop vanilla protein powder
½ cup coconut water
½ cup unsweetened coconut milk
1 Tbsp. coconut oil
4-5 ice cubes

Leafy Greens
I love adding leafy greens to my post-workout recovery meal, whether it’s in a smoothie, as a big salad, or tossed into a stir-fry.  Leafy greens are generally alkaline-forming, and can help offset the acidity in the body resulting from working out.  As we’ve already discussed, less acidity means less inflammation and quicker recovery.  Plus, these veggies are loaded with nutrition!  B vitamins, beta-carotene, vitamins C and K, as well as minerals like potassium, magnesium, calcium, and iron, and antioxidants to boot.  Some leafy greens, like kale, chard, spinach, and collards, are high in oxalic acid that can prevent mineral absorption, though, so these you may want to cook lightly before eating.

Coconut Water
I had the wonderful experience, on vacation in the Caribbean earlier this year, to enjoy coconut water straight from a coconut and fresh from the tree!  Here in Canada, fresh coconuts can be harder to come by, so we can opt instead for coconut water in cans or tetra-paks (watch out for added sugars, flavours, and preservatives).  Coconut water is touted as a health beverage due to its natural electrolyte content.  Electrolytes are used by the body to maintain fluid balance inside and outside of cells.  You lose them along with water when you sweat, so it’s important to replenish when you exercise heavily and/or in hot temperatures.  Coconut water is rich in potassium particularly, and will usually contain some calcium and magnesium as well.  Different brands, surprisingly, will have different concentrations of these nutrients, as well as varying sugar content.  Look for “coconut water from young Thai coconuts” or just “coconut water” on the label.

Omega-3 Seeds and Oils
Omega-3 fatty acids follow a pathway of conversion in the body to the anti-inflammatory prostaglandin-3 (PG3).  Unfortunately, many factors can steer omega-3 from this pathway, so making sure you’re getting enough, especially to cope with exercise-related inflammation, can be tricky.  I like to incorporate a variety of sources of different types of omega-3s, such as flaxseeds, hemp seeds, chia seeds, and sacha inchi seeds, as well as walnuts and pecans, and supplemental DHA from algae, since DHA is considered the most translated and ready-to-use form of omega-3 to get PG3.

Fresh Beet Juice
Admittedly, this is a new addition to my post-workout recovery food repertoire.  Beets are high in naturally-occurring nitrates that stimulate vasodilation, meaning your blood vessels expand, allowing for better bloodflow.  Improving the flow of blood to your body's tissues, in particular muscle tissues, allows for more efficient delivery of oxygen and nutrients that can improve overall recovery.  When I'm in that part of town, I like to treat myself to a Jugo Juice Can't Beet This smoothie with extra plant protein added in.

My favourite way to get all these great recovery foods after a tough workout is, of course, a deliciously nourishing post-workout smoothie.  Try the Piña Colada smoothie recipe above, or take a crack at my favourite, Chocolate Cherry Chai, as featured on my Recipe of the Month page for May 2013.

What are some of your favourite recovery foods?

Please be advised that this article is not meant to replace the advice of your doctor or therapist.  I am not affiliated with or compensated by any of the supplement or product companies mentioned in this article.
Always consult with your medical and/or alternative healthcare professional prior to starting a new supplement to avoid contraindications with your condition or medications.

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