If you’re into working out or strenuous physical activities like long-distance biking or trail running, you likely experience occasional exercise-induced muscle soreness.

Not only can muscle soreness be uncomfortable, but it may also affect your workouts and day-to-day activities.

Fortunately, many recovery strategies can help reduce muscle soreness, minimize exercise-induced muscle damage, and speed muscle recovery.

This article covers the 10 best foods and drinks for muscle recovery.

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Drinking tart cherry juice may benefit both trained athletes and novice gym-goers alike. Studies show that tart cherry juice and tart cherry juice extract might facilitate muscle recovery and mitigate delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS).

DOMS is a type of muscle injury that results from unfamiliar or intense exercise. It causes symptoms like the painful restriction of movement, swelling, and stiffness (1).

In addition to DOMS, exercise increases oxidative stress, cellular damage, and inflammation. Fortunately, antioxidant-rich foods and beverages may reduce these side effects and facilitate recovery (2).

Tart cherry juice is high in plant compounds called anthocyanins. They have powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, and as such, they may reduce perceived soreness and exercise-induced muscle damage (EIMD) (3).

One 2021 review of 25 studies, 15 of which focused on tart cherry juice, found that drinking tart cherry juice accelerated muscle recovery, reduced DOMS, and lowered markers of inflammation after exercise (2).

Results from many other studies similarly suggest that drinking tart cherry juice or taking tart cherry supplements or extracts aids muscle recovery and improves DOMS (4, 5, 6).

Still, note that tart cherry juice is likely most effective when you start supplementing several days before you exercise and continue for days after, using it for a total of 8–10 days (2).

Watermelon is sweet, hydrating, and loaded with nutrients. What’s more, eating watermelon or sipping on watermelon juice could be a good way to promote muscle recovery after exercise.

Watermelon is rich in the amino acid L-citrulline. Besides being a building block for proteins, this amino acid may have antioxidant effects and increase the production of nitric oxide (NO). NO enhances blood circulation to muscles and improves cellular energy (7, 8, 9).

This could be why some studies show that watermelon juice might reduce muscle soreness and muscle damage post-exercise (7, 10).

For example, a small 2013 study including 7 athletes found that drinking 16.9 ounces (500 mL) of either natural watermelon juice or watermelon juice enriched with L-citrulline reduced muscle soreness 24 hours after exercise to a greater extent than a placebo (7).

Still, because most available studies on watermelon juice’s effect on EIMD and DOMS have used enriched watermelon juice, it’s unclear whether natural watermelon juice would be as effective (10, 11).

Nonetheless, watermelon contains important nutrients that promote exercise performance and recovery, including carbs, amino acids, and antioxidants. As a result, it remains a healthy choice for exercise enthusiasts, regardless of its potential benefits for muscle soreness.

Fatty fish like sardines, salmon, and trout are excellent sources of nutrients that your body needs for muscle recovery.

Mainly, fish is a highly bioavailable source of protein, a macronutrient that facilitates muscle repair — the process of regenerating muscle cells after exercise-induced damage (12).

Some experts suggest that consuming around 1.1 ounces (30 grams) of protein after exercise supports optimal muscle recovery. For reference, 4 ounces (113 grams) of cooked salmon provides 1 ounce (29 grams) of protein (13, 14).

Fatty fish also contains omega-3 fats, which may help reduce DOMS, fight inflammation, and boost muscle growth (14, 15).

Experts recommend that you get 0.06–0.11 ounces (1.8–3 grams) of omega-3 fatty acids after exercise to promote optimal muscle recovery. You can easily achieve this by having a serving of fatty fish like salmon or taking an omega-3 supplement after hitting the gym (12, 16).

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Pomegranate juice is a rich source of polyphenols, which are plant compounds with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. As such, drinking pomegranate juice may benefit muscle recovery.

In a small 2017 study, 9 elite weightlifters drank 8.5 ounces (250 mL) of pomegranate juice or a placebo 3 times per day for 3 days before Olympic Weightlifting training sessions. They had an additional 16.9 ounces (500 mL) of juice or a placebo 1 hour before training sessions.

Compared with the placebo treatment, pomegranate juice reduced the release of a marker of oxidative stress called malondialdehyde (MDA) and increased antioxidant defenses. This indicates that the drink could promote muscle recovery (17).

Other studies have similarly shown that pomegranate juice and pomegranate supplements may decrease DOMS, reduce inflammatory markers, and accelerate muscle recovery (3, 18).

Beets are loaded with dietary nitrates and pigments called betalains (2, 19).

Dietary nitrates may help send oxygen to your muscles and improve the efficiency of mitochondria — organelles, or parts of cells, that produce the energy that fuels your cells. Meanwhile, betalains may reduce inflammation and oxidative damage (2, 19).

A 2016 study including 30 active men found that drinking beetroot juice immediately, 24 hours after, and 48 hours after completing strenuous exercise reduced muscle soreness and sped muscle recovery to a greater extent than a placebo (20).

Additionally, a 2021 study including 13 soccer players observed that drinking beetroot juice for 3–7 days before, on the day of, and 3 days after exercise reduced DOMS. It also improved exercise performance during the recovery period (21).

Some research suggests that whey protein may promote muscle recovery after exercise in both athletes and nonathletes.

In a 5-day study, 92 men with obesity took 0.4 mg per pound (0.9 grams per kg) of whey protein divided into 3 doses per day before physical fitness tests. The whey protein significantly reduced markers of muscle damage compared with a control, although it didn’t improve DOMS (22).

Whey protein may also improve muscle function after resistance training (23).

However, not all research agrees. In some studies, whey protein did not benefit post-exercise muscle recovery (24, 25).

As such, more research is needed to determine whether supplementing with whey protein after exercise could promote muscle recovery. Regardless, protein shakes can help you reach your daily protein targets and optimize muscle growth, so they might still be worth your while.

Eggs are known as a nutrient-dense food and favored by athletes for their high content of bioavailable protein. Eating them after a workout helps stimulate muscle recovery.

Although many people opt to eat only egg whites, studies show that whole eggs may be a better choice after workouts.

In a small 2017 study including 10 men, participants ate a meal with either whole eggs or egg whites immediately after resistance training. Even though all meals had the same amount of protein, the whole-egg meals led to greater muscle growth (26).

Researchers suggest that this could be because the nutrient-dense yolk provides vitamins, minerals, and fatty acids, such as vitamin A, selenium, zinc, and the fatty acid palmitate, which may increase the speed of muscle protein synthesis (14).

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Milk and milk products like yogurt and cottage cheese are frequently used as post-exercise fuel — and for good reason.

Because milk is high in protein, it provides your body the nutrients necessary for muscle repair. Thus, it might reduce EIMD.

Milk and dairy products also contain carbs. Eating carbs and protein together supports muscle growth and helps your muscles refill their stores of glycogen — the stored form of glucose, or sugar. Milk also contains sodium, which is important for rehydration (14, 27, 28).

Some studies have found that cow’s milk significantly benefits exercise performance and the recovery of muscle functioning (29).

A 2019 review of 12 studies found that chocolate milk may improve exercise performance and post-exercise recovery. However, the researchers acknowledged that high quality evidence is limited, so future research is needed (30).

When you work out intensely, you deplete your muscle stores of glycogen, the stored form of glucose.

Having enough available glycogen in your muscles is essential for optimal athletic performance, so it’s important to replenish these stores after workouts. This is especially true for athletes participating in exhaustive exercise (31).

Eating carb-rich foods promotes muscle glycogen replenishment. Starchy vegetables like sweet potato, butternut squash, and potatoes make a healthy carbohydrate choice post-workout.

Combining starchy vegetables with a protein source like eggs or chicken is an effective and tasty way to replenish glycogen stores while also providing your body with the protein it needs for muscle recovery (31).

Sipping on coffee pre- or post-exercise may help reduce DOMS.

This is because the caffeine found in coffee blocks receptors for adenosine. Adenosine is a chemical that’s released after injury. It activates pain receptors in your body (15, 32).

A 2013 study in 9 men who typically consumed low amounts of caffeine showed that consuming caffeine 1 hour before an intense upper-body workout significantly lowered levels of muscle soreness on days 2 and 3 after exercise, compared with a placebo (32).

Additionally, a 2019 study found that caffeine consumption 24 and 48 hours after intense exercise improved recovery of muscle power and reduced DOMS in both men and women compared with a placebo (33).

Interestingly, the men experienced greater reductions in DOMS after using caffeine than the women (33).

The dose of caffeine shown to be effective for reducing DOMS is about 2.3–2.7 mg per pound (5–6 mg per kg). An 8-ounce (237-mL) cup of coffee contains around 95 mg of caffeine. For reference, this equals about 345 mg of caffeine for a 150-pound (68-kg) person (15).

Still, other studies have had conflicting results, showing that caffeine doesn’t reduce DOMS. So, more research is needed (34).

summary

Many foods and drinks may help reduce soreness after a strenuous workout, including starchy vegetables, eggs, coffee, beet juice, and fatty fish.

In addition to foods and beverages, other factors can promote muscle recovery and reduce muscle soreness after exercising.

Here are some evidence-based ways to promote muscle recovery (35, 36):

  • Get enough sleep. A lack of sleep can derail your performance and impair recovery.
  • Compression therapy. Compression garments can help enhance muscle recovery after exercise and may the improve function and strength of the treated muscles.
  • Thermal therapy. Cold-water immersion therapy may help muscle tissue healing, reduce inflammation, and decrease DOMS.
  • Foam rolling. Foam rolling may reduce post-exercise pain and improve exercise performance.
  • Massage therapy. Evidence suggests that massage therapy may improve muscle performance and reduce DOMS (37).

Not all these strategies may suit your body or lifestyle, so the best way to find out which options work for you is to give them a go.

Summary

Sleep, thermal therapy, compression therapy, foam rolling, and massage may also promote muscle recovery and reduce DOMS.

When it comes to muscle recovery, nutrition is essential.

Although your overall diet is what matters most, adding particular foods and drinks to your diet, including tart cherry juice, fatty fish, watermelon, and whey protein, may speed muscle recovery and reduce exercise-related soreness.

Plus, things like massage, foam rolling, and getting enough sleep may help you feel better after a tough session at the gym.