Any athlete who has trained hard will be familiar with that residual muscular pain, the type that ranges from ’oh so good’ to ‘oh my god no’ depending on who you ask and the extent of the aches. They also know that good recovery is a key component of allowing them to not only get back to training, but also to help facilitate athletic progression.

It’s tempting to think that reducing soreness as rapidly as possible will help benefit training regimes, enabling you to bounce back and hit that same intensity in training again. However, there is sound evidence to suggest that rapid recovery is not always the best way to maximise adaptations and ultimately see improvements in the longer term, in fitness, strength and performance.

In other words, acute recovery is very different to long term adaptations – including hormonal, nervous system and tissue building adaptations – leading to greater resilience and ability to cope with physical stress loads.

Often the two processes might have similarities in terms of the recovery practices – certainly on the nutrition front, replacing muscle glycogen and getting in adequate protein will help promote both long and short-term recovery. But, sometimes acute or immediate performance goals are sacrificed for those in it for the long haul. For instance, there may be periods of the season where body composition goals, or goals to improve metabolic flexibility through some fasted workouts, take priority and of course, there are times when rapid recovery is absolutely necessary and prioritised over adaptation – this might be during a heavy race schedule or perhaps in the final lead up to a key race.

Understanding these differences in any training program is important, so you can adjust strategies as appropriate in order to meet your desired goals and maximise performance.

Some muscle and tissue soreness is a result of inflammation and oxidative stress due to free radical production produced during strenuous exercise. Antioxidants can help neutralise free radicals and protect body tissues by reducing inflammation. When derived from food sources such as tart cherry juice or blackcurrant extracts, there is no real evidence that the adaptive responses are blunted.

Similarly, research shows that athletes who turn to nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) with the hope of overcoming muscle soreness in the short term, may also be compromising longer term adaptations.

Acute inflammation stimulates adaptations, and is a natural process of getting stronger and fitter, but can be uncomfortable and make upcoming workouts less enjoyable

So, embrace a little soreness – it’s what helps you improve over time!

The good news is that there are plenty of natural anti-inflammatories found in foods, which don’t impact any long-term adaptations. Athletes can safely go to town on all the foods which we know have benefits when it comes to inflammation, recovery and muscle soreness and boost both short term recovery, make you feel better, but also promote longer term adaptations. Save for the high dose supplemental antioxidants and single source vitamins for more acute situations – illness or for when immediate recovery is critical, such as race week.

Here are some of the best anti-inflammatory and antioxidant rich foods to include in any athlete’s diet:

  • Fatty fish: including salmon, herrings, sardines, mackerel – for Omega 3 rich fat sources which rescue inflammation and boost brain/neural function
  • Pomegranates, Berries and Cherries: including blueberries, blackcurrants, tart cherries, strawberries, raspberries – all contain anthocyanins and other specific anti-oxidants for anti-inflammatory effects and improved blood flow.
  • Cruciferous vegetables: including broccoli, cauliflower, kale, brussel sprouts. The sulfur compounds reduce inflammation and may help with joint and muscle pain.
  • Green tea and cacao: some of the richest sources of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds. Drink up and look out for high cocao content chocolate (dark chocolate).
  • Avocado: tocopherol, carotenoids, potassium, fiber and magnesium make avocados one of the best foods to be including regularly.
  • Turmeric: has hit the spotlight of late and for good reason – curcumin, the active compound contained in turmeric is a strong anti-inflammatory and may even help with symptoms of arthritis and reducing other pain. Other herbs and spices such as cinnamon, oregano, chilli as well as garlic and onion also have anti-inflammatory properties. So, flavour up!
  • Mushrooms: rich in certain antioxidants, as well as a decent source of vitamin D for cell recovery and protection.
  • Fermented foods: including yogurt, sauerkraut, kefir, pickles – for gut boosting properties which reduce levels of inflammation and nourish gut cells to prevent ‘leaky gut’.