Best Recovery Supplements

Best Recovery Supplements

Exercise might be good for your health over the long-term, but it can exert quite a strain in the hours and days immediately afterward. Effective recovery is therefore a crucial part of a healthy exercise regime, allowing your body to recharge and repair ready for the next session.

A range of supplements can help to facilitate this process. While there is a lot of “bro science” about the best recovery supplements, in this article we’ll review the scientific literature and take an evidence-based approach to sports recovery.

Carbohydrates

Your muscles use energy in the form of glycogen when you exercise. This fuel can be sourced either from the muscle itself, from the liver or from the process of digestion. The more glycogen your body can access at short notice, the more work your muscles can do.

Studies have shown that regularly consuming carbohydrates during extended exercise sessions can help to maintain muscle glycogen, subsequently improving exercise performance.  At the other end of the scale, as the limited glycogen stores of the muscles are exhausted, so exercise intensity and longevity can drop.

After intense exercise glycogen stores are far lower; replenishing these stores should be a priority. An extensive study of glycogen refuelling concluded that “to replenish muscle glycogen within 24 h, 8-10 g carbohydrate per kg of body weight should be consumed”.

You may even wish to extend this refeed process by sipping a carbohydrate-rich beverage while exercising, which can significantly improve results. In one study, for example, cyclists who were given a glucose-rich drink managed to exercise 45% longer than those receiving water only. Keep your muscles fuelled and you’ll work harder and recover faster.  

Protein

Exercise damages muscle fibres, which then respond by growing larger and stronger. This is all perfectly normal and natural. The important thing, however, is that your muscles are provided with the necessary building blocks to facilitate this process. Of these, protein is probably the most crucial, which is why so many serious athletes choose a high protein diet.

That protein powder is a good post-workout supplement is hardly news. However, where things get rather more interesting is when talking about the recovery process. One study provided volunteers either with a protein supplement packed with amino acids, or an identical-tasting placebo after heavy exercise. Their results showed that the protein group recovered much faster, stating that “supplementation attenuates DOMS [Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness] and muscle damage when ingested in recovery days”.

The message here is clear. Protein is the main building block of muscle. Consuming enough can not only contribute to increased muscle size and strength but may also speed up your recovery time.

Fluids & Electrolytes

Whether it’s a resistance workout or cardio training, most forms of exercise entail sweating. By definition this results in a loss of moisture from the body, which can compromise exercise performance and recovery time.

However it’s not just the water we lose during exercise that can cause issues. Electrolytes are only needed in tiny quantities each day but exercising can either result in you sweating them out (have you ever noticed that sweat tastes salty?) or using up your body’s available supply.

Examples of important electrolytes that can become compromised during exercise include calcium, magnesium, potassium and manganese. Possibly the best-known symptom of excessive electrolyte loss is the sensation of muscle cramps - which can sometimes be so debilitating as to end an exercise session.

Replenishing water and electrolytes should both be considered a crucial part of your nutrition regime. This needs to be done to a plan, as studies have shown that “thirst and voluntary intake will not provide for full restoration of sweat losses” in the immediate post-exercise phase. Furthermore, if you only drink water, but neglect to replace electrolytes, then your body may struggle to retain what you consume (such as if sodium levels are sub-optimal).

One of the easiest solutions is to weigh yourself before and immediately after exercise, where the vast majority of weight lost will be water. This can help guide your post-exercise intake with some research findings suggesting that “it may be necessary to consume 150% of fluid losses to allow for complete fluid restoration”. A good quality sports drink can combine water with electrolytes and the aforementioned carbohydrates into one handy bottle.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C, sometimes known as ascorbic acid, may seem an unusual supplement to include in your recovery stack but there is method in the madness. In fact, you might never look at vitamin C in quite the same way again.

We’ve all heard that vitamin C is good for your immune system, but this effect increases significantly for those carrying out intense exercise. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is one of the most important government bodies for making decisions about what supplement companies can put on their packaging. For a health claim to be officially sanctioned it has to be extensively proven time and again and it must convince a panel of senior scientists.

This means that the science must be rigorous to say the least. Interestingly, EFSA is agreed that vitamin C “contributes to maintain the normal function of the immune system during and after intense physical exercise”. So protect yourself from coughs and colds and take those vitamin C tablets regularly.

The second benefit of vitamin C as a post-gym supplement is that it has the potential to speed up recovery times. For example, in one study a group of sedentary individuals took either 200mg of vitamin C twice a day or a placebo for a period of 14 days. They then underwent an intense workout, and their recovery was tracked. They reported notable differences between the two groups, with those that had taken vitamin C experiencing “beneficial effects” on muscle soreness and function.

Anti-Inflammatories

Exercise naturally places the body under pressure to perform. The more intense this exercise, or the more inexperienced the individual, the greater this impact is likely to be. While exercise can affect the body in a variety of ways, possibly the best-known is the inflammation we experience as muscle soreness. Indeed, this soreness is so common that there’s even a well-known acronym for it - DOMS - Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness.  

In theory, reducing this inflammation can eliminate discomfort and allow you back into the gym that much sooner. However there’s an important caveat here: recovery versus adaptation. If you just want to recover as quickly as possible from exercise then taking anti-inflammatories can be a potent tool is your arsenal. If, however, you want your body to adapt and grow, helping you to run further, lift more or improve your form, then you might be better to let your body recover naturally and just put up with the soreness.

With that said, let’s take a look at some of the better-known supplements for reducing inflammation after exercise...

Turmeric

Turmeric, or its active ingredient curcumin, have been used for generations to counteract inflammatory conditions. Since then it has become one of the most popular supplements of recent years, particularly as a pain-relieving joint remedy, where it is often paired with glucosamine or even CBD.

It is this anti-inflammatory property that also lends itself to post-exercise recovery. Studies have shown that it can reduce swelling and redness, though oddly several studies have found that it tends not to affect muscle soreness. As an example, one study found that taking 150mg of curcumin while carrying out heavy resistance training “significantly reduced levels of pain” during recovery.

Omega 3

Fish oil has long been a popular supplement for those unfortunate enough to suffer from joint conditions. It is believed by many that the benefits experienced are down to the inherent anti-inflammatory properties of cod liver oil. This, in turn, can impact conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis.

Fish oil may also, of course, benefit athletes who suffer from painful joints, such as after long distance running or intense resistance training. However research suggests that this same impact may also confer similar benefits for those suffering from muscle soreness.

In one study, participants were tracked for 48 hours after an exercise session, having previously either taken 1.8 grams of omega 3 or a placebo. Measurements of physical recovery showed that for the first 24 hours both groups responded in an identical manner. However on the second day post-workout clear differences were observed, with the omega 3 group recovering far more rapidly. The scientists concluded that “ingestion of omega-3 can be effective in ameliorating delayed onset muscle soreness”.

Tart Cherry

For the uninitiated, tart cherry juice seems like an odd recovery supplement. Unlike whey protein or electrolyte drinks, cherry juice is a far less mainstream option. So what does it do?

A study in which participants supplemented with about 340ml of tart cherry juice for eight consecutive days observed significant differences in recovery when compared to a control group. The data highlighted that “strength loss and pain were significantly less in the cherry juice trial”, leading experts to conclude that cherry juice is efficacious in reducing “some symptoms of exercise induced muscle damage”.  

Elsewhere marathon runners were supplemented with either montmorency tart cherry juice or a placebo for seven days. Blood was drawn both before and after a marathon run which took place part way through the study period. Interestingly, the cherry group demonstrated a far higher level of antioxidants, which seems to have then improved post-exercise symptoms including muscle recovery and inflammation. Tart cherry juice was therefore described as a “viable means to aid recovery following strenuous exercise”.


Sources:

https://europepmc.org/abstract/med/6748917
https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1600-0838.2009.01005.x
https://europepmc.org/abstract/med/1406207
https://europepmc.org/abstract/med/9127682
http://aassjournal.com/article-1-382-en.html
https://journals.humankinetics.com/view/journals/ijsnem/11/4/article-p466.xml
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2214647416300034
https://bjsm.bmj.com/content/40/8/679.short
https://journals.lww.com/cjsportsmed/Abstract/2009/03000/The_Effects_of_Ingestion_of_Omega_3_Fatty_Acids_on.7.aspx
https://journals.humankinetics.com/view/journals/ijsnem/16/6/article-p620.xml