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Foods that accelerate recovery

Everyone knows that old feeling you get after busting a huge workout after weeks of being sedentary.  Most of that pain comes from muscle breakdown, and this causes a muscle enzyme called CK (Creatine Kinase) to leak out of muscle and into blood flow, where it can be measured reliably.  The levels rise immediately after a workout, and then rise again 1-2 days later, as part of DOMS (delayed-onset muscle soreness).  They slowly decline and then return to normal levels as muscles recover.  Proper hydration has been shown to accelerate CK recovery.  What about food?  Could certain foods accelerate CK decline and return to baseline? Could certain foods accelerate recovery, permitting more strenuous and frequent workouts and bigger faster gains?

Spinach supplementation, either from blending, or eating the whole food, has been shown to reduce the increase in oxidative muscle stress enzymes and markers in runners versus no supplementation.  In the study, the athletes were given spinach supplementation and compared to a control group not receiving any supplementation.  There was considerable and statistically significant difference between the inflammatory and oxidative markers measured in the two groups.  Creatine kinase (an enzyme reflecting muscle damage) was considerably reduced in those receiving the spinach, and the DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) that causes delayed increase in CK levels was blunted, documenting that muscle damage and recovery was better in the spinach group.  The same findings were shown in a study in weightlifters using blackcurrant juice.  Studies on 1.5 tsp of ginger have also shown this.

Tart cherry juice resulted in less soreness, less CK levels, and increased measured isometric muscle contraction (measured by seeing how high the athletes could jump) in the group receiving the supplementation.

Grape juice was tested against a similar tasting placebo and also showed similar findings.

The ant-inflammatory spice Turmeric also has been shown to help accelerate recovery, through anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects.  Randomized controlled trials have shown that turmeric may reduce knee pain and improve function in those with osteoarthritis, and one suggests that it may work as well as ibuprofen (Advil).  A daily preventative dose of one quarter teaspoon has been recommended as safe and effective.  Use it as performance enhancers or to boost recovery!

Evidence based recovery drink

If you're looking for the best possible performance and recovery enhancing drink, you might assume that it has to be rich in vasodilating nitrates, glycogen replacing fruit sugars, antioxidants that neutralize free radical damage and anti-inflammatory compounds.  Dr Loomis's (he's a 66 year old plant-based doctor, ironman athlete and has appeared in the latest plant-based documentary The Game Changers) evidence based recovery drink has all those goodies and more.  Knowing that whole food lobbyists are rare, many whole foods have not been officially studied, but the proven benefits of spinach can almost certainly be extrapolated to other green leafy vegetables, and the superpowers of blueberries can probably be applied to other dark colored berries.  So mix it up!  Even if the ingredients in this drink have been studied with proven benefits, substitute the ingredients you don't have for those in your cupboards, or sub those you don't like for your favorite tasting foods.

Here are the ingredients in Dr Loomis's evidence based recovery drink:

  • tart cherry juice

  • kale

  • blueberries

  • beets

  • bananas

  • cinnamon

  • turmeric

  • ginger

  • black pepper

  • chia seeds

In mine, since I don't often have tart cherry juice or beets readily available, I mostly use:

  • almond milk (sometimes I'll sub for soy milk)

  • spinach (I'll often throw in whatever greens I have, like kale, arugula, etc)

  • berry mix (blueberries, blackberries, raspberries)

  • bananas

  • seed mix (I always throw in chia, hemp and flaxseeds, since they all have different benefits)

  • 1 scoop of plant protein powder

  • turmeric, cinnamon, black pepper, ginger

The most important thing is to throw in greens for nitrates, fruits for carbs that replenish glycogen stores, berries for antioxidants, seeds for healthy fats and spices for their anti-inflammatory properties.  Use the ones you have on hand and that you love.  Don't make it too complicated.  Even if a food wasn't part of a randomized controlled trial, it still has very similar compounds and properties to foods of the same class.  Use what you love, mix it up, and make it tasty!

And make sure to remember that although some specific foods have studies to back them up, most of these findings can likely be applied to other foods in the same food group, meaning that the entire plant-based diet as a whole is recovery enhancing, not only specific foods!

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