I remember it like it was yesterday: This poor woman was assigned to me for her inaugural Bally Total Fitness workout. As part of our club’s special promotion for that month, she was provided with five on-the-house personal training sessions with a personal trainer. Doing exactly as I’d been advised by our training director, I ran her through the full battery of first-workout exercises on that Saturday afternoon in true Cobra-Kai-style… No mercy!
Although exhausted, she actually thanked me for the workout during the follow-up stretching session, and we made plans to meet for her second workout a week later. I waited a full half hour after she failed to arrive at the club’s front desk before I retreated into one of the nearby offices and called her up. “I was sore for the next three days after that workout!” she exclaimed.
“That’s common,” I replied. “My legs are still sore from my workout two days ago.”
“It’s not supposed to happen that way!” she said. “After a workout, you’re supposed to feel energized and refreshed!”
Needless to say, that was the last I ever heard from her — in part, because I was too much of a newb back then. Because if older, wiser me could climb into the Hot Tub Time Machine and voyage back in time, I’d inform her of all the stuff she could eat to help rid her muscles of their soreness.
Eating food alleviates muscle soreness?
It can, but I don’t blame you if you’re surprised to hear that. A hundred years ago, it was widely circulated that the two best cures for sore muscles were hot water and rubbed-in ointment, in that order. For instance, a June 1906 article from the Ottawa Weekly Republic explained that a bath followed by Chamberlain’s Pain Balm was the surest way to rid the muscles of soreness: “This liniment removes all stiffness and soreness and has become a favorite rub down, as it acts promptly and keeps the muscles in excellent condition.”
The belief that external relief administered through baths, topical ointments and creams was the most productive way to alleviate muscle soreness persisted for several decades until a breakthrough in the 1960s. At that point, advertisements began to appear — often in the form of faux newspaper articles — to promote (and sell) vitamin-based solutions to assorted afflictions. One such advertorial written by Jean Lay in 1968 stated, “It seems that calcium and magnesium and vitamin B12 have a particularly nourishing effect on sore, tense or inflamed muscles, nerves and tissues.”
Was this correct?
Sort of, but we should unpack it a little bit more.
For starters, when the FDA provides a recommendation on nutrient intake — particularly when it comes to vitamins — they’re not kidding. Almost every vitamin plays a role in the growth, maintenance and recovery of muscles in one form or another. With that said, deficiency in vitamin B12 is usually manifested through muscle weakness or general tiredness, but not necessarily exercise-derived soreness in need of a nutrient remedy.
Similarly, low levels of calcium are represented through muscle cramps, spasms and general weakness, but not vulnerability to post-workout soreness. Magnesium, on the other hand, is a different story. Both anecdotally and during organized studies, magnesium has demonstrated itself to be an effective reducer of post-exercise muscle soreness. Zinc has also been proven to be essential to muscle regeneration of all kinds.
Speaking of which, we can’t ignore the most critical of all macronutrients for the purposes of this discussion: protein. During your workouts, your muscles develop microtears due to the exertion, thereby creating that righteous, much-desired pump as blood floods to your muscles in an effort to repair the damaged site. Post-workout protein intake is necessary to provide the building blocks to forge the rebuilt muscle fibers.
All in all, then, protein, magnesium and zinc are a superb combination for combating the muscle aches that will jolt you into a state of screaming awakeness following your most brutal of leg days.
Great! So what do I actually have to eat to get these things?
The five most abundant sources of magnesium you’re likely to encounter — in order — are pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, almonds, spinach and cashews. So, realistically, I hope you’re a spinach eater like Popeye, because the other foods on this list are far less likely to grace your dinner plate. Whatever you do, just don’t go expecting your spinach to also supply you with superhuman strength — this isn’t the 1930s.
To get a sizable serving of zinc, you can eat beef, pork, chicken, several varieties of shellfish and also baked beans. Obviously, protein can be acquired from a wide range of sources, although animal-derived proteins are highest on the completeness scale, and eating beef is the most complete two-for-one, zinc-and-protein option you can reach for. Just remember, eating all of that red meat is likely to result in some other challenges for you. Realistically, you can vary your food intake a great deal while still accounting for all of these macronutrients and micronutrients in your diet.
It’s time to head to the grocery store!
Best of luck with your shopping! Now you have a strategy in place to combat exercise-induced muscle soreness. This means that when you ultimately run across some young, cocky personal trainer with something to prove, you’ll be able to shake it off, enjoy several nice, home-cooked meals, and then return to the gym to show him there’s nothing he can do to break you.