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January 23, 2023

Back in the Gym?
Foods That Reduce Muscle Soreness

By Brandi Givens, RD

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It’s that time of year again. Pickleball enthusiasts everywhere are setting annual goals for improving their personal game. As part of reaching those targets, many players refresh their commitment to exercise and aim to build strength through resistance training.


A major barrier to sticking with any exercise routine is the annoying muscle aches that come a day or two after you push yourself. The pain of delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is sometimes so great that the athlete avoids the next workout or loses determination altogether. Fortunately, studies show that certain healthy foods can curb that discomfort while you’re building brawn for your backhand.


How Can Healthy Foods Help?

DOMS is caused by exercise-induced muscle damage, a common side effect of building strength. If we fuel our bodies with nutrients needed to help fix the damage before it happens, it makes sense that we will heal faster and there may even be less damage in the first place.


Foods high in protein are a great place to start since you need their amino acids to build and repair muscle. Other nutrients are helpful because they reduce the inflammation that causes pain. Here are a few evidence-based eats that may speed muscle recovery, keeping you in the gym and on the court.


Tart Cherry and Other Juices

 If you like sour flavors, you’ll love tart cherry juice. This drink is packed with powerful antioxidants including anthocyanins, which give it its deep, rich color. Several studies have shown that when athletes consume the juice for several days before and after major workouts, they reduce the duration and degree of DOMS.


Watermelon, blueberries, and pomegranates are also showing promise for fighting soreness, and may be more pleasing in taste for some people. These fruits and their juices all contain powerful antioxidants; however, they don’t seem to be quite as effective as tart cherry juice.


If you prefer savory flavors, you might enjoy beet juice. This root vegetable is rich in nitrites and a pigment called betalains, plant chemicals that can help oxygenate your healing muscles and reduce inflammation.


How much and when?

  • Tart Cherry Juice: Athletes in studies generally benefited by drinking 8-12 oz. of tart cherry juice twice a day for four to five days prior and three days after extreme workouts.

  • Beet Root Juice: Athletes in one study benefited from 12-24 oz. when consumed the day of and two days after workouts.


Fish High in Omega-3

Not only is fish an excellent source of protein, but some types are high in omega-3 fatty acid. Omega-3s work to fight inflammation in the body and can promote muscle growth. Salmon, sardines, and trout are all great choices when it comes to recovery.


How much and when?

  • A 4 oz. serving of fish after a workout provides close to 30 grams of protein, and about 1,000 mg. of omega-3 fatty acid.


Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAA)

Amino acids are the molecules that build and repair all proteins in our bodies including muscle. Some studies show that special amino acids called branched chain amino acids (BCAA) are especially helpful for reducing painful muscle damage.


While some people choose to get their BCAA from products like whey or pea protein supplements, some studies indicate that eating enough foods that are naturally high in BCAA can be as helpful. Dairy products like milk and yogurt are a great source. Others include meat, poultry, fish, and eggs.


How much and when?

  • One study found that consuming 20 oz. of milk just before a workout was helpful for muscle recovery. This is equivalent to about 8 oz. of Greek yogurt.



Muscle-Soothing Salmon Salad

This high-protein, omega-3-packed dish can be enjoyed as a light lunch, a heavy snack, or packed in a cooler for a long tournament day. It can be served on bread as a sandwich, but I prefer it on whole-grain crackers. Best of all, it has pickles in it!

1 can (7.5 oz.) of Sockeye salmon

2 small, sweet pickles, diced

1 boiled egg, diced

2 tablespoons finely chopped dried Montgomery cherries

1 tablespoon mayonnaise

1 teaspoon yellow or Dijon mustard

Salt and pepper to taste

Drain canned salmon. In a medium bowl, mash then fluff salmon with a fork to break up any clumps. Add all other ingredients and mix thoroughly. Makes two servings.


Tart Cherry-Blunana Smoothie

This is a great pre- or post-workout smoothie, packed with protein (including BCAA), and anti-inflammatory fruit. I add a banana and blueberries for sweetness and extra nutrients.

4 oz. tart cherry juice

1 ripe banana, frozen

1 container (5 oz.) Greek yogurt

½ cup frozen blueberries

Mix in a blender until smooth. If the mixture is too thick, add a bit of milk or more cherry juice. Enjoy!


To get the maximum benefit with the least amount of discomfort from your workout, it’s best to pair your exercise with the right nutrition. See you at the gym, pickleball friends!  •

Brandi Givens has been a registered dietitian since 2010. Questions or comments can be posted to her blog at

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