Q&A: Boost Muscle Recovery with Anti-Inflammatory Foods

These crepes loaded with antioxident rich berries are great for reducing rowing-related muscle soreness, inflammation, and fatigue.
These crepes loaded with antioxident rich berries are great for reducing rowing-related muscle soreness, inflammation, and fatigue.

Question of the week:

Do you have any suggestions for rejuvenating the muscles in my legs? I’m feeling depleted after months of five-day-a-week rowing practices, erg tests, and racing. Should I focus on hydration? What about elevating my legs?


The go-to remedies are often hydration, compression, cold therapy, elevation, and rest. But don’t forget about nutrition. What you put into your body before, during, and after exercise is incredibly important. Nutritionist Karyn Baiorunos, M.Sc, covered this a while back for RowSource in a post called Power Up Your Nutrition, which covered pre- and post-exercise nutrition and hydration, as well as energy supply and storage.

Here we’ll take a more detailed look at what muscle soreness and inflammation are, and a natural nutrition approach to treating them.


During high-intensity bursts of activity like rowing sprints, depleted oxygen supplies result in lactic acid build-up in the muscles which leads to soreness and fatigue. This lactic acid buildup flushes out of the system within an hour or two after you exercise, so what causes that soreness you experience a day or more later?

Twenty-four to 72 hours after a tough row you might deal with a specific type of muscle soreness called “delayed onset muscle soreness” (DOMS) caused by microfractures in the cells. If you row five days a week with similar intensity, you won’t typically get sore because your muscles adapt to being able to handle the activity, known as the “repeated-bout effect.” Microfractures occur when the rowing intensity goes up more than 10% over your normal workout.


It’s a long-held belief that inflammation must be minimized in order to speed healing. People commonly pop NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) like aspirin and naproxen. I can’t tell you how many athletes I know that take “Vitamin I” (ibuprofen) to limit swelling and pain. But using NSAIDs as a quick fix could be interfering with healthy muscle recovery.

Research shows that when muscles and joints are inflamed, cells called macrophages bombard the injury site and produce insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1). IGF-1 increases the rate of muscle regeneration, which improves muscle injury repair. Using NSAIDs prevents the body’s natural inflammatory response and slows the healing process. Our bodies need acute inflammation to grow. (NSAIDs can also have nasty heart and stomach side effects. If you use them, take them with food or milk to protect your vital organs.)


Instead of relying on NSAIDs that block inflammatory response and mask pain, chose anti-inflammatory foods that won’t hamper your recovery:

Pineapple: Rich in the protein-digesting enzyme bromelain, pineapple is a natural anti-inflammatory that helps reduce swelling, bruising, and musculoskeletal injuries. Fresh or frozen are best; canned typically have added sugar.

Cherries: Tart cherries have significant pain-reducing, recovery-boosting, and anti-inflammatory effects.

Apples: Did you know that apples have the second highest level of antioxidants among all fruits? The peels have stronger antioxidant activity than the flesh, and apple polyphenol content has been shown to reduce inflammation. Red Delicious are best for antioxidant loads.

Red, blue, and purple fruits: Rich in antioxidants that limit inflammation, limit tissue breakdown, and improve circulation. Eggplant, fresh or frozen berries, and not-from-concentrate cherry juice.

Almonds: Loaded with unsaturated fat, these energy-rich nuts reduce inflammation and help keep joints lubricated. Snack on them whole (with skins), slather almond butter on toast, or substitute regular milk for almond milk in your smoothies.

Walnuts: The richest source of omega-3 fatty acids among nuts, walnuts are thought to inhibit pain- and inflammation-producing neurotransmitters.

Flaxseed: High in protein and fiber, these seeds are also rich in omega-3s. Add a tablespoon of ground flaxseed to smoothies or cereal each day (whole seeds don’t always get digested and will pass through the system without being absorbed).

Spinach (and other leafy greens): Over-flowing with the goodness of Vitamin E, anti-inflammatory compounds, omega-3 fatty acids, and B-vitamins. In addition to it’s anti-inflammatory properties, spinach has been found to increase protein synthesis, making spinach one of the best strength-building vegetables you can find.

Sweet Potato: Rich in beta-carotene, which helps the body make vitamin A. One cup offers a huge 30mg of beta-carotene, all immensely as an anti-inflammatory.

Olive Oil: Two tablespoons a day of extra-virgin olive oil offers beneficial monounsaturated fats that reduce inflammation in cells and joints. A study in the journal Nature found olive oil to be as effective as Advil in reducing inflammation.

Ginger and Turmeric: Sprinkle half a tablespoon on fish and chicken dishes  to expedite muscle recovery by reducing inflammation.


These low-calorie, nutrient-rich foods are power packs of nutrition and energy that aid in reducing inflammation, and speeding muscle recovery. And even better, most of them take little or no time to prepare, so they are easy to add to your daily meals and snacks.

The information provided in this article is for informational purposes only and does not serve as a replacement to care provided by your personal physician or a professional nutritionist.