Nutrition & Supplements for Post-Workout Muscle Recovery
By Jennifer Lefton, MS, RD/N, CNSC, FAND
Published on November 13, 2023
Medically reviewed by Allison Herries, RDN
You may have heard of taking supplements to optimize muscle growth during exercise, but what about muscle recovery? Recovery, in general, is a return to a normal state. For muscle recovery, this means reducing muscle soreness after strenuous exercise.
While supplements are often marketed to those who exercise, there is usually no need for them if you consume the right amount of nutrients in your diet. Forming good nutrition habits will help with muscle recovery. Food choices that include carbohydrates and protein consumed within two hours of a workout are recommended.
Still, you may be wondering whether certain supplements can provide benefits in this context. This article reviews nutrition and supplements for muscle recovery, including whether they can help reduce soreness and aid in muscle rebuilding.
Getty Images / Natalie McComas
Nutrition and Muscle Recovery
If done right, proper nutrition without taking supplements will help with muscle recovery.
During exercise, your body uses carbohydrates (carbs) for energy. Exercise also breaks down or damages the protein in your muscles. After a workout, your body needs to restore glycogen (the stored form of carbohydrates in your body) and rebuild muscle proteins.1
Eating after your workout helps facilitate the process of restoring energy and rebuilding proteins. Along with adequate fluids, carbs and protein are needed for muscle recovery.
During exercise, carbohydrate is the main source of energy. After prolonged exercise, glycogen stores in the muscle can become depleted. Depleted glycogen stores can lead to muscle soreness.
Eating carbohydrates after exercise helps to replenish your glycogen stores and provide energy.1
Carbohydrates are foods like bread, grains, cereals, and starchy vegetables.
A practical approach to figuring out how much to eat is the 3-to-1 ratio of carbs to protein, which has been found to be beneficial in studies.2 For example, if you were going to have 20 grams (g) of protein, you would want 60 g of carbs (equivalent to about three slices of bread).
There is not enough data to say whether or not dietary fats help with muscle recovery.
A small study on male cyclists found that high-fat foods added to post-workout meals that included carbs (compared to low-fat foods) did not affect muscle glycogen synthesis.3
At this time, whether or not to include fat in a post-workout meal is likely a matter of personal preference. Choosing fat sources high in omega-3 fatty acids or unsaturated fats is recommended over saturated fats.
Protein is a macronutrient important for tissue and muscle growth. It is also a source of energy, providing 4 calories per gram.4
During exercise, muscle protein is broken down. Consuming enough protein throughout the day provides the amino acids that will be needed to build new muscle.
The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8 g per kilogram (kg) of body weight per day (g/kg/day) for adults. For athletes and people who exercise, the protein recommendation is higher at 1.2–2 g/kg/day.5 Protein needs can easily be met through diet alone.
Regarding protein, for athletes working toward maximizing muscle adaptation, it is recommended to consume 0.3 g/kg as part of your post-workout meal (within two hours after the workout) and then every three to five hours thereafter.5
Protein is found in beef, poultry, fish, seafood, eggs, and dairy. Plant-based sources of protein include soy, beans, and legumes.
Protein supplements available as powders are marketed as one way to meet protein needs. While convenient, these are not necessary if you are getting adequate protein through diet alone.
Additionally, some research has suggested protein powder alone is not the best way to enhance muscle recovery.
One meta-analysis concluded that protein supplementation after a workout had no effect on muscle recovery.6 Another review concluded that there is limited evidence supporting protein supplementation for muscle recovery after sports activity. Moreover, the evidence that does exist has several limitations (for example, small studies and poor study design).7
Supplementation of whey protein can enhance strength and muscle mass during resistance training (strength training). However, the effect of whey protein on muscle recovery needs further study.8
Amino acid supplements are not recommended if you are already eating adequate amounts of protein.9 Eating a diet with enough protein will provide you with the amino acids needed for muscle recovery.
Ways to Add Protein to a Post-Workout Snack
To add protein to your post-workout snack, try the following:
Whole grain avocado toast with an egg
Greek yogurt with berries and walnuts/almonds
English muffin with cottage cheese
Apple slices or banana with peanut butter
Oatmeal made with milk and topped with fruit
Proper hydration is important before, during, and after exercise. Dehydration may delay muscle recovery.
For a 90-minute workout or less, water is usually sufficient for maintaining hydration.10
For longer bouts of exercise, endurance events, or athletes playing in several games per day, sports drinks or electrolyte drinks may be of benefit. These can contain carbohydrates and electrolytes to replace the electrolytes that are lost through sweat.
A simple indicator of hydration status is the color of urine. Darker urine color indicates dehydration, whereas clear urine color indicates a person is well hydrated.
If experiencing dehydration, a good rule of thumb is to drink 2 to 3 cups of water for every pound lost during exercise. It's generally recommended to prepare for exercise by drinking plenty of fluid ahead of time. For example, athletes should consume 7 to 12 ounces of cold fluid about 15 to 30 minutes before exercising.11
Intense workouts may require more than just water for replenishment, such as drinks containing a small amount of sodium (salt) and electrolytes.11
For endurance exercises lasting longer than three hours, you may need as much as 175 milligrams (mg) of sodium per ounce serving of a fluid replacement drink.11
Consuming carbohydrates and protein combined after a workout will:12
Improve muscle glycogen stores
Reduce muscle damage
Facilitate greater training adaptations
Consuming protein within two hours of a workout can help increase the production of new muscle protein.12
Drinking adequate fluids before, during, and after a workout will maintain hydration and aid recovery.
There are many different dietary supplements marketed for athletes and exercise enthusiasts.
Most are marketed toward enhancing performance, but only a few may have a role in muscle recovery. These supplements include:
Branched-chain amino acids
Omega-3 fatty acids
Branched-Chain Amino Acids
The three branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) are leucine, isoleucine, and valine. They are not produced naturally in the body and must be obtained through diet. BCAAs have been suggested to improve performance, recovery, and body composition.13
Four meta-analysis publications favor the use of BCAAs over placebo for muscle recovery. BCAAs may be helpful for:
Low-to-moderate exercise-induced muscle damage14
Reduced muscle soreness1516
Post-exercise muscle recovery and function17
Other studies have found BCAA supplementation to have no effect on markers of muscle damage or soreness after exercise.18
A meta-analysis published in 2022 concluded that BCAAs reduced muscle soreness after only resistance exercise.13
However, the researchers added that supplementation protocols used in the studies differed. Therefore, the results should be interpreted cautiously.13 More, well-designed studies are needed.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) cautions that BCAAs have not consistently shown benefits in the way of improving performance, building muscle, or helping with recovery. Moreover, consuming animal-based proteins will help increase your intake of BCAAs without needing a supplement.5
For supplementation, up to 20 g of BCAAs per day in divided doses appears to be safe. For leucine alone (in healthy young and older males), no more than 500 mg/kg/day should be taken.5
Eating a nutritious diet and getting adequate protein timed with your workouts appropriately will provide you with the protein and BCAAs needed.
Creatine provides energy for the muscle. The body produces creatine, but you can also get it from food.
Creatine is found mostly in red meat and seafood. As a supplement, it is in the form of creatine monohydrate. Creatine is the most studied and most effective ergogenic (performance-enhancing) nutritional supplement available to athletes.19
Creatine supplementation appears to improve muscle strength and power in some individuals. It is most useful for short, intense periods of muscle work.5 For example, creatine may be useful for weight lifting or sprinting. However, it does not provide benefits to endurance athletes like marathon runners or cyclists.5
Creatine may help athletes in their recovery from intense training. According to the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN),19 creatine supplementation for athletes may:
Enhance glycogen loading
Allow for more training
Result in fewer injuries
Creatine may also minimize damage to muscles after a workout,20 but further research is needed.
Creatine is mostly safe as a supplement. The most commonly reported side effect is weight gain due to water retention.
In research, the most common dosing is a 5 mg creatine dose taken four times daily as a loading dose (or the initial higher dose given at the beginning of dosing) for five to seven days. Following the loading dose, 3–5 mg daily can be taken for up to 12 weeks.5
Alternatively, the ISSN states that "the quickest method of increasing muscle creatine stores may be to consume about 0.3 g/kg/day of creatine monohydrate for five to seven days followed by 3–5 g/day thereafter to maintain elevated stores."19
Omega 3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fats. The most common omega-3 fatty acids are: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).21
Omega-3 fatty acids are anti-inflammatory in general, but their role in muscle recovery is less understood.
One meta-analysis found that omega-3 fatty acid supplementation reduced blood markers of muscle damage (creatine kinase, lactate dehydrogenase, and myoglobin). The authors concluded that omega-3s should be supplemented for recovery from exercise-induced muscle damage.22
However, a separate systematic review did not find that omega-3 supplementation improved skeletal muscle markers of inflammation and damage. However, it did improve delayed-onset muscle soreness recovery.23 More research is needed to determine the efficacy of omega-3 fatty acid supplements specific to muscle recovery.
For adults, the adequate intake (AI) of omega-3 fatty acids is between 1.1 and 1.6 grams daily. It is best to get this amount from your diet. Sources of omega-3 fatty acids include fish, seafood, nuts, flaxseed oil, and chia seeds.21
Vitamin C is needed to produce collagen.24 Collagen helps maintain the integrity of muscle and tendons.
There is no data to suggest that vitamin C can help with muscle recovery after exercise. Yet, vitamin C is an essential nutrient you should be sure you get enough of in your diet.
Vitamin C is easily obtained through diet alone, and deficiency is rare. The RDA for vitamin C ranges from 75 to 120 mg daily.24
Vitamin C is found mostly in fruits and vegetables, such as oranges, kiwi, strawberries, broccoli, and bell peppers.
If you don't get enough vitamin C in your diet, supplements are available. Vitamin C can be supplemented alone or as a multivitamin. Avoid supplementing in excess of the tolerable upper limit (UL) of 2,000 mg daily.24 Doses higher than this are just excreted through urine.
A Word on Dietary Supplements
The development and marketing of dietary supplements are unregulated in the United States.
Some dietary supplements that are marketed for athletic performance could contain stimulants, steroids, hormone-like ingredients, controlled substances, prescription medications, or unapproved drugs.5 This is inappropriate and illegal.
For athletes, this can be a serious issue that could disqualify them from competing in their sport.
Athletes should evaluate supplements carefully and look for ones tested by third-party companies, such as NSF.org, Informed Choice, or Banned Substances Control Group. Products that have passed testing may carry the company's logo that tested the product.
Other Tips for Post-Workout Muscle Recovery
In addition to nutrition and supplements, there are several other strategies that you can use to reduce muscle soreness and help with recovery. They include:25
Cold water immersion therapy (ice baths)
Cryotherapy (freezing or near-freezing temperatures)
Taking multiple approaches regarding nutrition and other post-workout strategies can help speed up the recovery process.
Nutrition can help with muscle recovery after intense workouts. For example, eating a snack or meal that includes carbohydrates and protein helps aid muscle recovery.
You do not need supplements to have an effective muscle recovery strategy. The foods we eat play a more crucial role in muscle recovery, and proper nutrition should be enough. While you can take supplements in addition to a proper diet, supplements alone without eating the right food will not help with recovery.
More, well-designed research studies are needed to prove the efficacy of supplements for muscle recovery. For now, the best approach is to incorporate the right amount of nutrients into your everyday diet to help support the post-exercise recovery process for your body.