You may have heard that antioxidants can help reduce your recovery time after strenuous exercise. You know, the stiffness, swelling, pain, fatigue and reduced strength that your muscles experience after a good workout.
And antioxidants can help!
Well, some of them can.
I’ll review a bit of the science, but I also want to note that more research is badly, badly needed.
In this article, I’ll review how your muscles get “oxidative stress” in the first place, and what “antioxidants” actually are. Of course, we have to look at some of the research on the effects of both antioxidant supplements and antioxidant foods on muscle recovery.
And lastly, when is the best time to reap those antioxidant benefits for maximal impact and recovery.
Why do muscles get sore after a workout?
Even if you haven’t heard of it, you know EIMD (exercise-induced muscle damage). This is an “official” term to describe the stiffness, swelling, pain, fatigue and reduced strength that can follow one, two, or even up to five days after a tough workout.
Another term for it is DOMS or “delayed onset muscle soreness”. Call it what you want to, it’s the pain behind the expression “no pain, no gain”.
With EIMD symptoms, strength can decline by up to 40-50%, and this can significantly reduce performance for days, or even weeks afterwards!
This is because, at a microscopic level, after a good workout, there is damage to the muscle cells; and so the body’s natural repair mechanisms kick into gear. They bring fluid and immune cells to help fix those muscle cells so they can start rebuilding. This causes the inflammation and oxidative stress that show up as the symptoms of EIMD.
After a workout, the inflammation actually helps to repair the muscle, so this inflammation is exactly what is needed so that the muscle can rebuild a bit stronger than it was before.
In fact, this is what makes muscle recovery time critical.
So, as you can see, we don’t want to eliminate the symptoms and recovery time, we just want to reduce them, so we can get back to training again.
And, of course, exercise is just one of many things that cause oxidative stress and inflammation within the body.
What are antioxidants?
“Oxidation” is a natural chemical process.
It’s why some fruit goes brown once it’s cut.
Have you ever squeezed lemon juice onto a sliced avocado? The vitamin C in the lemon juice can help prevent it from browning too quickly. That makes the vitamin C an “antioxidant”. A good analogy for oxidation is rusting. Antioxidants help to rust proof your body.
Some of the well-known antioxidants are actually essential nutrients, like vitamin C and vitamin E for example. There are also other types of antioxidants that are not vitamins. Some of these are the phytochemicals (phyto=plant) in your fruits and vegetables, especially brightly-coloured ones. Phytonutrients are found abundantly in whole grains, nuts and seeds, fresh and dried herbs and spices and legumes.
Browning avocados aside, oxidation is a natural and healthy process within our bodies. It is essential for many normal processes, like when your white blood cells try to kill an invading bacteria, and when those white blood cells help repair muscle cells after a workout.
The thing is, as with everything in our bodies, processes work best when kept in balance.
So, the problem of oxidation isn’t the fact that it occurs, but only when there is too much of it, and the oxidation vs. antioxidation balance is thrown off.
And that is what is known as increased, or excessive “oxidative stress”.
How can antioxidants reduce my recovery time?
So here’s the thing.
You want your muscles to go through the natural processes of inflammation and oxidation in order for them to recover properly; and therefore, a balanced amount of oxidation and inflammation is your friend.
You wouldn’t want to completely eliminate the oxidative stress that is part of EIMD, you just want to help your body re-balance itself quicker to speed up the recovery process.
Here’s where antioxidants can help!
Can antioxidant supplements help with EIMD?
You may have heard (or tried) taking antioxidant supplements like vitamins C or E, or green tea. But what’s the scientific evidence that this works to reduce muscle recovery time?
On one hand, vitamin supplements can be a good source of nutrients, as long as you take them as directed (i.e. don’t go overboard on them because more is not always better).
On the other hand, there is conflicting evidence as to whether supplementing with vitamin C actually helps with EIMD. Some studies show benefit, some show no effect, while others show longer recovery times.
In terms of vitamin E, one review of many studies showed that high doses of vitamin E supplementation may even increase the risk of death. But to be clear, this study only looked at studies that used alpha-tocopherol.
A word on vitamin E
At the risk of making things more complicated, vitamin E is actually a collection of 8 different vitamin E molecules. There are 4 tocopherols and 4 tocotrienols.
Taking too much of one at the expense of the others will cause problems. Unfortunately, 90%+ of vitamin ‘E’ supplements only have alpha-tocopherol and many use the synthetic version. This matters.
Studies looking at vitamin E and health, including EIMD, should really be taken with a grain of salt. Unless they’re using all 8 forms of vitamin E, you can draw many conclusions. There are several vitamin E benefits, it IS an essential nutrient, so vitamin E is good for you.
Even though both vitamins C and E are in fact essential vitamins that are also antioxidants, the science of supplementing with them for EIMD does not show much evidence that they help with muscle recovery. And some research suggests they may be detrimental at very high doses.
What about non-vitamin antioxidant supplements?
Several clinical studies of flavonoid (non-vitamin antioxidants) supplements like quercetin and resveratrol to name a couple, have shown no improvements specifically with muscle recovery.
In terms of antioxidant supplements in general though, many of them are now known to benefit overall health and specific conditions in ways that have nothing to do with oxidation prevention.
So don’t throw the baby out with the bath water!
So-called antioxidants can promote health via their role in technical stuff like cell-signaling, turning on Nrf2, turning on enzymes (proteins) that carry out various tasks. They also help to chelate (sequester) heavy metals in the body, and glycation or the damaging effects of blood sugar.
Can antioxidant foods and drinks help with EIMD?
Antioxidant foods and drinks, on the other hand are a different story!
Many studies show that eating a variety of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables contribute to overall health much more than taking isolated nutrients in a supplement.
Some of the richest sources of antioxidant fruits include brightly-coloured plants.
Blueberries, for example have a high antioxidant ability (known as “ORAC – oxygen radical absorption capacity”), not because of their vitamins, but because they contain a lot of phytochemicals (phyto=plant) like “anthocyanins”, among others. Or even tart cherry juice, pomegranate, or black currant nectar.
In fact some antioxidant benefits of fruit juices seem to go above and beyond the amount of vitamin C they contain. So, it’s not just about the vitamins!
A few studies have shown improved muscle recovery after drinking tart cherry juice. Benefits include speeding recovery time, reducing inflammation and loss of muscle strength, as well as reducing pain after distance running.
Blueberries and black currant nectar have also been shown to speed muscle recovery and/or reduce muscle damage and inflammation.
So, the antioxidants that seem to help reduce EIMD symptoms best are found in berries, cherries, currants and their juices.
When should I eat or drink antioxidants to reduce my recovery time?
We know that the antioxidant status of the blood can increase within one hour of eating wild blueberries.
So, when should we ingest our antioxidants to help reduce muscle recovery time?
Most of the studies that showed benefits had people eat or drink their fruits for 4-7 days before their exercise, as well as on the day of. Some even had participants continue for several days afterwards.
One review recommends daily consumption of tart cherries for faster recovery from EIMD.
Blueberries have been shown to speed muscle recovery when eaten both before AND after strenuous exercise.
The bottom line is that you can have your antioxidant fruits/juices for days before and after you exercise. Even consider making them a regular part of your daily diet.
- Exercise-induced muscle damage, EIMD is an “official” term to describe the stiffness, swelling, pain and fatigue and reduced strength that can follow one, two, or even up to five days after a tough workout.
- After a workout, the inflammation actually helps to repair the muscle, so it is exactly what is needed so that the muscle can rebuild a bit stronger than it was before. So, the goal is not to eliminate the symptoms and recovery time, just to reduce it.
- Antioxidant supplements don’t seem to have much beneficial effect, and can be harmful in large doses.
- There are some good studies on using blueberries, tart cherry juice and black currant nectar for their help with muscle recovery.
- When it comes to reducing recovery time, most of the research has shown a benefit when eating or drinking these fruit and/or juices for several days before, as well as the day of, and even after strenuous exercise. Feel free to have them daily.
- More studies are being done, so keep your eye out for updates in this area.
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