Recovering from a strenuous workout requires plenty of the nutritional 4 Rs: Rehydrate, replenish, repair, and reinforce. While various versions of these “Rs” exist, they share the same message: Supporting your body with specific vitamins and minerals during the recovery process is essential.
While most exercise enthusiasts know the three macronutrients – protein, carbs, and fats – play a prominent role in post-training recovery, the micronutrients that can facilitate healing and protect against potential overtraining and poor recovery may be less understood. After wrapping up a workout, your body’s top priorities are rehydrating lost fluids, replacing lost micronutrients, repairing tissues, and reinforcing your immune system. If you eat the vitamins and minerals used for these complex jobs, you may improve your recovery process.
Focus on these five vital micronutrients, and incorporate them into your post-workout meals.
1. B Vitamins
B vitamins are a group of several vitamins responsible for converting protein and carbohydrates into energy. Active people especially require B vitamins, and research shows athletes are more likely to lack enough stores of B2 and B6.
Aside from energy conversion, B vitamins assist with vital recovery functions like cellular repair, reducing inflammation, brain health, storing energy for later use, and producing cells.
Vitamin B2, or riboflavin, is particularly important if you’re doing high-intensity training that causes metabolic stress. Research shows getting more vitamin B2 before and during endurance exercise can reduce post-training muscle pain and soreness and facilitate early functional recovery. Prolonged training is hard on the body, causing inflammation and oxidative stress. Vitamin B2’s antioxidant properties can counter these effects and protect against oxidative damage.
If you’re not getting enough B vitamins, you could be putting yourself at risk. According to research, active people who lack B vitamins may be more prone to injuries and fatigue and have reduced performance. Specifically, vitamin B12 and folate (B9) are crucial for repairing damage to muscle cells and synthesizing red blood cells. Females are particularly at risk since they’re less likely than males to consume enough energy and eat B12-rich meat. And if you’re on a plant-based diet, watch your vitamin B12 intake; deficiencies are more common in this group.
Foods Rich in B Vitamins
Excellent sources of B vitamins include eggs, organ meats (kidneys and liver), lean meats, fortified grains, nuts, beans, peas, seafood, dairy products, poultry, and fortified breakfast cereals.
Iron is an essential mineral for recovery, but it’s also one of the most under-consumed. A component of red blood cells, which carry oxygen from your lungs to your tissues, iron is also vital for muscle metabolism, healthy connective tissues, physical growth, cell functioning, and hormone synthesis.
As your red blood cells travel to your tissues, they deliver vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients necessary for recovery. Without enough iron-rich red blood cells, your nutrient delivery and recovery can be hindered. A lack of iron can cause fatigue, shortness of breath, weakness, heart palpitations, and suboptimal performance and recovery.
Females are especially prone to iron deficiency, partly due to the menstrual cycle but also because of potentially under-eating and consuming less iron-packed red meat. If you’re following a plant-based diet, you should also be especially conscious of your iron needs. Plant-based iron isn’t readily absorbed, which can lead to deficiency.
Foods Rich in Iron
Foods that provide the readily absorbed heme form of iron include meat, poultry, and seafood. You can find the less-absorbable plant form in beans, leafy greens, tofu, dark chocolate, tomatoes, potatoes, and fortified grains.
Potassium is used in nearly all bodily functions, including muscle contractions, cell, kidney, and heart function, and nerve transmission. Along with sodium and magnesium, potassium plays a significant role in the fluid balance in your body – and that’s crucial for rehydration after intense, prolonged, or sweaty bouts of exercise. This mineral also helps deliver vital amino acids and glucose to your muscles and other tissues recovering from training.
Potassium is an electrolyte; you’ll find it in sports beverages or medical electrolyte replacements, along with glucose (which boosts absorption). But your body doesn’t make potassium on its own, so getting enough in your diet is essential. The FDA’s recommended daily value is 4,700mg; the average person consumes under 3,000mg.
And active people need more potassium for optimal cardiovascular, muscular, and respiratory recovery, especially if much is lost through sweat during exercise. Those on low-carb or keto diets may also be at risk of a potassium deficiency. Without this mineral, anyone on a low-carb diet and physically active may see a significant decline in performance, as potassium is needed to access glycogen stored in your muscles and liver to be used as glucose for energy.
Foods Rich in Potassium
Fortunately, potassium is easy to come by as it’s found in a wide range of foods like fruits, vegetables, soybeans, potatoes, meat, poultry, fish, milk, yogurt, nuts, whole wheat flour, and brown rice. Try this sesame chicken salad or these buffalo stuffed potatoes for plenty of potassium.
Magnesium is another mineral – and electrolyte, like potassium – that’s lost through sweat. It’s crucial to replace after intense or prolonged bouts of activity, as magnesium is responsible for aiding protein synthesis (key for muscle and other tissue repair), nerve function, and other factors in recovery.
Plus, this mineral is needed for muscle relaxation and helps prevent muscle damage after strenuous activity. Research shows magnesium can significantly reduce muscle soreness and boost perceived post-training recovery.
Yet according to the National Institutes of Health, nearly half the U.S. population isn’t consuming enough magnesium. While it’s popular as a bath soak to ease sore, worked muscles, this method of utilizing magnesium isn’t likely to help boost your levels.
Foods Rich in Magnesium
You can find magnesium in various plant and animal-based foods such as legumes, leafy greens, nuts, seeds, whole grains, salmon, milk, and avocado. Try this salmon freekeh bowl or this overnight porridge recipe for a healthy dose of magnesium.
Zinc is well-known for its immune-boosting effect, but it’s beneficial for post-workout recovery too. This mineral is involved in over 100 enzymatic and immune system processes that affect muscle building, repairing tissues, wound healing, and other functions.
Indirectly, zinc is also vital for supporting your immune system against the adverse effects of high-level training. Athletes and highly active people, or anyone who doesn’t get proper nutrition to support training, can find themselves sick more often and at increased risk of becoming ill or run down.
Increasing zinc intake helps protect your immune system while aiding tissue repair. Your body doesn’t store zinc, so you’ll need to ensure you get enough each day to meet your needs. Eating a plant-based diet does increase your risk of zinc deficiency, as most food sources are animal-based.
Foods Rich in Zinc
The best sources of zinc include oysters, red meat, poultry, beans, nuts, seeds, crab, lobster, whole grains, and fortified foods like breakfast cereals and dairy. Get a super dose of zinc in this lightened-up oyster Rockefeller recipe, or try these tempeh tacos.
No matter your level of fitness or how intensely you exercise, the vitamins and minerals you eat are essential for the everyday repair and recovery your body performs. If you’re an athlete or avid exerciser, your needs are even greater, and boosting your body’s recovery process with nutrition becomes a higher priority. Consuming a wide variety of whole foods daily will increase your chances of optimal recovery and future performance.
Featured Recipe: Freekeh Bowl