Sports Nutrition and Fitness for Beginners – How to Combat Post-Exercise Muscle Pain and Fatigue

Published on June 08, 2016 by Dr. Paul Hrkal

We all have to start somewhere. With the warmer weather coming our natural urge is to plunge head-long into that workout routine that has been on the back burner while we were in hibernation mode during the winter months. Unfortunately, the reality is that most people that start back into exercise or start working out for the first time fall
off the wagon shortly after starting. Just think of how busy the gym is after new year’s and how it returns to normal in march. The biggest hurdle is the first few weeks when we try to develop regular habits and our body adapts to a new routine. Muscle pain and fatigue are the greatest during this time as our body starts to make the positive changes associated with exercise but if excessive they can also discourage us from continuing.

The following are some basic but very practical exercise tips to stick to that new exercise program with minimal muscle pain along the way:

  • Start slowly – this may sound painfully (pun intended) obvious but most people are so excited they are back in the gym that they go extra hard in their first workout. Two days later (usually the time when post exercise muscle pain is the highest) their muscles are screaming in pain telling them they overdid it. Instead, start with lighter exercises with a shorter duration. We want to feel that we worked out well but excessive pain can turn people off from continuing with their work outs.
  • Get a work out buddy – Nothing is more motivating then going for a run or a kickboxing session with friend. If we schedule a time with someone else, we will be less likely to skip our workout if we don’t feel like going. It also makes the whole exercise process more enjoyable and social which is good for your mind as well as your body. If you don’t have someone to go with, try a fitness class at your local community centre or gym instead of just working out on your own.
  • Try a personal trainer – While they do cost money, using a personal trainer, especially if you are new to exercise, or starting back after a long break, can really increase your chances of long term success. It doesn’t have to be forever but they can teach you how to exercise specifically to meet your goals (strength, tone, size, weight loss etc.) with the correct exercises. Think of a personal trainer as personal exercise tutor until you are able to do it on your own.
  • Make it fun – if you do a killer cross fit class but hate it, you won’t stick with it. There are so many different types of exercise types and classes. Spend a month to sample various exercise types so you can find something that fits your goals and preferences. Most gyms, clubs, and studios have a free trial session you can take advantage of before you have to pay and commit. Even some clothing stores have run classes (i.e. running room) Have you tried: Aerobarre, crossfit, pole dancing, HIITS (high intensity interval training), outdoor bootcamp etc.)? Yes, they are all types of new exercise routines with some artistic or macho flair.
  • Mix in the outdoors – The research is clear that we spend too much time inside and not enough time outdoors in nature. Published research studies (over 30) are showing the health benefits of spending time in the forest, by water and surrounded by plants. Harness these benefits by planning at least one workout a week outside, in the sun and fresh air. This can be a vigorous walk, run or bike ride but the key is being out of the urban jungle and around plants and trees.

The good news is that a few simple nutritional tips can also help you overcome the painful first couple of weeks. The following strategies have been studied to reduce post exercise fatigue (also known as delayed onset muscle soreness, DOMS)

  • Increase your protein – if you are working out you have a greater need for protein to repair and grow your damaged muscle tissue. Most sedentary people only need 0.8g of protein per Kg of body weight to maintain their muscle mass but the latest research shows both aerobic (cardio) and resistance (weights) athletes need 1.5-2.4g of protein per Kg body weight. That means that an 80kg person needs 160g of protein per day (assuming 2g/kg) for optimal muscle growth. Along with increasing clean dietary sources of protein (wild fish, hormone free chicken, grass-fed beef, lamb, wild game, legumes, nuts and seeds, free range eggs etc.) most people need to supplement with extra protein powder for convenience and to meet their target. A high quality whey protein or a plant based protein, are the best options. Now 160g is a lot of protein so for the beginner just focus on getting a high protein meal (30g+) after your workout. This will help offset DOMS and promote muscle repair.
  • Omega 3 fish oils – We all know that omega 3 fatty acids from fish oil have a powerful anti-inflammatory effect. Pain associated with DOMS is actually not from lactic acid but from muscle damage induced inflammation, so theoretically an anti-inflammatory approach should reduce muscle pain. Unfortunately, standard NSAID medications (i.e. Advil) can actually inhibit the healing process and erode the stomach lining despite reducing pain. The research does show that supplementing with 2-3g of omega 3 fish oils improves muscle soreness after 2 days, especially beginners to exercise. The good news for vegans is that there are now plant based sources of omega 3’s from algae so they can get the high doses of EPA and DHA as well.
  • Tart cherry juice – Sour cherries contain powerful anti-inflammatory phytochemicals that help reduce post exercise muscle pain. A number of human clinical trials show improvement in DOMS after drinking tart cherry juice before intense exercise (in this case running). The bonus with tart cherry is that it contains natural melatonin that can help with restful sleep which is essential to muscle recovery.

There are a number of other supplements that can help reduce muscle pain and help reach your fitness goals but the above suggestions are a great start. As a foundation, a plant based diet with a focus on colourful fruits and veggies, along with adequate protein is essential to fueling your body during a fitness program. Don’t fall off the wagon and get derailed by muscle pain and fatigue because of poor nutrition. Good luck with your exercise and have fun!

You may also be interested in:

Natural, Evidence-Based Supplements for Pain Management

Image by: oneinchpunch via Adobe Stock

References

  • Jung, W.H., Ryu, J.S., and Woo, J.M. (2015). Effect of a forest therapy program and the forest environment on female workers’ stress. Effect of a forest therapy program and the forest environment on female workers’ stress. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening. 14: 274-281.
  • Kagawa, T., Korpela, K., Lee, J., Li, Q., Miyazaki, Y., Morikawa, T., Park, B.J., Takayama, N, and Tsunetsugu, Y., Tyrvainen, L. (2014). Emotional, Restorative and Vitalizing Effects of Forest and Urban Environments at Four Sites in Japan. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 11: 7202-7230.
  • Campbell et al. International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: protein and exercise. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 2007, 4:8
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  • S. Kuehl, E. T. Perrier, D. L. Elliot, J. C. Chesnutt. Efficacy of tart cherry juice in reducing muscle pain during running: a randomized controlled trial. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2010 7(17):1-6