Sure, stretching and spending time away from the gym are important parts of rest days — hey, your muscles deserve some TLC — but what you eat is also crucial for optimal recovery.
If you're looking to make the most of your day off, choose foods that will supply you with all of the macronutrients and micronutrients needed to promote muscle recovery. Keep plenty of healthy snacks on hand and don't forget to guzzle down water.
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Why You Need Protein on Rest Days
We all know that protein is a key component of muscle growth, but it's also the most important macro for proper recovery, according to Lisa Moskovitz, RD. And that especially rings true if your workouts consist of resistance or strength training.
When you strength train, your muscles are exposed to resistance and are damaged in the process (don't worry, these tiny tears in the muscle fibers are a good thing), according to the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM). As you recover, your body repairs these fibers — a process that builds larger and stronger muscles.
Protein is one of the primary tools your body uses to repair this muscle damage, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE). Between 15 to 30 percent of your daily caloric intake should consist of protein, leaning towards the higher end of the range on your more intense training days.
As you choose which protein-packed foods to incorporate on your rest days, look for lean options that are low in fat, recommends the Mayo Clinic. While higher fat cuts may be tastier, consider them as more of an indulgence rather than the norm.
Consider adding these healthy, protein-rich foods to your diet:
- Chicken breast: Chicken breasts are a great source of lean protein with about 27 grams of protein and less than 3 grams of fat per 3-ounce serving. Opt for skinless chicken breasts, however, as the skin can tack on quite a few calories and fat.
- Lean ground beef: When you're buying ground beef, look for the leanest option available — think 90 percent or higher. Beef is also high in muscle-boosting creatine, which your muscles use for energy, according to the Mayo Clinic.
- Cottage cheese and Greek yogurt: Dairy is commonly overlooked but can be a great source of protein. As with meat, choose dairy foods that are low in fat.
Carbs and Muscle Recovery
Although you may not typically associate carbs with strengthening your muscles and helping them recover after a strenuous workout, this macro is actually the second critical piece to proper recovery. While protein repairs muscle damage, carbs help replenish your muscles' energy stores.
Your muscles use glycogen as an energy source during exercise and have their own glycogen stores, which become depleted during training. When you eat foods that contain carbs, the carbs become partially converted into glycogen, according to a February 2018 study published in Nutrients. This glycogen is then stored in the muscles for future use.
However, just as you should be picky with your protein, it's important to choose your carbs wisely, too. Although fad diets have largely vilified carbohydrates, the key lies in which types of carbs you eat rather than how much, according to Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Quality, single-ingredient carbs are your best bet for recovery and overall health.
Consider adding these quality carbs to your diet:
- Oats: Oats are a popular breakfast food and a solid source of whole grains. Oats are low in sugar (as long as you avoid the flavored varieties) and high in fiber, which can keep you feeling satiated throughout the day, according to the Whole Grains Council.
- Sweet potatoes: Sweet potatoes are another high-fiber, filling option. They're also high in vitamin A, which helps promote healthy immune function and cell growth, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
- Brown rice: While white rice is a fast-digesting carb (which means it can spike your blood sugar), brown rice is a slow-digesting carb, which means it will keep you full for longer, according to the University of Kansas Medical Center. Whereas fast-digesting carbs are great for a pre-workout spike in energy, you may want to go with a slow-digesting carb on your rest days.
Read more: Muscle Recovery Time After Weight Lifting
What About Dietary Fats?
Healthy, unsaturated fats are an important part of a well-rounded diet and can boast some recovery-specific benefits. On your rest days, prioritize anti-inflammatory fats, recommends Moskovitz.
When you exercise and produce damage and tears to your muscles, your body triggers an inflammatory response, according to a 2013 study published in Exercise Immunology Review. Luckily, certain foods high in healthy unsaturated fats, are linked to reducing inflammation, per a December 2009 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
However, as with carbs, it's important to choose your fats wisely for optimal recovery. Foods high in trans fats, like fried foods, can actually cause more inflammation in the body, according to Harvard Health Publishing. Instead, opt for monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats on your rest days to help soothe sore muscles.
Healthy sources of dietary fat include:
- Olive oil: Olive oil contains monounsaturated fat, which is linked to anti-inflammatory benefits as well as may help reduce LDL cholesterol levels.
- Salmon: Not only does this food provide a good serving of protein but salmon is also full of omega-3 fatty acids, which are linked to reducing blood pressure and raising healthy HDL cholesterol levels, per Harvard Health Publishing.
- Nuts: Nuts are high in unsaturated fats and fiber, making for a great snack to curb hunger and cravings, according to the Mayo Clinic. However, nuts are calorie-dense, so keep portion sizes in mind.
You Need Certain Micronutrients, Too
Watching your micronutrients is just as important as hitting your macros, according to Moskovitz. Getting sufficient vitamin C, potassium and magnesium is beneficial for good muscle recovery.
While vitamin C is more commonly known for its immunity-boosting benefits, it's also a rest day must-have. Vitamin C (and vitamin E, for that matter) has been shown to reduce exercise-induced muscle damage and soreness, according to a 2018 study published in the International Journal of Medical Sciences.
A largely under-consumed nutrient in America, potassium is also one to prioritize on your rest day. A potassium deficiency can lead to fatigue and muscle weakness or cramping, according to Oregon State University. So it's important to make sure you're incorporating some potassium-rich foods like bananas and potatoes into your recovery meal plan.
Magnesium is a common supplement used by athletes to help relax muscles and prevent cramping, according to the American Family Physician. While magnesium supplements are generally safe to take, there are also plenty of foods (like spinach, seeds and tuna) that you can eat for magnesium.
- Citrus fruits: Fruits like grapefruit, orange and lemon are high in vitamin C and can be smoothly incorporated into your rest day breakfast or snack, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. However, if you're a fan of orange juice, watch for the added sugar content.
- Leafy greens: Leafy greens like spinach and collard greens contain potassium and fiber, making them the perfect side with your protein and carbs, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
- Avocado: Not only does this fruit (yes, avocado is a fruit) check the healthy-fat box but it's also a good source of magnesium, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
Hydration is just as important as your nutrition on both your rest and active days, according to Moskovitz. In fact, if you're feeling thirsty, it may be a sign that you're already dehydrated, which can lead to feeling stressed, agitated and forgetfulness, according to the Mayo Clinic. In other words, don't wait for thirst as a sign that you need to be guzzling some water.
Water is also important for proper nutrient absorption, according to Moskovitz. Aim to drink about half your body weight in ounces of water each day. So, if you're 160 pounds, shoot for about 80 ounces of water per day.
- NASM: "Back to the Basics: Hypertrophy"
- ACE: "9 Things to Know About How the Body Uses Protein to Repair Muscle Tissue"
- Mayo Clinic: "How Meat and Poultry Fit In Your Healthy Diet"
- Nutrients: "Restoration of Muscle Glycogen and Functional Capacity: Role of Post-Exercise Carbohydrate and Protein Co-Ingestion"
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: "Carbohydrates"
- Whole Grains Council: "Oats"
- NIH: "Vitamin A"
- University of Kansas Medical Center: "Carbohydrates and the Glycemic Index: “Slow” Carbs vs. “Fast” Carbs"
- Exercise Immunology Review: "Eccentric Exercise-Induced Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness and Changes in Markers of Muscle Damage and Inflammation."
- Harvard Health Publishing: "The Truth About Fats: The Good, the Bad, and the In-Between"
- Mayo Clinic: "Nuts and Your Heart: Eating Nuts for Heart Health"
- International Journal of Medical Sciences: "Short-Term High-Dose Vitamin C and E Supplementation Attenuates Muscle Damage and Inflammatory Responses to Repeated Taekwondo Competitions: A Randomized Placebo-Controlled Trial"
- Oregon State University: "Potassium"
- American Family Physician: "Therapeutic Uses of Magnesium"
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: "Vitamin C"
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: "Potassium"
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: "Magnesium In Diet"
- Mayo Clinic: "Want to Stay Hydrated? Drink Before You're Thirsty"
- Mayo Clinic: "Creatine"
- MyFoodData: "Chicken Breast"
- American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "A Saturated Fatty Acid-Rich Diet Induces an Obesity-linked Proinflammatory Gene Expression Profile in Adipose Tissue of Subjects at Risk of Metabolic Syndrome"