5 Best Recovery Foods for Endurance Athletes

Updated on December 21, 2016

A big factor that leads runners to be discouraged is all the aches and pains that can come along with setting a new goal and trying to meet it. It doesn’t matter whether you are training for your first 5K or 100-miler, once you start running further than you ever have, it hurts. Waking up after a run and feeling terribly sore and stiff can leave runners questioning their motivation and abandoning their goals.

As an endurance runner and Registered Dietitian, I have several tricks up my sleeve that allow me to recover faster and train harder. Understanding specific foods and properties of those foods can give you and edge, boost your performance, and have you out running or racing with less recovery time.

Natural Sources of Antioxidants Are One of the Biggest Secrets in Recovery

Antioxidants have become a hot research topic among athletes seeking a faster recovery time. While taking antioxidant supplements seem to provide an easy fix, science is really showing that whole foods, not supplements, allow your body to fully metabolize nutrients and gain all the benefits. Here are 5 of the top nutrient dense foods that can help you recover faster.

1. Spinach

While leafy green vegetables may not be everyone’s favorite food, science shows that it can be a great recovery tool for athletes. Spinach is extremely high is vitamin K, Vitamin A, Manganese, Folate, Magnesium, and Iron.

A research study published in the Journal of Sports Medicine looked to evaluate whether chronic daily spinach intake alleviated markers of stress and inflammation in twenty healthy runners. The results showed that by consuming spinach daily, athletes had less muscle damage, recovered quicker, and felt better.

2. Nuts and Seeds

Nuts and seeds can be an easy on-the-go snack to pack for re-fueling after long runs. Peanuts, sesame seeds, and pistachios are some of the best to choose because they are high is Coenzyme Q-0. Coenzyme Q-10 is a fat-soluble substance that resembles a vitamin. It plays a significant role in energy production in the body.

Research on Coenzyme Q-10 has revealed that, when consumed on a regular basis, it can reduce exhaustion in muscles and stabilize and rebuild muscle cell membranes.

Another benefit of nuts and seeds, especially flax and chia, is their high omega-3-fatty acid content. Omega-3-fatty acid has been cited in research many times for its effectiveness in decreasing inflammation.

3. Turmeric Root

You can find this root alongside fruits and vegetables in some grocery stores. Turmeric is packed with some of the most potent plant extracts. It is no wonder athletes are reporting significant benefits from it.

In a research study looking at the efficacy of turmeric, athletes were broken up into two groups. One group was given turmeric and the other a placebo. The athletes were then put under stress from high-intensity exercise. The athletes taking turmeric reported “feeling better than usual” and reported experiencing less physical stress during the training day. Turmeric is also an anti-inflammatory so less inflammation after a run can lead to less soreness the next day. There are numerous other ways turmeric can benefit your body.

If you are wondering how to consume turmeric root, try juicing it, cooking with it as a spice, making curry, or adding it to a soup. Because of turmeric’s beautiful yellow pigment, it can be used to brighten up foods and make them more appealing.

4. Tart Cherries

Tart cherries and other dark-colored fruits contain high amounts of nutrients called phytochemicals and anthocyanins. There have been over fifty research studies looking at the effects tart cherries have on health. A specific study evaluating athletes competing in strenuous activity for eight days straight showed that those that were given tart cherry juice showed less muscle stress and muscle damage. You can eat tart cherries fresh, frozen, juiced, dried with nuts or in a pie.

5. Seaweed

Much like nuts and seeds, seaweed is a natural plant source of omega-3-fatty acid. There is plenty of marketing and hype in the media regarding getting fish oil to get your omega-3-fatty acid, but lets study how fish get it. Fish is a rich source of omega-3-fatty acid because they consume seaweed and algae that is a naturally rich source. Why not cut out the middleman and go directly to the source. Research shows that omega-3-fatty-acid delays the onset of muscle soreness. This has huge implications for athletes performing in endurance or multi-day events.

But how do I eat seaweed?

You can add spirulina or blue/green algae to a smoothie with fruit and the flavor is not significantly altered. Another fun way to get more seaweed is making raw sushi or veggie rolls and using the seaweed as the wrapper. Seaweed is also becoming much more of a common snack to see dried and flavored in convenient snack packs.


Research shows that consuming more of these antioxidant-rich superfoods can up your game, enhance your recovery, and get you out training faster. Eating your way to better performance is a much safer approach than seeking out the latest pill or supplement. When your body is sufficiently nourished you will reap the rewards.

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Bohlooli, S., Barmake, S., Khoshkhahesh, F., & Nakhostin-Roohi, B. (2015). The Effect of Spinach Supplementation on Exercise-Induced Oxidative Stress. Journal of Sports Medicine, 55(6):609-14.

Nakhostin-Roohi, B., & Javanamani, R. (2015). The Effect of Glutamine Supplementation on Exercise-Induced Oxidative Stress. Journal of Advanced Agricultural Technologies, 2(1).

Sciberras JN, Galloway SD, Fenech A, et al. The effect of turmeric (curcumin) supplementation on cytokine and inflammatory marker responses following 2 hours of endurance cycling. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2015;12(1):5.

Bell, P., Stevenson, E., Davison, G., & Howatson, G. (2016). The Effects of Montmorency Tart Cherry Concentrate Supplementation on Recovery Following Prolonged, Intermittent Exercise. Nutrients, 8(8), 441. doi:10.3390/nu8070441

Burke, K. A., Ebelhar, J. L., & Weiss, E. P. (2009). The Effect Of Omega-3 Fatty Acid Supplementation On The Inflammatory Response To Eccentric Strength Exercise. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 41, 185. doi:10.1249/01.mss.0000354215.91342.08

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.


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