Anythocyanins, powerful antioxidant compounds found in tart cherries, have anti-inflammatory properties that can reduce the effects of muscle damage, says Jackie Dikos, RD, an elite runner who qualified for the 2008 and 2010 Olympic Team Trials in the marathon. Drink a glass of tart cherry juice with a slice of peanut butter toast after a hard or long workout to help minimize muscle damage, she suggests.
If you're watching your weight, snack on almonds. One serving—about 23 whole nuts—contains six grams of protein and 3.5 grams of belly-filling fiber, says Mitzi Dulan, RD, co-author of the All-Pro Diet. And research shows the crunching is satisfying, which means you'll be less likely to raid the kitchen when you're done eating the nuts.
Ginger root, which contains the anti-inflammatory phenol compound ginergol, has the potential to reduce exercise-induced muscle pain by as much as 25 percent, says Dikos. Top your sushi with a few pieces of pickled ginger or shred ginger root into your stir fry to quell inflammation.
"Every meal and snack, except around exercise, should include one to two servings of healthy fats," says Susan M. Kleiner, PhD, RD, owner of High Performance Nutrition. "At breakfast, I always include one to two tablespoons of ground flaxseed—a very potent anti-inflammatory." Ground flaxseed contains lignans, which feed our healthy gut bacteria, boosting the immune system and reducing irritable bowel syndrome symptoms. Sprinkle it on cottage cheese, oatmeal or yogurt, or add it to a smoothie.
This versatile fish is one of the best suppliers of healthy fats, an essential energy source for exercisers. "If you short-changes your fat intake, your body will break down muscle during training," says Leslie J. Bonci, RD, MPH, director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center for Sports Medicine and author of Run Your Butt Off. Aim for at least two servings of oily fish a week.
This creamy fruit contains nearly 20 vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients, including potassium, vitamin E, iron and monounsaturated fatty acids, says Dulan. And early research shows avocados may help the body absorb more nutrients from the foods eaten with them. Try substituting the fruit for mayo on your next sandwich or veggie burger.
When paired with low-fat milk, a bowl of fiber-rich whole grains is a great post-workout recovery food.The mix of carbohydrates and protein will help replace depleted glycogen stores and repair damaged muscles, says Dikos.
Premenopausal women, and especially women runners, need to watch their iron intake. The constant pounding of feet against pavement can cause footstrike hemolysis, the breakdown of red blood cells and a common cause of anemia, says Dulan. Top off your iron stores with grass-fed bison, a lean red meat that's also rich in omega-3s.
For a powerful snack, go Greek. Thick and creamy, Greek yogurt contains twice the muscle-feeding protein of regular yogurt, but with less sugar, says Dulan. And it's a good source of bone-building calcium. Try it topped with berries, honey or chopped walnuts.
Don't just depend on pasta for fuel: Sweet potatoes are one of the best sources of carbohydrates, says Bonci. And they're packed with essential nutrients, including soluble fiber, which keeps you fuller longer. Try them baked and sprinkled with sea salt.
"Research shows that people who eat peanut butter five or more times a week reduce their risk of heart disease and diabetes by more than 25 percent," says Nancy Clark, RD, a Boston-based sports dietitian and author of Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook. Plus, it's packed with protein and healthy fats, which slow digestion, keeping you fuller longer. Spread it on whole-grain toast or apple slices.
To amp fat burn, consider upping your intake of this tropical fruit, suggests Adam Kelinson, creator of Organic Performance, an active lifestyle company, and the author of The Athlete’s Plate. Coconut oil, which is found primarily in the meat of the palm, is a medium-chain triglyceride that’s metabolized faster than other saturated fats—so fast, in fact, that digesting it burns more calories than the oil contains. In a study published in Lipids, Brazilian researchers gave women either soy oil or coconut oil supplements to take for three months. At the end of the study, both groups lost a weight, but only those taking the coconut oil had less abdominal fat. Try adding fresh coconut to a pre-workout smoothie, says Kelinson.
Besides being a great source of muscle-building protein, eggs also contain choline, an essential B vitamin that most Americans don't get enough of. Choline makes up about half of the most abundant neurotransmitter in our bodies, acetylcholine, which is required for our every thought and movement, says Kleiner. "I recommend one whole egg a day." Fry one up in the morning or hard boil a batch for the week.