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There is nothing worse than doing a tough workout and barely being able to walk the day after due to extreme soreness.
A little soreness here and there isn’t a huge deal, but when the aches and pains affect your ability to continue your workout program there might be a problem. After all, you want to get back to the gym as fast as possible because you know consistency is the key to seeing change.
Luckily, there are a few research-backed supplements that can help speed up recovery, reduce pain, and help you get right back to your training.
How Recovery Works
Although exercise is incredibly healthy for you, it damages muscles and tissues, creates acidic waste products, and increases inflammation. The soreness you feel after a tough session stems from a combination of microscopic tears in the muscles, the build-up of acidic compounds, and inflammation triggered by the workout.
Additionally, you may have some nutrient depletion after a hard workout, particularly depletion of protein, carbohydrates, and electrolytes. All of these need to be replenished or you will start to feel lethargic and maybe even lose muscle mass.
These supplements are designed to tackle all the common causes of soreness and fatigue in different ways.
10 Helpful Supplements for Recovery
Beta-alanine is an amino acid that can help neutralize some of the acidic compounds formed during exercise. Once it is ingested, it is used to make a compound called carnosine that actively reduces acidic hydrogen ions in the muscles. Reduction of acidity caused by exercise will help delay fatigue, reduce muscle damage, and help the body recover faster (1).
A 2008 study evaluated the effects of beta-alanine supplementation on the athletic performance of college football players. The subjects received either 4.5 grams of beta-alanine or a placebo for 30 days, starting three weeks before pre-season training camp. Researchers measured various performance markers including sprint, power tests, and line drills. The subjects also completed questionnaires about soreness, fatigue, and workout intensity. The subjects who received the beta-alanine reported less fatigue and soreness after a workout indicating a quicker recovery. They were also able to exercise at a higher intensity before fatigue set in (2).
How to Take Beta-alanine
In order for beta-alanine to increase carnosine levels in the muscles it must be taken regularly. Optimal results are seen after 2-4 weeks of regular intake. The recommended dose is 3-6 grams per day. Beta-alanine is known to cause a “pins and needles” feeling in some people, so if that happens you want to split up the dose or try taking it with food (3).
Check it out: 10 highest reviewed beta-alanine products
Beets are a red, root vegetable that sometimes show up in salads or roasted as a vegetable option. But, beets are incredible for promoting recovery. Beets contain a combination of nutrients that can be used to replenish many of the nutrients lost during a workout. They are high in B6, folate, vitamin C, and many minerals that act as electrolytes such as potassium and calcium.
A 2016 study evaluated the impact of beetroot juice on recovery after sprints. Twenty athletes were given either beet juice or a placebo for three days. They completed a sprint test on day one and then on day three of taking the supplement. Researchers measured various markers of inflammation, recovery, and performance. Those who received the beet juice had a faster recovery, more strength, and increased performance (4). Another study showed similar results with beet juice lowering inflammation and soreness (5).
How to Take Beetroot
There is no specific recommended dosage for beetroot. But, you can add it to your routine in many different ways. Obviously, you can eat whole beets. They taste great roasted or shredded into a salad.
You can also drink beet juice, but watch out for the sugar content because juicing anything concentrates the sugar content. Freeze-dried beets are becoming a popular potato chip alternative, so look for those for a quick portable snack.
Beetroot also comes in powdered form which can easily be added to any smoothie or post-workout shake. The options are endless for how you can harness the power of beets to boost your recovery.
Check it out: 10 highest reviewed nitrate products
A tough workout breaks down muscle. When it is broken down, the body must then repair and regrow stronger muscle. But, it needs enough protein in order to initiate this process as muscles are made from amino acids (found in protein). For this reason, in order to help your muscles repair and get stronger, you want to have protein immediately after your workout or at least within 30-minutes. The goal is to have somewhere between 20-30 grams of high quality protein.
How to Take Protein
There are many different ways to meet your post-workout protein goal. Obviously, you can get 20-30 grams of protein from food. This would mean eating around 3-4 ounces of meat, poultry, or fish. You could also drink 24 ounces of milk, eat 3 eggs or a cup of beans. Getting your protein from real food is great when you have plenty of time to prepare a meal after your workout, but let’s get real, a lot of us don’t have the time.
Instead, you may want to rely on protein supplements which are convenient and easy to use. Many come pre-mixed or packaged in individual servings where you can just add water or a liquid of choice.
The thing with protein powders is that there are literally thousands of them on the market made from a variety of different ingredients. Whey, casein, egg, beef, pea, soy, and hemp are just a few options you might come across. So, which do you chose?
First, let’s start with what the research says. Whey protein consistently out performs all other types when it comes to building muscle, helping you lose fat, and for quick and rapid digestion. It has been shown to boost muscle recovery and promote tissue repair (6). It contains all nine essential amino acids needed for human health.
Check it out: 10 highest reviewed whey protein products
Casein, the other protein found in milk, also has all nine amino acids. The main difference between casein and whey is that casein is digested more slowly. In the end, research has found that they both can help support muscle recovery and repair, they just go about it slightly differently (7).
Check it out: 10 highest reviewed casein protein products
Which should you choose? The answer probably a supplement that contains both. While whey gets to the muscles fast, casein continues to provide amino acids for muscle repair for several hours after your workout (8).
But, if you are sensitive to lactose, follow a vegan diet, or don’t eat dairy, casein and whey are not good options. They are the two proteins found in milk. Instead you will have to choose one of the plant-based options such as pea, hemp, or soy.
Check it out: 10 highest reviewed plant protein products
Soy is the only plant-based protein with all nine essential amino acids, so it would probably be the closest to whey or casein. One thing to note, it does contain phytoestrogens, which can mimic the effect of estrogen in the body. It may not be appropriate for people with specific hormone-related illnesses or concerns (9).
The other types of vegetarian protein options are not complete proteins, they are usually missing or low in at least one amino acid. But, that doesn’t mean they can’t help your muscles recover. A 2015 study found that supplementing with pea protein resulted in as much muscle gain as supplementing with whey, even though pea protein is low in methionine (10).
The bottom line is you need protein after your workout to promote recovery. Experiment with various types to see which works best for you. The type you choose may depend on your diet restrictions, cost, and personal taste preference.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fats are essential fats found in foods like fish, walnuts, and flaxseeds. They can promote recovery by lowering inflammation caused by tough workouts.
A 2014 study supplemented 26 physically fit men with either soybean oil or tuna oil. The tuna oil contained 560 mg of DHA and 140 mg of EPA. Subjects were evaluated for recovery markers and inflammation after a workout. Those who received the omega-3s recovered faster from exercise, as measured by their heart rate going back to normal quicker (11).
A 2011 study evaluated the effect of omega-3s on post-exercise soreness. Eleven participants performed bicep curls while taking 3 g of omega-3s or a placebo for 14 days. Signs of inflammation were assessed before and after the workout. Soreness was 15% less in those who received the omega-3 (12).
How to Take Omega-3s
There are many different options for omega-3 supplements on the market. The primary concern when choosing one is to be sure that it contains both EPA and DHA, the most active forms of omega-3 fats.
Choose a fish oil that is sourced from smaller fish, such as sardines, which is likely less contaminated with heavy metals, like mercury.
Check it out: 10 highest reviewed fish oil products
Krill oil is another good option because it is well absorbed and also less contaminated. Algal oil is a vegan option for EPA and DHA.
Check it out: 10 highest reviewed krill oil products
Dosage for omega-3s can range between 1-6 grams of fish oil per day. Experiment with dosage amounts and muscle soreness to see how much you personally need.
Glucosamine is made from the amino acid glutamine and glucose (or sugar). It is a compound that is essential for joint health and reducing joint pain. Exercise puts stress on the joints. Supplementing with glucosamine can help delay some of the damage and degradation, preventing osteoarthritis (13).
A 2007 study evaluated the effects of glucosamine on decreasing knee pain and recovery after injury. Participants were given 1500 mg of glucosamine or a placebo for 28 days. Knee pain, flexibility, and swelling were measured during the study period. On day 28, the glucosamine group had improvements in knee flexibility and swelling when compared to the placebo group (14).
How to Take Glucosamine
The recommended dose for glucosamine is 1500 mg per day. Sometimes it is recommended that the dose be split up into 3- 500 mg doses. It should be taken with food. Some glucosamine supplements are paired with chondroitin, which is also beneficial for joint health.
Check it out: 10 highest reviewed glucosamine products
Curcumin is the active ingredient in a popular spice from India called turmeric. It is a powerful anti-inflammatory that can be used to reduce swelling and pain in muscles.
A 2015 study evaluated the use of curcumin on muscle soreness. Seventeen subjects were given either 2.5 grams of curcumin twice a day or a placebo for two days before a single leg jump exercise workout and for three days after. Inflammation markers, performance, and pain were measured. Curcumin significantly reduced pain during the exercise, improved the jump height, and reduced inflammation markers after the exercise (15).
How to Take Curcumin
Curcumin is found in the spice turmeric, so if you enjoy the flavor you can always add it to your food. There is no standardized dose for turmeric, but most experts recommend anywhere from 500-2000 mg per day. The WHO recommends a dose of 1.4 mg per pound of body weight, which means a 150 pound person would need around 210 mg per day (16).
Curcumin is fat-soluble and should be taken with food. Additionally, look for supplements that contain piperine (a black pepper extract) which can help increase absorption.
Check it out: 10 highest reviewed curcumin products
Branch-chain amino acids (BCAAs)
Amino acids are the building blocks of muscles. But, there are certain amino acids, called branch-chain amino acids (BCAAs) that are particularly beneficial for muscle building and recovery. The three BCAAs are leucine, isoleucine, and valine.
BCAAs increase muscle synthesis, reduce perception of fatigue, and decrease post-exercise muscle soreness. BCAAs are used up during exercise, so they must be replenished in order to properly repair muscle.
A 2017 study investigated the effects of BCAA supplements on recovery and muscle damage. Sixteen participants were given either BCAAs or a placebo at a dose of 0.087 g/kg of body weight and a ratio of 2:1:1 of leucine to isoleucine and valine. The participants performed squats at 70% of their one rep max. Those who received the BCAAs had increased strength and reported less muscle soreness when compared to the placebo group (17).
How to Take BCAAs
BCAAs are available in specialized supplements that can be taken before, during, or after a workout. The recommended dosage is 5-20 grams depending on your body weight and physical activity level. The ratio of leucine to isoleucine and valine should be 2:1:1.
Whey protein is high in BCAAs, so if you take whey you really don’t need a separate product.
Check it out: 10 highest reviewed BCAA products
Coenzyme Q10 is an antioxidant that helps reduce inflammation, lower oxidative stress, and prevent fatigue after exercise.
A 2008 study evaluated the effects of 14 days of CoQ10 supplementation on recovery and athletic performance. Subjects were given 100 mg of CoQ10 or a placebo twice a day for 14 days. Subjects who received CoQ10 had less oxidative stress after exercise. They were also able to increase the amount of time they were able to exercise (18).
How to Take Coenzyme Q10
Dosages for CoQ10 can vary from 50-300 mg per day. Most research on athletic performance and CoQ10 utilizes levels around 300 per day. Since CoQ10 is a natural antioxidant in your body, there is no major danger of toxicity. At very high doses there are reports of headaches and stomach discomfort. Some people report insomnia with CoQ10, so consider taking it in the morning.
Look for a supplement that has the ubiquinol form of CoQ10, which is best absorbed. It should also be taken with a meal.
Check it out: 10 highest reviewed CoQ10 products
Glutamine is the most abundant amino acid in the body and makes up 60% of the amino acids found in muscles. During exercise glutamine is significantly depleted. Glutamine supplements may help support a faster recovery and maintain muscle mass. Glutamine also helps muscle cells stay hydrated, important for muscle recovery. A 2011 study found that glutamine helped reduce muscle soreness and prevented strength loss (19).
How to Take Glutamine
At least 5-10 grams of glutamine should be taken immediately after a workout to support repair of the muscles. Glutamine supplements are frequently paired with creatine supplements and these two compounds work well together to keep muscle cells hydrated.
Check it out: 10 highest reviewed glutamine products
Citrulline malate is a compound that helps remove ammonia from the body, which can contribute to muscle soreness. It helps the kidneys remove waste products from the body.
A 2010 study investigated the impact of citrulline malate on exercise performance and muscle recovery. Subjects performed two training sessions where they did a bench press. They were given 8 grams citrulline malate before one of the two sessions and a placebo on the other. Those who received the citrulline were able to increase repetitions by 53%. They also had 40% less muscle soreness in the 48 hours following the exercise (20).
How to Take Citrulline Malate
The recommended dosage for citrulline is 5 to 15 grams per day. You may experience some stomach discomfort at higher dosages, so you can split it up if needed.
Check it out: 10 highest reviewed citrulline malate products
The Bottom Line on Recovery
If you are looking to gain muscle or change your physique, you have to take recovery seriously. Recovery is not just about getting enough protein or the right supplements, it is also about actually resting from time to time.
It is not necessary to exercise every day to see progress. Anywhere from 3-6 days a week may be adequate, depending on your goals and schedule. If you have to do something active every day, consider throwing in a few “active recovery” days where you go for a walk or do a yoga class, instead of a tough workout.
Finally, the best thing you can do for recovery is get enough sleep, so aim for 8 hours a night.
ⓘ Any specific supplement products & brands featured on this website are not necessarily endorsed by Ana.
Stock Photos from vladee / Shutterstock
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About the Author
Ana Reisdorf is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist with 11-years experience in the field of nutrition and dietetics. After graduating from California State University, Long Beach, she began her career as health educator, helping educate patients on a variety of nutrition-related conditions. Email Ana.