Managing Muscle Pain through Nutrition
At some point in life, it’s likely that most of us will have a muscle complaint of some form or another. Whether it’s from over-training or just starting out, they can be a source of frustration – and more importantly, a source of pain and discomfort. However, nutrition can help you diminish the presence of such annoyances in your life, and we’ll start by focusing on two specific problems – muscle fatigue and muscle cramps.
You’re in the middle of a spin class and your heart is going strong, but much to your frustration, your legs just don’t seem to want to keep up. Sound familiar? Muscle fatigue occurs when we’ve either overworked our muscles and neglected to give them adequate recovery time, or when we simply haven’t fuelled them with the proper nutrients for optimal performance.
Glycogen is the name given to the stores of carbohydrates found in our muscles. When our bodies can’t keep up with adequate ATP production during higher intensity exercise, or under extreme cold or heat conditions, these glycogen stores are drawn from to create extra ATP through glycolysis.
Glycolysis, for those who don’t know, “is the process through which a high volume of ATP can be produced through the breakdown of glycogen to glucose.”(Benardot, 8) If we don’t take the time to replenish these stores of glycogen after a workout (much like a savings account), the next time we need them to bail us out of a tough situation there’ll be little, if any, to draw from. So what can we do to ensure this account gets replenished after a withdrawal?
Eat a high carbohydrate meal roughly 90 minutes before your workout. This will ensure blood glucose levels are adequate for your workout. Eating too soon before a workout, you risk a) not having enough energy and b) tasting your food for a second time.Make sure to refuel after a workout. There’s a window of time (approximately two hours) within which your body can most effectively replenish the stores of glycogen. This is due to the elevated level of the enzyme glycogen synthetase, which is a result of your body becoming depleted in glycogen. By providing your body with glucose or sucrose while these levels are high, it’s more efficiently able to replace your glycogen stores. Carbohydrates are your best bet, making sure you steer clear of anything refined and processed. However, getting some form of protein in there is also necessary, as long intense exercise not only depletes glycogen stores but can also lead to protein degradation.
Great options include:
- Bananas and oranges
- All-natural nut and grain bars
- Smoothies made with rice or nut milk, fruit and also a whey-protein isolate powder
- Non-commercial whole grain bread with raw almond butter
- Brown rice, salmon and steamed greens
What you eat will obviously depend on what time of day it is. But what’s most important is actually following through with it.
Ever been woken up in the middle of the night feeling as though someone is literally ripping your calf muscle out? Or perhaps you’ve been out on a hot run when all of sudden your hamstring feels like someone is using it as a bow. Muscle cramps are quite literally a huge pain for elite athletes and the average Joe alike. Typically occurring in the muscles we use the most, in many cases they’re brought on by electrolyte imbalances, dehydration and hypoglycemia.
Sodium and Potassium
Are the two electrolytes commonly found in sports drinks, and they’re both essential for muscle contraction, and are lost in large quantities in our sweat.
Calcium and Magnesium
Are two other minerals linked to muscle cramps. Calcium is involved in the regulation of muscle contraction, whereas magnesium acts to relax the muscles. When they’re low, the nerve endings and the muscles they stimulate are more easily excitable, which can result in muscle twitching and cramping. So, to help prevent yourself from uttering the words “Holy cramp!” ensure you get adequate amounts of these minerals in your diet.
Great sources of calcium include organic plain yogurt and organic milk. For those who avoid dairy, other great sources include salmon, sardines, tofu, dark leafy greens, almonds and sesame seeds. Magnesium similarly can be found in dark leafy greens, seafood, nuts and seeds, as well as whole grains and legumes.
If you find it difficult to obtain the right amounts through diet alone, a supplement is a good idea, in the ratio of 2:1 (Ca:Mg). Calcium Citrate is one the best forms of calcium for optimal absorption (Haas, 161). Other than replenishing through sports drinks, potassium can be found in spinach, broccoli, parsley, bananas, citrus fruits, avocados, legumes and fish.
Sodium can naturally be found in seafood, beef, poultry, beets, carrots and sea vegetables – and organic choices are often the best. It needn’t be heavily added to your food unless severe dehydration is apparent. On top of these minerals, ensure that you stay well hydrated during any form of exercise and avoid letting your blood sugar drop too low by steering clear of processed and refined foods and sugar.
Other Nutrient Essentials
Vitamins A, C and E, along with Beta Carotene and Selenium, will help with potential tissue irritations and inflammation that can occur as a result of regular intense exercise (Haas, 618).
Especially for women, this essential component of hemoglobin allows the red blood cells to carry oxygen. Without enough of it, energy and endurance during any form of activity will suffer. Red meat is the best source, though chicken, whole eggs and salmon are also good. For vegetarians out there, soybeans, quinoa and lentils provide decent amounts, though these non-heme sources aren’t as easily absorbed by the body. Therefore, an iron supplement may be needed (Haas, 190-191).
An enzyme with anti-inflammatory properties, it can be supplemented or found naturally in pineapple.
Essential Fatty Acids
The benefits of getting your Omega 3s and 6s are plentiful. Anti-inflammation, immune enhancement, energy production and recovery from fatigue are but a few of the roles these healthy fats play (Erasmus, 45-50). Great sources are nuts and seeds and their oils (almonds, walnuts, flax), as well as cold-water fish such as salmon and tuna.
So there you have it – yet another example of how proper nutrition can do wonders. It can’t work alone, however, so it’s important to ensure that you’re also getting adequate rest, keeping stress at bay and most importantly, maintaining a positive outlook. After all, if one of the spokes is broken, it doesn’t matter what you do – the wheel won’t turn!