Balanced plant-based diets are undoubtedly good for your health. Thanks to numerous beneficial plant compounds, going vegan can reduce the risk of diseases such as cancer and heart disease. There is also strong evidence that cutting out animal proteins could improve your overall athletic performance, while the latest science suggests plant-based diets may improve exercise recovery in particular.
But first, why is recovery so important? The simple answer is that it’s when your body enters a state of repair, adaptation, and growth. In fact, it could be argued that optimising your training recovery from exercise is just as important as training itself when it comes to improving strength and fitness. So, whether you’re a bodybuilder, an endurance athlete, or anything in between, optimising your recovery should be one of the key goals of your training plan.
Let’s dive a little deeper into why a plant-based diet could be your secret weapon to optimal exercise recovery.
What are free radicals?
Free radicals are unstable molecules that can damage proteins, fats, and even DNA. Your body’s always producing free radicals – especially through processes that involve an oxidation reaction, such as those required for producing energy.
We actually need free radicals in small amounts, but elevated levels can cause serious harm to the body over time. During exercise, there’s a huge increase in free radical production because of the high demand for oxygen required for energy production, particularly within muscle cells (1).
But don’t worry, exercise is still healthy, because that increase in free radical production during exercise is relatively short-lived. In fact, levels of DNA damage resulting from exercise-induced free radical production have been shown not only to quickly return to baseline levels, but end up significantly lower than where they started, even several days after a bout of exercise.
It seems that the short-lived increase in free radical production when we exercise signals to our bodies to increase the production of our own in-built antioxidant repair systems, so we can better deal with future bouts of exercise (2). Just one of the countless health benefits of regular exercise.
How do free radicals impact exercise recovery?
Levels of free radicals and resulting oxidative stress seem to have a potent role in the adaptation process following exercise (3). Reducing oxidative stress with a diet rich in antioxidants can minimise the symptoms of exercise-induced muscle damage, such as muscle pain, soreness, inflammation and reduced muscle function (4). And improving your recovery is one of the holy grails in sports and exercise nutrition: it means your muscles and body can repair, adapt and grow more efficiently, and you can capitalise on all that hard work you put in during training.
It also means subsequent athletic performance or training quality, particularly when there’s limited time to recover between training sessions or competitions, can be optimised. Taken over the course of an entire sporting season or even an entire career, the cumulative benefits can make a phenomenal difference to performance.
How can diet influence free radical production?
Antioxidant-rich plant foods, intake of which naturally tends to be higher on a plant-based diet, help to reduce oxidative stress during exercise, which can significantly improve performance. But the magic doesn’t end there – they also enhance the body’s adaptation process, by ramping up our own in-built antioxidant defence systems after exercise, thereby improving our recovery as well as performance.
These effects have been shown in studies with various plant foods such as grapes, blueberries, blackcurrants, watercress, and spinach (5-8).
Meanwhile, increased consumption of red meat, poultry, and dairy seems to promote oxidative stress due to the higher levels of saturated fat, animal-based proteins, and haem iron (9,10).
So, a plant-based diet can provide double benefits: fewer pro-oxidative animal-based foods, and more antioxidant plant compounds. The evidence so far comes mostly from studies incorporating single plant foods – so just imagine the power of an entire diet based around antioxidant-rich whole plant foods.
How can I get more antioxidants?
There’s a wide variety of phytochemical compounds with antioxidant properties in varying proportions in all plant foods. The effect of both reducing the risk for many diseases, and reaping the recovery benefits is not only down to the effect of the individual antioxidants, but also the synergy of many different antioxidants and other nutrients present in fruits and vegetables working together (11).
Getting the widest variety of antioxidants naturally through your food every day provides the greatest rewards. An easy way to do this would be to eat several different coloured plant foods every day, because some of the most important antioxidant compounds are known to be pigmented and have a characteristic colour.
For example, anthocyanins are responsible for red, blue and purple colour in fruits and vegetables. Carotenoids are associated with red or orange colours, and chlorophyll gives the green colour to many vegetables (12). Including different colour plants naturally promotes uptake of the other hundreds of known and unknown antioxidants, along with the widest variety of important vitamins and minerals.
You could try complementing your antioxidant intake with various herbs, spices, teas, and even coffee too. For example, turmeric contains the powerful antioxidant curcumin – absorption of which is increased by up to 2000% if consumed with black pepper (13). Allspice, cinnamon, cloves, saffron, mint, oregano, thyme, sage, tea and coffee are all particularly high in antioxidants too.
TJ Waterfall is a plant-based sports nutritionist. He works with elite vegan athletes ranging in disciplines from Premier League and international footballers and endurance runners, to Olympic athletes and professional rugby players. He has a first-class master’s degree in nutrition from UCL and loves to bring clients the best advice based on the latest science and nutrition research. TJ's book, The Plant-Based Power Plan, is designed to provide you with all the evidence-based tips, advice and strategies he uses with elite sportspeople to help you thrive, both in terms of health and performance, on a plant-based diet.
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