Your essential recovery supplement guide
You’re not just looking for an extra edge on the workout mat, but when you step off it, too. So do you need recovery supplements, and if so, what is the best recovery supplement for you?
As someone who personally uses a small handful of supplements everyday, I’m not against them. But I do have concerns about the way some of them are marketed, who actually benefits from them and quality assurance across the board.
It worries me how many people will take a pill or powder with absolutely no idea what’s actually in the product, especially because it often makes more sense adjusting their diet.
So let’s chat about what you should watch out for and break down the benefits of some of the most popular recovery supplements.
Let’s get critical.
How to judge the quality of your supplements
While some countries (like Australia) regulate supplements the same way as medicines, there’s a definite lack of regulation in the United States.
It’s up to manufacturers to ensure the safety and proper labeling of products – and that doesn’t always happen. Several studies have uncovered inaccurate labels, with supplements containing far more or far less of the ingredients listed, or even containing ingredients not listed at all.
So what should you look out for when shopping for supplements?
- Be wary of quick fixes and claims that sound too good to be true. For example, promising a large weight change in a short amount of time, or the ability to burn off fat or boost metabolism.
- Look for third-party tested. Third-party testing ensures a product contains what is on the label and no contaminants. In the US, I recommend checking the label for certification logos from NSF Certified for Sport, Informed Sport, Informed Choice, BSCG and USP.
- Avoid proprietary blends. These creations may be listed as a “blend”, “complex” or “proprietary formulation” and the manufacturer does not have to reveal what goes into the blends. This makes it difficult to know exactly how much you’re getting of an ingredient or if it’s an effective dose.
Learn more about the fundamentals of a good recovery routine in our ultimate guide.
How do I know what supplements to take?
In my work as a dietitian I see people far too often just supplementing blindly. They’re taking something because they heard about it on a podcast or saw someone recommending it on social media.
Before cracking open a new pill packet, take these three steps first:
- I always recommend that you meet with a sports dietitian to confirm if you need a supplement, manage possible interactions between supplements and medications, and proper dosage.
- If you can’t see a dietitian, look for qualified healthcare providers online. I often answer questions regarding supplements on my social media accounts and website, as do many others. Be sure to check their credentials, and make sure it’s not just someone trying to profit off you buying their products.
- Think about food first. Supplements are usually very expensive compared to whole foods. You will also get other nutrients such as fiber and polyphenols that work together to improve overall health from food versus in a pill or powder.
Now let’s get into the nitty gritty of the most common supplements touted for recovery – and whether they’re worth it.
This herb has been shown to help reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Other potential benefits for recovery include increased strength and muscle recovery – however, more research is needed.
Should I use it? Ashwagandha supplements may be of benefit if you’re looking to manage chronic stress. As there aren’t very many long-term clinical trials of ashwagandha, it’s difficult to determine correct dosing and rule out side effects or loss of potency long-term.
Can I get it from food? Ashwagandha is an adaptogen herb (withania somnifera) so you will only find it in things it has been added to, such as powders, teas or supplements.
BCAAs are often sold with promises of reducing fatigue or muscle damage, but the evidence for these claims is not strong.
Should I use it? There is mixed research on whether BCAA supplementation is effective in reducing fatigue or muscle damage, and there's no evidence of any benefit from supplementation if you’re already consuming adequate protein. So if you consume a high-protein diet rich in essential amino acids, those BCAA powders or pills really aren’t necessary.
Can I get it from food? Much like protein, you can get your branched-chain amino acids from meat, fish, poultry, dairy and soy.
Often sold in supplement form as L-citrulline or citrulline malate, this nonessential amino acid is produced naturally by the body and is then converted to arginine and nitric oxide – which is crucial for the health of your arteries and optimizing blood flow around the body.
Should I use it? Some research does show citrulline malate to be beneficial in reducing muscle soreness at 24 and 48 hours after exercise, but as your in-house dietitian, I need more extensive evidence before I recommend regular citrulline supplementation. While it likely won’t hurt any, it may not be as beneficial as the labels claim.
Can I get it from food? You can get citrulline naturally from watermelon, cucumber and squash (pumpkin).
Try our Cleansing Celery & Watermelon Juice for a fresh burst of citrulline.
You may have heard me call this protein an athlete’s best friend – that’s because it plays a crucial role in maintaining the integrity of joints and connective tissue. It provides strength and stability to your joints, reduces the risk of injury and pain, and provides structural support to bones.
Should I use it? While our body naturally makes collagen, production declines with age – which is why it is even more important for older athletes or people who are super active to consume collagen-rich foods or use supplements if necessary. Collagen may also help athletes recovering from connective tissue injury or those looking to improve connective tissue health.
The research surrounding collagen is still relatively new. Evidence is strongest to support the benefit of collagen for joint and skin health. However, studies show collagen supplementation taken prior to exercise may help strengthen connective tissue – and therefore assist recovery. For the majority of people, 15 grams of hydrolyzed collagen paired with vitamin C taken 1 hour before exercise is enough.
Can I get it from food? Bone broth, poultry and eggs all contain good amounts of collagen. You can also ramp up your body’s natural collagen production by consuming nutrients that aid in the process, such as vitamin C, zinc and copper.
The vitamin C and protein in this Orange Berry Smoothie will help rev up your natural collagen production.
You’ve most likely heard of creatine as a supplement for building muscle. But alongside its positive impact on lean muscle mass, creatine can improve sprint performance and maximal strength and power.
Should I use it? If you’re going through a prolonged period of inactivity (e.g after an injury), creatine can help prevent loss of muscle. If you’re training at high intensity with weights or for power and strength, creatine may also improve recovery.
Vegan and vegetarian athletes in particular tend to have lower creatine stores, so could see the highest increases.
For the majority of people, 3-5 grams daily of creatine monohydrate is sufficient for maximizing creatine concentrations. Loading phases (taking more than this to improve uptake) are not necessary.
Can I get it from food? Creatine is found naturally in several animal products, including meat and fish. However, you would need to consume approximately 1lb (half a kilogram) for just 1-2 grams of creatine.
Glutamine is a conditionally essential amino acid, meaning our bodies can produce it on its own except in certain conditions, like during periods of illness or stress.
Should I use it? It does not appear to provide any recovery benefits except in exercise situations that deplete glutamine levels, such as prolonged endurance events when it can restore immune function impacted by a heavy training load.
So unless you’re competing in ultra-endurance events, glutamine supplementation is only really needed if you struggle to consume enough glutamine in your diet, or you suffer from a GI condition such as IBS or Crohn’s.
There is no current recommended dose for glutamine. It’s also important to know that it can come with side effects, including bloating, constipation, diarrhea or GI distress.
Can I get it from food? You can increase glutamine in your diet by eating poultry, fish, bone broth, eggs, cabbage, dairy, tofu, beans and lentils.
Our 6-ingredient Crispy Chicken Taco Salad is fast, filling and full of glutamine (if that’s what you’re into).
Your body uses this mineral for many different processes including protein synthesis and maintaining levels of calcium in muscles (crucial for proper function). A lack of magnesium can lead to muscle cramps, fatigue and weakness, which can impede recovery.
Should I use it? Magnesium supplements can be useful if you have a deficiency, can’t meet your needs through food alone, or you’re looking to decrease muscle soreness – although more research is required to determine the required dosing to ease soreness.
I suggest you work with a dietitian to determine if supplementation is appropriate for you, and at what dosage, especially if you are concerned about a deficiency or increased loss of magnesium through sweat.
The recommended daily intake of magnesium for adults is 400-420mg daily for men and 310-320mg for women. Females should be advised oral contraceptives may deplete certain minerals, including magnesium. And a higher daily intake of 350-360mg daily is recommended during pregnancy.
Can I get it from food? You can increase your intake of magnesium from natural sources by eating more plants, including pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, almonds, leafy greens, legumes like black beans and edamame, avocados and dark chocolate.
The beans, avocado and quinoa in this Tex-Mex Black Bean Fajita Bowl are all great sources of magnesium.
Omega-3 fatty acid supplementation may help to reduce systemic inflammation and oxidative stress, as well as reducing DOMS.
Should I use it? If you’re recovering from injury or unable to meet the recommended daily intake of omega-3s, supplements can be beneficial. Vegans and vegetarians often fall into this latter category – if that’s you, be sure to look for an algae-based supplement.
Can I get it from food? Omega-3s can be found in fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, albacore tuna and sardines. Plant sources include chia, flax and hemp seeds.
These omega-rich recipes are a tasty way to boost recovery and brain health.
You’ve wrapped your cool-down, now it’s time to lock in those gains. Research has shown that rapidly digested proteins that contain all nine essential amino acids (such as whey protein isolate) are the most effective for stimulating muscle protein synthesis.
Should I use it? If you’re struggling to meet your daily recommended protein intake – this includes vegetarian or vegan athletes – or have high needs, protein powder is an effective and convenient option. It can also be helpful if you have a hard time consuming solid foods around training.
However, while protein powder is convenient, if you find yourself needing to supplement with it multiple times per day, I suggest you reassess your diet to include more whole food sources of protein in meals and snacks.
Can I get it from food? While powder makes getting your post-workout protein easy, it’s also important that you’re getting plenty from real-food sources such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy products, soy products (such as tofu, edamame and tempeh), seeds and nuts.
Our smoothies are a great way to get a protein hit. Find your flavor here.
Tart cherry juice
Tart cherries contain phytonutrients that have strong anti-inflammatory properties, which may aid your recovery by reducing the oxidative stress caused by strenuous exercise.
Research has shown tart cherry supplementation can help the recovery process by minimizing losses in strength and power, and reducing the severity of DOMS.
Should I use it? Tart cherry juice is so nutrient-dense that anyone can benefit from drinking it. But it’s especially beneficial for anyone healing from injury and looking to promote optimal recovery. You may notice that tart cherry also comes in pill or capsule form. This is a helpful way to supplement if you have a hard time drinking the recommended 8-12oz (236-355ml).
It’s also shown to be beneficial for sleep. And quality sleep is a must for any recovery routine.
Can I get it from food? In tart cherries and tart cherry juice, of course.
Looking for more nutrition advice from Angie? Start here:
Sports dietitian Angie Asche will power your plate with no-nonsense food advice. Founder of Eleat Sports Nutrition, Angie works with MLB, NFL and NHL athletes to get the best from their bodies. With a Masters of Science in Nutrition & Physical Performance, and as a certified exercise physiologist and personal trainer, she’s got the expertise you need to achieve your goals.
Sign up to unlock your full potential
All your tools in one place
Expert-training to fuel your fitness, nutrition and mindfulness.
Limitless ways to fuel your mind & body
Access to over 3,000 workouts, recipes, and meditations – all tailored to your goals.
Tech that keeps you moving
Download Centr on all your devices to level up and track your results live.