11 Fitness Foods To Help Build Muscle and Endurance

The right foods can help you improve your exercise performance and speed recovery.

As a sports nutritionist, I'm always looking for research about how various foods can enhance athletic performance, speed recovery, and build muscle mass.

People often feel the effects quickly when I pass that information on. And I relish remarks they share like, "Wow, what a difference!" or "I feel 10 years younger."

Here are 11 foods on my "eats for athletes" list, the research behind why they deserve a place on your training table, and simple, healthy ways to take advantage of their benefits.

01 of 11

Beet Juice for Stamina

Beets may be more effective at boosting energy than caffeine or nearly anything in the supplement aisle.

And in one study published in 2017 in Nutrients, researchers found that beetroot juice intake positively improved cardiovascular and respiratory health among athletes.

Invest in a juicer to bolster your performance and grab some fresh beets in the year-round season. Or look for bottled beet juice, which you can sip straight or blend into a pre-workout smoothie.

02 of 11

Blueberries for Reducing Inflammation

Blueberries are a great food for recovery and are rich in dietary fiber, vitamins, anti-inflammatory properties, and antioxidants.

In one study published in 2018 in the Iranian Journal of Public Health, researchers tested blueberries' anti-inflammatory and recovery effects in healthy athletes.

The researchers found that blueberries enhanced the athletes' exercise performance times and maximal oxygen consumption (VO2 max). The athletes also showed decreased inflammatory markers.

If fresh blueberries aren't practical, reach for dried or freeze-dried options to stash in your gym bag. You can also mix them into smoothies and top yogurt with them.

03 of 11

Tart Cherries for Fighting Pain and Regaining Strength

Tart cherries may improve muscle function and reduce muscle damage, oxidative stress, inflammation, and muscle soreness in athletes. 

Per one study published in 2020 in the Journal of the American Nutrition Association, when consumed in juice or powdered form 1.5 hours before exercise for seven days, tart cherry juice improved the endurance performance of athletes.

Fresh tart cherries are only in season during late summer. But frozen and dried options and 100% tart cherry juice are available year-round.

04 of 11

Dark Chocolate for Curbing Exercise-Induced Stress

Dark chocolate, which is a rich source of flavonoids, has many health benefits, one of which includes exercise protection. 

In one study published in 2018 in Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity, researchers gave some elite football players dark chocolate (>85% cocoa). After 30 days, the researchers observed increased antioxidant power and significantly reduced muscle damage markers among players who ate dark chocolate.

So, enjoying a few individually wrapped squares of dark chocolate daily may be helpful. Melt and drizzle dark chocolate over fresh fruit, or mix it into oatmeal, smoothies, or parfaits.

05 of 11

Coffee for Next-Day Energy

Coffee is one of the most widely consumed beverages worldwide. Plus, caffeine helps improve performance in physical exercise.

One study published in 2021 in Nutrients looked at the effects of coffee after exhaustive exercise on muscle glycogen resynthesis. Glycogen is the body's storage form of carbohydrates.

The researchers found that consuming coffee plus milk resulted in greater muscle glycogen recovery than average. They concluded that adding coffee to a beverage with adequate carbohydrates could increase muscle glycogen nearly four hours after intense exercise.

Packing more fuel into the energy "piggy banks" within your muscles ups your ability to exercise harder or longer than normal. So, enjoy your coffee however you prefer, hot, cold, or mixed in a smoothie.

06 of 11

Honey for Endurance

Honey, a natural sweetener, affects exercise performance similarly to other carbohydrates. For example, honey, a good carbohydrate source, helps prevent fatigue in athletes by acting as a natural energy booster. Also, the body quickly digests honey, which raises blood sugar levels.

In one study published in 2019 in Nutrients, researchers studied male cyclists who ate honey over multiple weeks. The cyclists experienced a milder inflammatory response from repeated exercise than normal.

Department of Agriculture-certified organic raw honey is a good choice for quality and purity. Enjoy it straight off a spoon, or mix it into a pre-workout snack like oatmeal.

07 of 11

Pea Protein for Delaying Muscle Fatigue

Pea protein powder is rich in branched-chain amino acids, compounds that delay fatigue during exercise. Pea protein contains all nine essential amino acids, making it a complete plant protein.

The arginine in pea protein powder, made from yellow peas, may help support immunity. At the same time, lysine boosts calcium absorption and decreases calcium losses to help maintain strong bones. One scoop can pack more than 25 grams of lean protein.

You can whip pea protein powder into a smoothie along with almond milk, a dollop of almond butter, cinnamon, and frozen cherries or berries.

08 of 11

Pomegranate for Muscle Strength Recovery

The antioxidants in pomegranates may help enhance memory and brain activity.

One study published in 2016 in PLoS One found that pomegranate juice helps improve muscle recovery.

The researchers recruited nine elite weightlifters in their early 20s who performed in two Olympic weightlifting sessions after either a placebo or pomegranate juice. The pomegranate juice group showed higher performance than the placebo.

Pomegranate is a winter fruit. But you can find frozen options year-round. Just thaw and add to oatmeal, parfaits, or garden salads. Small shots of 100% juice are also a good option.

09 of 11

Salmon for Building Muscle

The omega-3 fatty acids in fatty fish like salmon have many health benefits, from fighting heart disease to preventing type 2 diabetes. Plus, the omega-3 fatty acids may improve gains in muscle mass and enhance physical function.

In one study published in 2020 in Nutrients, researchers found that omega-3 fatty acid supplements of more than two grams per day may contribute to improved muscle mass and walking speed among older adults. Those results were pronounced among people who took the supplements for more than six months.

Also, salmon is a high-quality protein options for athletes, which helps build and repair muscles.

Include wild salmon in meals a few times a week, or try salmon jerky as a portable snack. If you can't or don't eat seafood, look for an algae-based source of omega-3 fatty acids.

10 of 11

Watercress for Reducing DNA Damage

A study published in 2013 in the British Journal of Nutrition found that watercress, a peppery green from the mustard family, effectively counters exercise's "wear and tear" effects.

The researchers gave healthy young men about three ounces of watercress daily for eight weeks. The men participated in treadmill workouts that included short bursts of intense exercise. Another exercise group did the workouts without watercress as a control.

The men who missed out on watercress experienced more exercise-induced DNA damage than those who ate the greens.

Watercress makes a wonderful salad base. Or, like spinach and kale, you can whip the greens into a smoothie.

11 of 11

Watermelon To Reducing Muscle Soreness

According to one study published in 2017 in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 16 ounces of watermelon juice may help relieve muscle soreness when consumed an hour before exercise. 

The effect is likely thanks to citrulline, a natural and non-essential amino acid found in watermelon. Citrulline helps reduce the accumulation of lactic acid, a major cause of muscle fatigue. In watermelon, citrulline also helps improve artery function and lowers blood pressure.

When you eat fresh watermelon, bite into the white rind, where citrulline is in high concentrations.

Quick Review

Many foods benefit a recovering body, especially if you're vigorously exercising, by reducing stress reduction, decreasing muscle damage, and improving muscle recovery. These 11 foods are some of the best for exercise recovery.

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Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Michalska A, Łysiak G. Bioactive Compounds of Blueberries: Post-Harvest Factors Influencing the Nutritional Value of ProductsInt J Mol Sci. 2015;16(8):18642-18663. doi:10.3390/ijms160818642

  3. Golovinskaia O, Wang CK. Review of Functional and Pharmacological Activities of BerriesMolecules. 2021;26(13):3904. doi:10.3390/molecules26133904

  4. Park CH, Kwak YS, Seo HK, Kim HY. Assessing the Values of Blueberries Intake on Exercise Performance, TAS, and Inflammatory FactorsIran J Public Health. 2018;47(Suppl 1):27-32.

  5. Gao R, Chilibeck PD. Effect of Tart Cherry Concentrate on Endurance Exercise Performance: A Meta-analysisJ Am Coll Nutr. 2020;39(7):657-664. doi:10.1080/07315724.2020.1713246

  6. Cavarretta E, Peruzzi M, Del Vescovo R, et al. Dark Chocolate Intake Positively Modulates Redox Status and Markers of Muscular Damage in Elite Football Athletes: A Randomized Controlled StudyOxid Med Cell Longev. 2018;2018:4061901. doi:10.1155/2018/4061901

  7. Loureiro LMR, Dos Santos Neto E, Molina GE, et al. Coffee Increases Post-Exercise Muscle Glycogen Recovery in Endurance Athletes: A Randomized Clinical TrialNutrients. 2021;13(10):3335. doi:10.3390/nu13103335

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  10. Geiger R, Rieckmann JC, Wolf T, et al. L-Arginine Modulates T Cell Metabolism and Enhances Survival and Anti-tumor ActivityCell. 2016;167(3):829-842.e13. doi:10.1016/j.cell.2016.09.031

  11. Ammar A, Turki M, Chtourou H, et al. Pomegranate Supplementation Accelerates Recovery of Muscle Damage and Soreness and Inflammatory Markers after a Weightlifting Training SessionPLoS One. 2016;11(10):e0160305. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0160305

  12. Rossato LT, Schoenfeld BJ, de Oliveira EP. Is there sufficient evidence to supplement omega-3 fatty acids to increase muscle mass and strength in young and older adults?Clin Nutr. 2020;39(1):23-32. doi:10.1016/j.clnu.2019.01.001

  13. Huang YH, Chiu WC, Hsu YP, Lo YL, Wang YH. Effects of Omega-3 Fatty Acids on Muscle Mass, Muscle Strength and Muscle Performance among the Elderly: A Meta-AnalysisNutrients. 2020;12(12):3739. doi:10.3390/nu12123739

  14. Fogarty MC, Hughes CM, Burke G, Brown JC, Davison GW. Acute and chronic watercress supplementation attenuates exercise-induced peripheral mononuclear cell DNA damage and lipid peroxidationBr J Nutr. 2013;109(2):293-301. doi:10.1017/S0007114512000992

  15. Martínez-Sánchez A, Alacid F, Rubio-Arias JA, Fernández-Lobato B, Ramos-Campo DJ, Aguayo E. Consumption of Watermelon Juice Enriched in l-Citrulline and Pomegranate Ellagitannins Enhanced Metabolism during Physical ExerciseJ Agric Food Chem. 2017;65(22):4395-4404. doi:10.1021/acs.jafc.7b00586

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