While experts agree that you can sip your way to post-exercise relief, traditional sports drinks aren’t always the best choice.
New research suggests drinking a natural beverage such as fruit juice, milk, or even beer after exercise could be more effective than highly-engineered beverages designed specifically to aid in workout recovery.
The question remains: Which should you drink after your workout?
The typical rule of thumb is to save recovery drinks for after exercise sessions that last at least an hour. (That way you’re likely to have burned enough energy to warrant replenishing, and you’re not faking a post-workout glow.) The formula you choose should match your workout, says Brian Parr, associate professor of exercise and sports science at the University of South Carolina Aiken.
After strength training you need protein; after a bout of endurance your body craves fluid and carbs. But after workouts of almost any kind, some experts believe, you can help your body bounce back with antioxidants.
“There’s one theory that exercise-induced muscle damage is related to the free radicals in your body, which are actually generated while working out,” says Parr. “Antioxidants help prevent damage from free radicals.”
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Here are five recovery drinks with antioxidants to match your workout. (Just remember that all sports drinks contain calories, so weigh your recovery needs against your weight loss goals when choosing a beverage. Also, listen to your body: Some of us may keep hydrated and fed-well enough during the rest of the day that we might not need any sort of beverage after a workout, even water.)
Best for Long-Distance Events: Cherry juice
How it works: Scientists suspect antioxidants are the key to limiting the inflammation and muscle damage after a half-marathon or other endurance event, and tart cherries are considered one of the most antioxidant-dense super fruits. Athletes have found it’s best to start “recovery” work a week early, and a number of studies, including a recent one from the UK, have found that regular consumption of tart cherry juice before and after a grueling workout will help your body fight off some of the wear and tear and your strength return more quickly.
Recovery Rx: Drink 2 glasses a day for the 5 days before event, on the big day, and on the next day.
Best for Strength Training: Low-fat chocolate milk
How it works: Nutritionists have long touted milk as a magical muscle building drink—by ingesting protein after a strength training workout your muscles have the proper fuel to recover and grow. Add sugar to the mix (in this case, chocolate) and protein is digested even faster, meaning your muscles bounce back—bigger and stronger than ever—even more quickly than after drinking regular milk. ?
Recovery Rx: Drink one glass of low-fat milk immediately after your workout.
Best for Yoga or Pilates: Coconut water
How it works: For years Pilates instructors have sworn by coconut water as a foot cramp cure, and after studying the drink, sports scientists at Indiana University Southeast now endorse it, too. Coconut water contains a tremendous amount of potassium, which researchers say ease charley-horse-style aches, and it contains enough antioxidants and minerals to replenish stores that have been diminished by light exercise, such as yoga. Because of its low sodium content, coconut water isn’t right for recovery after more intense workouts like running.
Recovery Rx: Drink an 8- to 12-ounce serving immediately after class.
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Best for Bikram Yoga or a Hot Run or Ride: Traditional sports drink
How it works: After a soggy sweat session, your body needs to replace the fluids that it’s lost. Drinking a Gatorade-like beverage made from a combination of fluid, salt, and sugar will help to prevent dehydration, restore electrolytes, and deliver carbs that your body can easily absorb and burn as post-workout fuel. To increase the effectiveness, serve it up cold. A recent study from Korea found that cold sports drinks hydrate better than lukewarm ones or water at any temperature. Scientists are still trying to decipher what role temperature plays in hydration, but the reason sports drinks beat out water is clear: salt in sports drinks enhance thirst, meaning you drink more of it, and the combination of salt and glucose helps your body absorb water more easily.
Recovery Rx: Drink an ice-cold bottle of your favorite sports drink right after class.
Best for Ultra-endurance Events: Nonalcoholic beer
How it works: Those once-in-a-blue-moon, really intense events—the marathon you spent months training for or the century ride you pushed through—are intense enough to raise the body’s inflammation levels and also weaken the immune system. That’s why so many marathoners get respiratory infections after a big race. But researchers in Germany found that drinking non-alcoholic beer in the weeks before and after a strenuous event increased the body’s immune function, making post-exercise illness less likely. The secret is in the drink’s innate polyphenolic compounds, which are antioxidant, antipathogenic, and anti-inflammatory. No tests have been performed on alcoholic beer, so stick with the soft stuff for now.
Recovery Rx: 1 liter a day for the three weeks prior and two weeks following an event.