Inflammation is our bodies response to injury and to intense exercise that causes micro-tears to our muscles. While we strive to avoid injury, the micro-tears we sustain from hard workouts – such as tempo runs, intervals or long runs – ultimately help us to grow stronger. Inflammation therefore is beneficial because it helps to heal these micro-tears quickly. The problem occurs when there is too much inflammation and it becomes systemic and chronic rather than localized and temporary. By eating anti-inflammatory foods we keep the inflammation localized, helping our bodies to recover from hard workouts in a timely manner – and healing any injuries faster.
On the flip side, systemic and chronic inflammation stems from eating inflammatory foods. When inflammation becomes systemic and chronic, we fail to heal or it takes much longer to recover from our runs. We also ‘hurt’ more after our runs and tire more quickly while running. Inflammatory foods include sugar, white and refined grains, artificial sweeteners, food additives and colourings, processed cooking oils, trans fats, CAFO meat (confined animal feedlot operation, or in others words – factory farmed), alcohol and anything we have a sensitivity to, which often includes dairy, wheat, soy and/or caffeine.
While it’s optimal to remove inflammatory foods from our diets, simply adding strong anti-inflammatory foods will most certainly provide benefits. Here are my top 5 anti-inflammatory foods that as runners we want to consider adding to our diets to facilitate faster recovery.
1. Omega-3 fatty acids (alpha linolenic acids)
Okay, so this isn’t a food… It’s a nutrient. A nutrient that has received a lot of attention for its ability to reduce inflammation (equivalent to that of ibuprofen). Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats deemed essential because we cannot make them (our bodies can and do synthesize saturated fats, monounsaturated fats and cholesterol, but we cannot synthesize omega-3’s or 6’s).
Omega-3 fatty acids are perhaps best known for being found in salmon, specifically wild salmon (look for sockeye salmon – it has not yet been successfully farmed). But mackerel, herring, sardines and halibut all contain omega-3’s as well. Fish is a good source because the omega-3’s are already converted into the usable forms of this fat (EPA and DHA), therefore we don’t need to rely on our bodies to do the conversion, which we can do at a rate of about 16% on average. Adding cold water fish to our diets 1 to 2 times per week is a great way to get omega-3 fatty acids into our diets.
Because fish consumption should be limited to once or twice per week, due to concerns with PCBs, heavy metals and mercury, adding vegetable sources of omega-3 fatty acids into our diets on a daily basis makes sense. Chia seeds top the list when it comes to omega-3 fatty acid content. They contain 5000mg per ounce (compared to salmon with 565mg per ounce). At a 16% conversion rate, that’s 800mg of active DHA/EPA omega-3’s. Walnuts, pumpkins seeds, and freshly ground flax seeds are all good sources of omega-3 fatty acids also. Add chia seeds to your morning oatmeal, your recovery shake or dip a banana in them and enjoy!
The anti-inflammatory effects of ginger are well documented and have been used for thousands of years. In fact, ginger shares pharmacological properties with NSAIDs such as ibuprofen (ie. Advil). However unlike NSAIDs, which extinguish inflammation altogether, compounds called gingerols found in ginger work to manage inflammation (by suppressing pro-inflammatory compounds). This is key, because healing from your last run will only take place if there is controlled inflammation – not too much or too little.
Ginger is also known to boost the immune system, calm the gastrointestinal system, reduce nausea, vomiting and seasickness, and protect against cancer. My favourite way to consume ginger is by enjoying a hot cup of ginger tea or to throw a piece into a Tropical Recovery Shake, but it also makes great sauces, such as in the Miso-Nut Rice Bowl or Green Lentil Salad (which also contains turmeric, next up on this list).
A botanical cousin to ginger, the active ingredient in turmeric is a compound called curcumin (not to be confused with cumin) and has been shown to outshine NSAIDs in its anti-inflammatory abilities. Traditionally used to relieve arthritis, it’s known to work well for muscle pains and joint inflammation. Turmeric has also been shown to inhibit the growth of cancer cells and have a positive effect on cholesterol.
Although turmeric is found in commercial curry spice, I recommend mixing your own curry blend to ensure it contains adequate amounts of turmeric. Get more of this anti-inflammatory spice into your diet by eating curried dishes, making Green Lentil Salad and Chili, or drinking turmeric tea.
4. Green tea
Green tea, including matcha tea (finely crushed green tea leaves), are known to be high in catechins which have strong anti-inflammatory benefits. It also has strong anti-cancer properties and lowers the risk of heart disease – which shouldn’t be surprising considering that inflammation is an underlying factor behind these two chronic diseases. Studies have consistently demonstrated the healing powers of green tea, although it should be noted that if you are sensitive to caffeine you will want to avoid matcha tea as it is higher in caffeine. Green tea also contains a substance called theanine, which induces the release of GABA and dopamine, neurotransmitters that make us feel calm and boost our mood.
5. Papaya and Pineapple
Papaya contains the enzyme papain and pineapple contains the enzyme bromelain. These two enzymes are known as proteolytic enzymes and they reduce inflammation by neutralizing pro-inflammatory agents to levels where the healing of injured tissues from a long or hard run can begin. Similarly to omega-3 fatty acids, ginger, turmeric and green tea, proteolytic enzymes do not completely suppress all inflammation. They simply help to manage it.
Snack on fresh papaya and/or pineapple after a run or throw fresh or frozen pineapple into a Tropical Recovery Shake.
By adding these five anti-inflammatory foods to our daily menu we will help our bodies to recover faster from the runs and workouts we complete. By recovering faster and building a strong, injury-resistant body we will experience stronger and more consistent training sessions, ultimately leading to our next personal best.
Happy running 🙂
Sarah J Cuff, RNH, PTS