Supplements can't take the place of refueling with food, hydrating, and rest after strenuous activity. But there are some supplements that have been scientifically shown to promote recovery and healing post-workout. Here’s what you need to know about supplements for recovery.
What happens to your body after exercise?
Recovering from a workout is just as important as the workout itself. Intense training and exercises that repetitively lengthen and relax muscles create tiny tears in muscle fibers, breaking apart muscle cells. This triggers increased blood flow and inflammation (and yes, that can be a good thing for recovery) to the affected muscle, and some muscle soreness may also occur. [1,2]
With proper recovery, this short-term inflammation resolves, muscle is repaired (and can grow back even stronger), and soreness subsides—meaning you can get back to training at high capacities more quickly. 
But if you don’t take the necessary steps to let your body recover, premature workouts can lead to muscle damage—including the disruption and breakdown of proteins in muscle fibers and connective tissues, inflammation, delayed onset muscle soreness, and increased feelings of fatigue. 
How can supplements support muscle recovery?
Though it isn't wise to rely on supplements as a main recovery tactic, some supplements may provide a welcome recovery boost by: 
- Promoting muscle synthesis (growth)
- Reducing muscle soreness
- Increasing blood flow
- Resolving inflammation
- Reducing perceived fatigue
Let’s dive into the science behind these six supplements for muscle recovery.
1. Collagen supplements
Collagen is the most abundant protein in the body and is a key component of connective tissues like tendons, ligaments, and cartilage. And inadequate collagen may be a contributor to joint pain.
The body naturally produces collagen, but it’s also a protein that can be supplemented in the diet. Collagen supplements are commonly sold as powders and may be labeled as "collagen," "hydrolyzed collagen," "collagen hydrolysate," or "collagen peptides." Compared to other protein supplements like whey, collagen is higher in the amino acids glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline—all of which are essential for synthesizing collagen in the body. Collagen production naturally tapers with age, so supplying the body with these essential building blocks may help strengthen affected cartilage tissue. 
Research shows that collagen supplements are effective in supporting recovery in people and athletes experiencing joint pain by: [5,6]
- Improving joint-related pain in athletes in as little as 12 weeks
- Extending the length of pain-free exercise
- Improving knee joint extension
What to know before supplementing: Collagen supplements may only benefit those who are experiencing joint pain. These supplements can be taken at any time of day, including before or after a workout. Dosing may range from 5 to 15 g a day.
2. Tart cherry juice and supplements
There are two main kinds of cherries: sweet and tart. Sweet cherries are typically eaten fresh, whereas tart cherries are often turned into juice or are dried and powdered to be encapsulated as supplements.
Tart cherries are rich in antioxidants that help reduce muscle damage and recovery by acting as a vasodilator—meaning it increases blood flow. This increased blood flow delivers oxygen and nutrients to affected muscles that are necessary for recovery. Several studies show that tart cherry supplementation can aid recovery by decreasing muscle soreness and pain, decreasing strength loss, increasing the body’s antioxidant capacity, and calming inflammation. [7-9]
For example, a 2016 study published in Nutrients investigated the impact of 30 milliliters (mL) of tart cherry concentrate in water five days before and three days after a prolonged, repeated sprint and agility training session in elite male athletes. Results showed that those taking the tart cherry supplement recovered faster with lower muscle soreness ratings and reduced inflammatory response than the group who received a placebo. 
What to know before supplementing: Tart cherry concentrate, tart cherry juice, and tart cherry supplements can all be taken days prior, the day of, and days following a strenuous physical event to aid in recovery. The optimal dose varies depending on the form taken (juice vs. concentrate vs. supplements), as well as workout intensity and duration.
3. Citrulline malate
Citrulline is an amino acid and malate is an organic salt; together they form citrulline malate and play an important role in energy products. Citrulline is actually converted to arginine in the body, which may promote recovery by: [10-13]
- Acting as a vasodilator to improve blood flow
- Clearing ammonium from your system (which may help reduce muscle fatigue)
- Removing lactic acid from overworked muscles
One study of 41 men found that a single supplemental dose of citrulline malate was associated with a 53% increase in barbell bench press repetitions and lower levels of fatigue.  A small study of 15 resistance-trained women also found that short-term citrulline malate supplementation improved perceived exertion during both a bench press and lower body exercise. 
What to know before supplementing: Research indicates citrulline malate can impact both performance and recovery for trained athletes—not those who engage in occasional light or moderate exercise. Citrulline malate can be consumed before a workout, and studies indicate an effective dose may range from 8 to 12 g. [10-13]
4. Branch chain amino acid (BCAA) supplements
BCAAs are the three essential amino acids valine, leucine, and isoleucine. These amino acids are essential because they have to be consumed from the diet—the body doesn’t naturally produce them. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein, and BCAA supplements can stimulate muscle protein synthesis (i.e. growing and strengthening muscles).
BCAA supplements are typically found as a powder and mixed with liquid like water. This has been a go-to supplement in the athletic community for decades, but there are some caveats to the supplement’s potential benefits.
A 2017 review of 11 clinical studies concluded that BCAA supplementation may be effective at improving measures of exercise-related muscle damage if that muscle damage is low to moderate in extent.  Supplementing with BCAAs also isn’t a short-term solution: you can’t chug a BCAA shake after a hard workout and expect it to work. The review specifically found that the most recovery benefits were seen when a high daily dose of BCAAs was consumed for at least 10 days.
What to know before supplementing: BCAAs may enhance recovery by targeting muscle protein synthesis and muscle soreness. However, more research has been conducted in males than in females. [14-16] Some whey, soy, or other plant-based protein powders may include BCAA, and the total protein content of these supplements tends to be higher (20-25g per serving) than a standalone BCAA supplement. BCAA supplements can be taken before and/or after exercise. 
Curcumin is the primary active component of turmeric, but it’s also found as a supplement. It acts as an antioxidant and has anti-inflammatory effects in the body.
A 2020 review published in Nutrients looked at data from 11 studies totaling 237 participants and found that 150-1,500 mg of daily curcumin supplementation reduced perceived muscle pain, decreased creatine kinase levels (a blood enzyme that indicates muscle damage), and improved muscle performance.  Curcumin also helps combat post-workout inflammation by inhibiting the impact of pro-inflammatory molecules.
What to know before supplementing: Curcumin supplements can help promote recovery by decreasing muscle damage (and the amount of blood creatine kinase levels) and keeping inflammation under control. While curcumin is naturally found in turmeric, you’re going to need much higher levels than what the spice offers to obtain its recovery benefits. Curcumin supplements can be taken before, during, or after a workout. 
6. Fish oil supplements
Fish oil supplements contain the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA. Omega-3 fats are known for their anti-inflammatory and heart-healthy properties.
Fish oil supplements may support recovery by reducing muscle soreness and improving physical metrics like range of motion and maximal voluntary contraction. [18-20] However, the most efficacious dose to reach this benefit is not yet clear. One seven-week clinical study found that the greatest benefit was seen in those who supplemented with 6g per day compared to 2g or 4g doses.  But other studies show that 1g to 2g daily doses resulted in meaningful improvements. [17, 20]
What to know before supplementing: Fish oil supplements may alleviate muscle soreness and extend range of motion post-exercise. But studies have mainly investigated the impact of this supplement in male athletes. [18-20] There currently isn't enough data to show whether this is an effective approach to support recovery for females.
How to choose the best recovery supplement
The best supplement for recovery is one that will help you reach your goals and that has research supporting its efficacy. Supplementation should also be targeted to fill a gap in your diet. If your goal is to quell joint pain after a workout, you may consider a collagen supplement. If your goal is to control post-exercise inflammation, you may be better off with curcumin or tart cherry juice. What’s not a targeted approach to supplementation or to muscle recovery is adding all the supplements listed here in hopes that something will work.
- Proper recovery from exercise is essential to building and maintaining muscle mass and preventing injury
- Some supplements can support the recovery processes in the body like improving blood flow, decreasing feelings of fatigue, and controlling inflammation
- Collagen, tart cherry juice, citrulline malate, BCAAs, curcumin, and fish oil supplements all have research supporting their role in helping active individuals recover from exercise
- Take a targeted approach to supplementation by considering your goals and current dietary intake
- If you don’t know where to start, seek expert, personalized guidance
InsideTracker can help you level-up your recovery by analyzing your blood and fitness tracking data from a Garmin smartwatch or FitBit. Two of InsideTracker's blood plans, The Ultimate and Immunity Plan, measure biomarkers related to recovery including creatine kinase, testosterone, cortisol, vitamin D, the liver enzymes ALT and AST, and hsCRP. Many of these biomarkers aren’t included in typical blood draws from your doctor’s office.
And if your goal is as specific as improving your recovery, merely knowing these levels won't be enough to make a difference. InsideTracker not only gives you the raw data for these metrics, but tells you whether they’re optimized and provides science-backed recommendations to improve unoptimized biomarkers. You may even see recommendations for the supplements from this list as well as specific doses for them!
Both the Ultimate and Immunity Plans allow you to select the Injury prevention/recovery goal, which prioritizes recommendations that help your body recover from workouts and reduce your risk of injury from future workouts. Click to view InsideTracker plans.
Molly Knudsen, MS, RDNMolly is a Content Writer and Team Nutritionist at InsideTracker. As a Registered Dietitian, Molly enjoys connecting people to the food they eat and how it influences their biomarkers. When she’s not writing about the latest nutrition science, she’s likely in the middle of a yoga flow or at the beach with a good book.