Eat your way through injury
Use nutrition to enhance tissue repairPhoto by: Getty Images
If you’ve been any sort of athlete for more than a minute, you’ve no doubt dealt with a niggle, full-blown injury, or perhaps even just the fear of one cropping up and derailing race and fitness goals. Injuries may not be completely avoidable – either through accident or repetitive motion or load. However, the risk can be minimized by playing things smart and paying attention to load management, getting enough sleep and recovery, eating adequately and setting realistic goals.
Not getting injured is obviously the ultimate goal – consistency is always king when it comes to improvements and adaptations. But let’s say you do get injured and you want to get back to fitness and racing quickly. What’s the plan? Aside from having strategies in place to deal with frustrations and resetting of goals, along with a good physical prep plan to slowly and consistently build load, there are things you can do in your kitchen that will help improve your chances of regaining fitness sooner.
Tissue repair depends on nutrients delivered via the food on your plate. Here are a few basic strategies to employ as an injured athlete:
- Up your protein: Injury means a higher protein intake is required. Include quality protein, spaced across the day. Aim for up to 2 g/kg of body weight as 50 to 70 g at meals and 20-30 g at snacks. Foods to include are: eggs, fish, meat, dairy, nuts, legumes.
- Match your energy: You want your body weight and composition to remain as stable as possible. If your injury means your activity levels are restricted, then reduce portion sizes accordingly. (This may be as simple as dropping out some snacks you’d usually have while training like all those gels, sports drinks and bars that might accompany long rides and runs).
Related: Nutrition Science Performance – enhancing probiotics, bone-healthy sports for kids and more
Do include foods that promote healing:
- Omega 3 rich foods including fatty fish such as salmon, halibut, herring, oysters, sardines, trout and fresh tuna. Plant-based sources include flax seeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds and walnuts.
- Focus on nutrient-dense whole foods – vegetables, fruits, herbs, spices, whole grains, nuts, seeds, quality proteins and healthy fats
- Pro and prebiotic foods such as kombucha, kefir, yogurt, sauerkraut, miso soup, onion, leeks, garlic and green banana flour.
Limit foods that promote inflammation and slow healing:
- Refined grains, processed foods and sugars (e.g. soft drinks, cereals, white breads, white pasta).
- Fried foods
In addition there are a few supplements that have solid research backing them for inclusion as part of the recovery process:
- Curcumin – the active component of turmeric, is a potent anti-inflammatory and has been shown to assist with joint health and tissue repair. Look for a quality supplemental source and include daily.
- Omega 3 /fish oil – particularly if you don’t consume fish several times a week, this can be an easy addition to lower inflammation. Wait 48 hours post-acute injury before you add these to the mix – that initial natural inflammatory response is an important aspect of the recovery/repair process.
- Creatine – has proven benefits in building tissue, especially muscle repair. It is a cheap and easy addition, well studied, safe and beneficial for many athletes. A low 5 g dose a day is recommended.
- Gelatin or collagen – the new/old supplement. Collagen is found in all body tissue, and traditionally was consumed in adequate amounts when we humans used to eat nose-to-tail, including all the gelatinous and cartilage bits of animals. These days collagen can be bought in powder form and stirred into drinks. 15 g with Vitamin C an hour before exercise, three times a day, has been shown to speed tendon injuries and may even help prevent them in the first place by supporting ongoing tendon health.
- If you’ve broken a bone or have a stress fracture – remember that fractures require increased energy requirements. After all, you are growing new bone tissue. In addition, walking with crutches or a boot requires more energy than usual locomotion. Calcium – yogurt, cheese, other dairy, sardines, nuts, greens – and Vitamin D are also needed for bone growth, so make sure you get out in the sunlight for around 20 minutes a day.
Note: If you are frequently injured, then it is strongly recommended that you engage a sports dietitian who can assess your energy intake and availability. Not eating enough is extremely common, especially in endurance athletes, and can be the number one reason some athletes get injured frequently. Low energy availability increases risk of bone fractures and overuse injuries, plus exacerbates fatigue and lowers concentration and focus, which may mean that risk of “accidental” injuries also increases.
Pip Taylor is a regular contributor to Triathlon Magazine Canada. She’s pro triathlete and sports performance dietician based in Australia.