The Crucial Role of Nutrition in Injury Recovery and Prevention
Getting sidelined by an injury is every athlete’s worst nightmare. Unfortunately, you don’t have complete control over if and when injuries happen. However, you do have control over the food you put into your body, and nutrition plays a crucial role in injury recovery and prevention.
Today, we’re tackling specific macronutrient, micronutrient, and hydration needs to mitigate injury risk. We’ll also share food sources to focus on and give you the information you need to enhance your ability to recover from injuries and minimize your risk of future setbacks.
What Are Your Calorie and Macronutrient Needs?
When dealing with an injury, it is common to wonder and worry about overall calorie intake—after all, you’ve worked hard to build muscle and stay lean.
Your instincts are likely telling you to drop calories to compensate for the potential decrease in movement that comes with more severe injuries. To some degree, this instinct is accurate—especially if you’re in a cut. However, dropping calories too drastically can negatively impact recovery speed and effectiveness .
An experienced coach can help you navigate calorie and macronutrient needs during an injury based on your new training frequency, body composition, and goals. Everyone’s bodies are different, and the seriousness of injury plays a part in whether or not calories need to adjust.
Protein Intake Needs During an Injury
Protein intake plays a significant role in sustaining muscle mass as it drives muscle protein synthesis .
A calorie decrease can often result in reduced protein intake, adversely affecting injury recovery. In fact, studies have shown that increasing protein intake when injured may be advantageous to recovery efforts and preventing muscle loss .
Eating high-protein foods also supports the repair and rebuilding of bodily tissue along with collagen synthesis. Protein foods like fish, poultry, meat, eggs, and dairy contain necessary amino acids (glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline) that nurture collagen production . Collagen plays an integral role in connective tissue, skin, muscle, and bone health.
Carbohydrates for Energy & Essential Nutrients
Carbohydrates are your body’s primary energy source, and you need this energy for cellular repair and maintaining a balanced immune response . Carbohydrates are also a leading source of the vitamins and minerals your body needs for optimal health when you’re active and constantly breaking down your muscles and stressing your immune system through exercise—we discuss these in more detail below.
Carbohydrates are usually the macronutrient with the most room for potential adjustment when injured. Suppose your injury necessitated a decrease in movement. In that case, it is essential to prioritize high-volume, high-fiber carb sources like vegetables over quick-digesting carb sources like fruit, starchy vegetables, and grains. These carbohydrate sources will help with energy maintenance, hunger regulation, and blood sugar maintenance when recovering from an injury.
Healthy Fat Intake and Inflammation Management
There is a direct correlation between chronic inflammation and increased injury susceptibility. Dietary fat helps reduce inflammation and support cell membrane integrity—both of which are important for injury prevention and recovery .
Omega-3 fats, in particular, are especially helpful for injury prevention and recovery as they have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects [4,5]. Omega-3s can be found in salmon, mackerel, sardines, herring, pasture-raised eggs, walnuts, chia, and flax seeds.
If and when carbohydrate intake decreases during injury, you may find it helpful to increase fat intake slightly to help with satiation and expedited recovery.
The Micronutrients You Need For Injury Prevention & Recovery
Although smaller than their macronutrient counterparts, micronutrients also play an essential role in supporting your body’s healing process. Micronutrients are the vitamins and minerals that help healthy bodily functioning. There are a few in particular that play a role in injury prevention and recovery.
Vitamin C aids in collagen formation and immune function . You can find vitamin C in foods like bell peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, kiwi, strawberries, and circus fruits.
Zinc supports wound healing, tissue repair, oxidative stress, inflammation, and immune defense . Oysters, legumes, pumpkin seeds, egg yolks, whole grains, beef, and dark chocolate are good sources of zinc.
Calcium and vitamin D are two nutrients that support bone health. Studies have shown that bone health directly impacts the occurrence of injury and recovery from injury . Calcium can be found in dairy products, leafy greens, almonds, and tofu. You can find vitamin D in egg yolks, mushrooms, and salmon, but sunlight is the most abundant and effective source!
“Antioxidants” is a fancy word that refers to the hundreds of nutrients that defend against the oxidative stress produced by exercise and injury. Some antioxidants you may have heard of are vitamin E, beta-cartone, selenium, and manganese. These nutrients reduce inflammation and promote faster recovery .
These are just a few of the many micronutrients that play a role in injury prevention and recovery, and getting enough doesn’t have to be complicated—do your best to eat a variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and minimally processed whole grains.
Hydration and Connective Tissue Integrity: The Overlooked Factor in Injury Resilience
Dehydration increases your risk of injury—from more minimal muscle strains to serious ligament and muscle tears . Proper hydration helps maintain the elasticity and health of connective tissues, boosts your immune system, and helps with inflammatory regulation .
So how much water do you need? And how do electrolytes play into this?
The general consensus for athletes is to avoid fluid loss over 2% of body weight and to rehydrate accordingly, keeping in mind that one pound of fluid loss is about 16oz of hydration .
Hydration needs vary drastically from one person to another based on height, weight, age, activity level, and even location (people at higher altitudes or in dryer, hotter locations generally need more water). So for most, we recommend judging hydration needs based on fluid loss during exercise and urine color. That being said, if you’re not drinking at least 100oz of water each day right now, that is a great place to start.
As for electrolyte intake, replacing sodium, chloride, potassium, magnesium, and calcium lost through sweat will help maintain fluid balance and muscle contraction—all of which aid in injury prevention. Keep in mind that you don’t only have to drink electrolytes. Opting for salty foods is a great way to get in sodium post-exercise.
The TLDR on Nutrition in Injury Recovery and Prevention
The foods you eat directly impact your ability to mitigate injury or recover from injury when and if it occurs. Exact nutrient needs vary significantly from person to person and injury to injury. But no matter who you are or what you’re dealing with, there are a few general rules to follow:
- Keep protein intake high. At Working Against Gravity, we generally recommend between 0.8-1g per pound (yep, pound, not kg!) of body weight for uninjured athletes, so this recommendation may increase based on your injury, preferences, and how much protein you’re eating right now.
- Eat whole foods. Fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, and minimally processed grains provide the vitamins and minerals needed to support proper tissue repair, immune functioning, inflammation response, and more.
- Drink more water (and electrolytes). Use urine color and fluid loss during exercise as a starting place, and drink at least 100oz a day if you aren’t already.
Injuries are not 100% preventable. But, with proper nutrition, you can mitigate risk and increase the recovery rate when and if they happen. Working with a coach with specialized experience with athletes can take some pressure and questioning out of a stressful time in any athlete’s career.
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