Unfortunately, injuries are often an unavoidable part of sports. And to recover fully, whether from a minor strain or major surgery, you must meet certain specific nutrition needs. The physical damage caused by training or injuries is the same as any other trauma. Even if sport trauma is anticipated and intentional, the body needs to repair and recover from that damage before it can handle more stress.
Recovery from injury is a complex process that involves fueling the healing process, removing damaged cells, managing inflammation and repairing damaged tissue.
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1. Fueling Healing
One of the most common errors in recovery nutrition is misunderstanding calorie needs. Many athletes underestimate how many calories it takes to heal. Depending on the severity of the injury, calorie needs can increase by up to 20 percent above baseline. Injured athletes should also realize they are often significantly reducing calories expended during activity. By accounting for both decreased activity and the increased healing factor, athletes are able to fuel recovery without promoting negative changes in their body composition. In an effort to minimize stress on the body during recovery, some athletes undergoing lower-body surgery should consider an intentional reduction in body mass—focusing on returning to pre-injury weight during the latter part of recovery and return to play.
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Protein is often the focus of recovery, as it plays a major role in tissue regeneration and repair.* Athletes, specifically young athletes, often get adequate protein in their diets; however, special attention should be paid to the extent of the injury. Minor injuries might not require additional protein, but major surgery can increase protein needs by 10 percent. General recommendations for protein are between 0.8 and 1.2 grams per kilogram of body weight, but major surgery can push the need up to 2.0 grams per kilogram.
Injured athletes can often meet their additional protein needs though dietary changes. Many add whey protein isolate or a vegan protein option to help support their diet.*
2. Managing Inflammation
Swelling, pain, redness and heat are signs of inflammation that most athletes readily identify following an injury. Inflammation is an important and necessary part of injury recovery. It is triggered by the body’s need to clear dead and dying cells and to start the process of new cell development. For as many as four days post-injury, it’s important not to attempt to decrease this inflammation phase because it can impact recovery time. Following this initial stage, the focus should shift to managing inflammation.
A diet rich in fats knowns as omega-3s can help maintain the body’s normal inflammatory response to activity and injury.* Research has shown that consuming 2-3 grams of omega 3s daily can positively influence markers of inflammation in the body.* Athletes can consume this amount through a diet containing two servings of fish per week combined with increased intake of nuts, seeds, avocado, olive oil, chia and flax seeds—or through the addition of a fish oil supplement.
Bromelain, an enzyme found in pineapple, has been shown to promote reduced swelling and bruising after surgery by helping to maintain a healthy inflammatory response to exercise and injury.* Bromelain is recommended in amounts between 150 and 500 milligrams per day. Although all parts of the pineapple contain bromelain, it is most abundant in the stems, leading many people to add a bromelain supplement to their diet.
Curcumin, the active ingredient in the spice turmeric, has been used as a medicinal food for thousands of years. It is most commonly found in curry powder, but research has shown that supplementation of 500 milligrams twice daily can promote reduced swelling and tenderness, specifically in those with chronic or lingering inflammation issues.*
3. Repairing Damaged Tissue
The final piece of recovery nutrition involves supporting the creation of new tissue to replace the tissue damaged by injury. While many vitamins and minerals are needed to support recovery, vitamin A, vitamin C and zinc get the most attention.* Vitamins A and C help support the first few days of a beneficial inflammatory response and assist in the formation of collagen, which helps provide the structure of connective tissues such as tendons, ligaments and skin.* Vitamin A has also been linked with a decrease in immune suppression normally seen after an injury.* Research has shown that a vitamin C deficiency can lead to irregular formation of collagen fibers, and hence to decreased stability of the tissues and abnormal scar formation.* Zinc plays a role in new DNA creation, the ability of cells to multiply and protein synthesis.* Zinc deficiency, which is fairly common, can inhibit wound healing.* Recovering athletes might consider a multi-vitamin containing vitamin A, vitamin C and zinc during the initial wound healing phase.
Amino acids, the building blocks of protein, are the last area of consideration for the recovering athlete. In times of stress and damage, the body has an additional need for some amino acids.* Glutamine is the most abundant amino acid in the bloodstream. It is considered conditionally essential in times of trauma or damage as an important source of energy in recovering cells.* Leucine and its metabolite HMB have been shown to help slow muscle breakdown and nitrogen loss in injured patients.* Arginine can increase nitric oxide production, which can improve blood flow to damaged areas, providing important nutrients and promoting removal of dead and damaged cells.* Amino acids are part of complete proteins in the diet, some athletes prefer to take them directly in supplement form.
Understanding what is happening in your body following an injury can help ensure that your diet supports a full recovery so you can get back on the field or court quickly. The above recommendations are guidelines. It’s always best to consult a registered dietitian or your health-care provider when making significant dietary changes or introducing nutritional supplements. When choosing a nutritional supplement, it is imperative to look for a brand that has been certified for safety and is free of banned substances, as determined by a third party such as NSF Certified for Sport.
* These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.