Inflammation and Athletes: The Hidden Problem That's Bigger Than You Think

Learn what you need to do to fight inflammation, even when it's not obvious, to maintain your health and performance.

Inflammation is bad, and you have to eat anti-inflammatory foods. I'm sure you've heard this statement before. It may not seem like an immediate issue, but ignoring inflammation can derail your ability to train and play your best.

What Is Inflammation?

Your experience with inflammation is likely due to an acute injury, such as a sprained ankle. Almost immediately, your ankle swells up and your range of motion is limited. And it hurts.

Dr. Susannah Briskin, co-director of primary care sports medicine fellowship at University Hospitals in Cleveland, explains: "After trauma, the body's small blood vessels are damaged. As a result, plasma, fluid and blood cells leak out into the space outside of the blood vessels. This creates swelling, redness and warmth that most people equate with inflammation."

You can't begin to recover from an injury until the inflammation subsides. The Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation method (RICE) is designed to counter subsequent inflammation.

This type of inflammation is immediately apparent. But sometimes, even when you suffer no acute injury and experience no swelling, redness and warmth, you still might have inflammation.

When you perform an intense or prolonged workout, small micro-tears occur in your muscles. Your body repairs this damage after you're finished. Consider these micro-tears as small injuries, which cause an inflammatory response.[1]

The Potential Issues for Athletes

Chronic inflammation can lead to serious health issues later in life, but it is predominantly present in people who have unhealthy habits. If you're an active athlete, you are probably fit and have some sense of what constitutes a healthy diet, so this isn't a pressing concern.

Normal inflammation caused by a workout is OK. It's a necessary part of the recovery process, and it only affects the muscles you target during your workouts. However, you can run into problems when you push your body too hard. Too much inflammation, and you'll reverse your strength and size gains.

The most obvious side effect is delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS). DOMS typically occurs when you start a new training program or switch exercise types, like from bodyweight to resistance. Inflammation within your muscles causes a pain response between 24 and 72 hours after your workout.

It's no fun at all, especially if you have to practice or play in a game.

To make matters worse, consistently overtraining with super intense workouts without sufficient recovery leads to chronic inflammation. You experience more aches and pains, your muscles may break down, and you may be more susceptible to illness or injury.[2]

Preventing Inflammation 

The easiest way to prevent inflammation—and even reduce it—is to follow a progressive training program that starts slow and gradually increases in difficulty. This method challenges your muscles and promotes strength and size gains without overly stressing your body.[3]

Also, a properly structured training program lets your body recover. A typical program comprises no more than four workouts per week, with rest days between them. You can train more frequently, but make sure to wait 48 hours before reworking a muscle group.

According to Dr. Briskin, the strength and size gains you experience help fend off acute inflammation-causing injuries. She says, "Reducing inflammation usually means preventing injury."

During your sports season, preventing injury should be your number one priority. Dr. Briskin: "It is important to maintain core strength, perform appropriate warm-up and cool-down exercises, and avoid sudden increases in activity. Sudden changes in intensity, frequency, and duration of exercise often lead to overuse injuries."

To further help fight inflammation, fill your diet with anti-inflammatory foods, such as these nine foods recommended by registered dietitian Leslie Bonci.

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[1] Clarkson, P. H. (2002). Exercise-induced muscle damage in humans. American Journal of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation, 81 (11), S52-S69.

[2] Bessa, A. e. (2008). High-intensity ultraendurance promotes early release of muscle injury markers. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 42 (11), 889-893.

[3] Roubenoff, R. (2008). Molecular Basis of Inflammation: Relationships Between Catabolic Cytokines, Hormones, Energy Balance, and Muscle . Journal of Parenteral and Enternal Nutrition, 32 (6), 630-632.



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