It is quite rare to find an athlete who has not been injured.
Injuries can be minor, such as a scratch or bruise, or much more severe, such as a torn ACL or broken leg. Serious injuries — those that limit limb or whole body mobility, such as a fracture or ligament tear — will over time cause a decrease in muscle growth and protein. This, in turn, will lead to a reduction in strength and neuromuscular control.
The consequent period of rehabilitation to regain performance often means that an athlete will also have to sit on the sidelines for a while. Nutrition plays an important role in an athlete’s health and performance.
Key nutrients work daily to assist muscle growth, as well as ongoing recovery and repair. But what happens when an athlete can no longer train or perform due to an injury? What can help an athlete to heal faster and get back in the game sooner?
Nutrition is vital during the post-injury and rehabilitation period. The right diet, in concert with proper therapy and an appropriate retraining regimen, can get you back in the game stronger and faster.
Three healing processes occur after an injury:
- Inflammation occurs immediately and continues up to five days post-injury.
- Proliferation occurs at five days through three weeks post-injury. During this phase, there is a tissue rebuilding and repairing process.
- Maturation occurs from three weeks to two years post-injury (depending on severity of injury). During this phase of recovery, considerable remodeling occurs to build a stronger tissue structure.
Based on these healing processes, we can divide nutrition recommendations into two phases:
- Injury and immobilization, or inflammation and proliferation of healing. Most of the muscle loss occurs during this phase.
- Rehabilitation, or maturation of healing. Exercise is re-introduced in the form of therapy, and athletes are advanced to full practice when they are cleared by trained medical staff.
Nutrition while you’re immobilized
- Energy (calories): Energy needs are slightly higher to assist with the healing process. If the injury is severe, resting energy expenditure can increase by 20%. When using crutches, energy expenditure can be two to three times higher compared to normal walking. Sometimes a small weight gain is beneficial because, without enough calories, muscle growth is limited and muscle loss can be greater.
- Protein: During the immobilization phase there is a tendency to lose muscle mass, which then causes an athlete to lose strength. Protein helps athletes to build and repair muscle; therefore, the need for protein is higher. The precise number of grams needed each day is very individual. But, it is safe to assume that it’s more than the dietary reference intake of 0.8 grams/kg (0.35 grams/lb).
- Carbohydrate: This macro-nutrient is an athlete’s main source of energy for physical activity. However, following an injury that limits activity, carbohydrate intake can be slightly lowered to prevent excessive weight gain. Sports beverages, gels, sodas and concentrated sweets are highly discouraged during this time.
- Fat: Fats are essential for healing, and the type of fat is critical. Omega 3s (found mainly in fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel or tuna) help to increase muscle protein synthesis (muscle building), as well as play a role with recovery and decreasing inflammation.
Vitamins and minerals during immobilization
- Vitamin C: Assists with wound healing, tissue repair and optimal immune function. Foods rich in vitamin C include: citrus fruit, strawberries, red bell peppers, watermelon, etc.
- Vitamin A: Assists with cell growth and development, as well as immune function. Examples of foods rich in vitamin A include sweet potatoes, tomatoes, carrots, papaya — orange and red fruits and vegetables).
- Zinc: Assists with wound healing, protein synthesis and immune function. Good choices of foods for getting enough zinc include: beef, almonds, seeds (such as sunflower, flax and pumpkin seeds) and seafood.
- Vitamin D: Important for bone health and immune function. Vitamin D is the sun vitamin. Get five to 30 minutes of sun exposure between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. It can be found in dairy products, fatty fish or fortified foods.
- Fluids: Proper hydration supports the delivery of nutrients to all organs and tissues. Moreover, it helps support joints and soft tissues. Athletes should be drinking approximately half of their body weight in ounces, preferably water, each day — and more if they sweat.
Nutrition while you’re rehabilitating
The emphasis in this phase should be on getting enough energy and protein, as well as healthy fats and plenty of vegetables and fruits.
- Energy: This is when an athlete’s energy needs increase to support strength training. Exact needs are based on frequency, duration and intensity of daily rehabilitation, weight status, goals and athlete build.
- Protein: Protein needs increase to support tissue recovery and repair, as well as muscle growth. Professionals recommend between 1.2-1.7 grams of protein per kilogram (0.55-0.77 grams/lb).
- Carbohydrates: Depending on the rehabilitation regimen’s intensity and duration, along with body weight goals, carbohydrate intake may need to increase during this phase.
- Anti-inflammatories: omega 3’s and vitamins and minerals found in vegetables and fruits help with healing and immune function.
- Fluids: Same as in previous phase of recovery
Habits that can interfere with healing
Food can assist athletes in healing faster, but it also can interfere with healing optimally. Especially during the post-injury healing and rehabilitation period, athletes should avoid:
- Fried or fatty foods (pizza, fried chicken, french fries, etc.)
- Added sugars and concentrated sweets (e.g., soda, candy, ice cream, etc.)
- Alcohol – it inhibits muscle protein synthesis and it increases muscle loss
- Less than optimal sleep (athletes should sleep 8-10 hours/day)
Remember, the right nutrition helps to hasten post-injury recovery to get athletes back into the game sooner and healthier. See your sport dietitian to help you recover better.