Eating your way through injury
Eating your way through injury

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 just the fear of one cropping up and derailing your training goals.

While injuries may not be completely avoidable – either through accident or repetitive motion or load – they can be minimised. Playing things smart and paying attention to load management, getting enough sleep and recovery, as well as eating adequately and setting realistic goals.

Avoiding injury is obviously the ultimate goal and consistency is king when it comes to improvements and adaptations. But let’s say you do get injured and want to get back to fitness and racing ASAP. What’s the plan?

It can be a daunting, harrowing feeling in the immediate but it’s important to have strategies in place to deal with frustrations, reset your goals and have a good physical prep plan to slowly and consistently build load. A good coach or support team is strongly recommended as part of this process, as well as plenty of things you can do in your kitchen to improve your chances of regaining full 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 to help support your return to full training.

In general:

  • Up your protein: Injury means a higher protein intake is required. Include quality protein spaced across the day up to 2g/kg as 50-70g at meals and 20-30g at snacks with eggs, fish, meat, dairy, nuts, legumes.
  • Match your energy: You want your body weight and comp 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 pre or post training).

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, 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, green banana flour.

Limit foods that promote inflammation and slow healing:

  • Refined grains, processed foods and sugars (eg soft drinks, cereals, white breads, white pasta).
  • Fried foods.
  • Alcohol.

In addition there are a few supps 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, then 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 in an important aspect of the recovery/repair process.
  • Creatine: has proven benefits in building tissue, especially muscle repair. It’s a cheap and easy addition, well studied, safe and beneficial for many athletes. A low 5g 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 ‘cartilagey’ bits of animals. These days collagen can be bought in powder form and stirred into drinks. 15g with Vitamin c an hour before exercise, 3 x 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 if you are walking with crutches or a boot, then this requires more energy than usual locomotion. Calcium through yogurt, cheese and 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 mins/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 increase.

-Pip Taylor

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