How to eat to improve recovery from injury
Unfortunately injuries are part and parcel of playing sports, being a 34-year-old rugby player I am appreciating this more than ever. Eating certain foods and supplements could reduce the amount of time needed to recover from injury. It is important to note that there are no magic bullets for a ‘quick recovery’…unless your morals are as low as Lance Armstrongs (and that’s probably more of a magic needle). But that isn’t something I’d advocate!
Maintain Energy Balance. A lot of people worry about gaining body fat, as they are not as active as prior to getting injured, so deliberately reduce the calories they consume. However, a negative energy balance is known to be catabolic and can lead to a decrease in protein synthesis(1). Two things you absolutely want to avoid.
Increase Protein Intake. Collagen is the major component of tendons and ligaments. It is repaired and created through protein synthesis so it makes sense to increase protein intake. You should consume at least 1.5 grams per Kg body weight every day (eg someone weighing 80kg needs at least 120g). This may even be as high as 2g per kg bodyweight. This protein needs to be high quality and spread throughout the day (for the previous example, ideally 5-6 meals of 20-25g). The amino acid Leucine in particular is essential for protein synthesis(2). Leucine supplementation has also been show to reduce muscle wastage during the immobilisation phase of injury(3). Good sources of protein include meats, fish, dairy products, eggs and soy.
Vitamin C. Vitamin C helps your body make collagen(4), which is used to rebuild tissue. It is also an antioxidant and has anti-inflammatory properties which may prevent excessive levels of inflammation(4,5). Foods with the highest amounts of it include broccoli, kale, peppers, citrus fruits and kiwi.
Omega 3 Fatty Acids. If inflammation remains too high for too long after an injury it will slow recovery; one way to prevent excessive inflammation is to consume enough Omega 3 fats(4). These can be found in oily fish, olives, flaxseeds, walnuts and chia seeds.
Zinc. Many of the enzymes and proteins used for tissue repair contain zinc(6). Deficiencies in zinc have also shown to delay the healing of wounds(6). Zinc is high in meats, shellfish, chickpeas, beans and lentils.
Creatine. It is unclear whether supplementing with creatine will help counter catabolism during the immobilisation phase of recovery due to contrasting studies. However, it has been shown to promote hypertrophy and improved strength, returning to normal levels in less time(3).
Foods to avoid. Pro-inflammatory foods like sugars, processed meats and cooking oils damage cell walls leaving them open to free radicals. They can also increase cytokine production, which can increase illness, tissue breakdown and delay healing. Meaning that we could be more prone to tendinopathy, weaker muscle and ligament injury etc(7).
Take home messages. As always, the foundations of your nutrition should be a well-balanced diet based on whole foods from nature that are minimally processed. Making dietary changes isn’t going to be as effective for getting you back on the pitch as getting your rehabilitation correctly. But it could make a difference, and at the very worst-case scenario it definitely won’t harm you. For example, I’m currently taking about 10g of vitamin C over the course of a day: Is this excessive? Probably! Is it going to speed up my recovery? Maybe, maybe not. Is it harmful? Absolutely not, as its water-soluble any excess vitamin C will be removed from my body via urine, so why not try it?
Final point; make sure you take all injuries seriously. Soft tissue injuries are 5x more likely to reoccur if you prematurely return to sport. I will make a video/blog about how to test if you are ready to play again in the following weeks.
Look better, feel better, perform better.
1 – Carbone, J. W., McClung, J. P., & Pasiakos, S. M. (2012). Skeletal muscle responses to negative energy balance: effects of dietary protein. Advances in Nutrition, 3(2), 119-126.
2 - Kimball, S. R., & Jefferson, L. S. (2006). New functions for amino acids: effects on gene transcription and translation–. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 83(2), 500S-507S.
3 – Baker, D. F. return to play after soft tissue injury: the role of nutrition in rehabilitation. Bruce Hamilton, 43.
4 - Tipton, K. D. (2015). Nutritional support for exercise-induced injuries. Sports Medicine, 45(1), 93-104.
5 – Tipton, K. D. (2010). Nutrition for acute exercise-induced injuries. Annals of Nutrition and metabolism, 57(Suppl. 2), 43-53.
6 – Molnar, J. A., Underdown, M. J., & Clark, W. A. (2014). Nutrition and chronic wounds. Advances in wound care, 3(11), 663-681.
7 - Lewis, J. S., & Sandford, F. M. (2009). Rotator cuff tendinopathy: is there a role for polyunsaturated Fatty acids and antioxidants?. Journal of Hand Therapy, 22(1), 49-56.