Did you know that nutrition for injury recovery can impact how quickly you recover? If you are an athlete who wants to get back to your sport as soon as possible, you need to pay attention to what you eat and drink after an injury.
Nutrition is one of the most overlooked aspects of injury recovery. Many athletes think that they don’t need to eat as much or as well when they are injured, or that they can just rely on supplements or medications to heal faster.
However, this is far from the truth. Nutrition plays a key role in controlling inflammation, preventing muscle loss, supporting wound healing and enhancing tissue repair. If you don’t eat right, you might be delaying your recovery or even making it worse.
In this post, I will share with you some of the key nutritional strategies that can help you heal faster and better from an injury.
These strategies are based on the latest scientific research on nutrition for injury recovery, and they are tailored to the specific needs of athletes.
By following these strategies, you will be able to optimize your healing process, prevent complications, and return to your sport stronger and healthier.
Inflammation phase of injury recovery
The inflammation phase is the initial response of your body to an injury. It usually lasts for a few days, and it is characterized by pain, swelling, redness and heat.
The inflammation phase is necessary to clear the damaged tissue and prevent infection, but it can also slow blood flow and oxygen delivery to the injured area.
Inflammation phase nutrition for injury recovery goals
- Support your immune system and reduce excessive inflammation
- Prevent muscle loss and support wound healing
- Manage weight by balancing energy needs with activity expenditure
- Stay hydrated and avoid dehydration
Nutrition for injury recovery during inflammation phase
While during this phase you do not want to slow your body’s inflammatory response, making sure that you’re choosing nutrient rich foods can improve your healing. (1)
1. Increase your intake of anti-inflammatory foods
Anti inflammatory foods such as omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants and probiotics can help support your immune system and reduce inflammation.
Examples of anti inflammatory foods include:
- Fish, flaxseeds, walnuts and chia seeds
- Fruits, vegetables, whole grains
- Yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut and kimchi
2. Avoid pro-inflammatory foods
Pro inflammatory foods such as refined carbohydrates, saturated fats, trans fats can increase inflammation and slow wound healing.
Examples of pro inflammatory foods include:
- White bread, pasta, rice, sweets
- Red meat, butter, cheese, cream
- Margarine, baked goods, fried foods
3. Eat enough calories to meet your energy needs
Although recovering from surgery, wound healing, using crutches and physical therapy may require more energy than you expect, it’s likely less than when you are training and playing games.
Therefore your energy needs may increase by 15-50% during the inflammation phase. (2) If you don’t eat enough calories, your body will break down your muscle tissue to get energy, which can slow down your recovery and increase your risk of infection.
4. Eat enough protein to maintain muscle and support wound healing
During the inflammation phase, your protein needs may be increased by 50-100%. Aim for 1.5-2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. (3)
Choose high-quality protein sources, such as lean meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy products, soy products, legumes, nuts and seeds.
5. Drink enough fluids to stay hydrated
It’s important to stay well hydrated when recovering from injury. Water helps move nutrients and oxygen to the injured area and take away waste products. It also helps control your body temperature and prevent dehydration.
Your fluid needs may be increased by 10-30% during the inflammation phase. Choose water or low-calorie beverages, such as herbal teas or sports drinks.
Avoid caffeinated drinks, such as coffee or energy drinks, as they can dehydrate you and increase inflammation.
Rehabilitation phase of injury recovery
The rehabilitation phase is the second stage of injury recovery and where nutrition for injury recovery is key. It usually starts after the inflammation phase has ended, and it can last from weeks to months.
The rehabilitation phase is when tissue repair and regeneration occur. During this phase, your body forms new blood vessels and collagen fibers to rebuild the injured tissue and repair broken bones.
Rehabilitation phase nutrition for injury recovery goals
- Support tissue repair and regeneration
- Restore muscle strength and function
- Prevent re-injury or complications
Nutrition for injury recovery during rehabilitation phase
1. Eat anti-inflammatory foods and avoid pro-inflammatory foods
During the rehabilitation phase, you should continue eating nutrient rich whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds to promote tissue healing and ensure you are getting adequate micronutrients including antioxidants.
2. Adjust your calorie intake according to your activity level
Your energy needs may be decreased by 5-15% during the rehabilitation phase compared to the inflammation phase. If you eat too many calories, you may gain unwanted weight or put too much stress on your injured tissue.
However you should remember that some weight gain may be needed for recovery. Additionally, if you eat too few calories, you may compromise your tissue healing or lose muscle mass.
Your goal for carbohydrates during this phase should be 3-5 grams per kilogram body weight per day focusing on whole grains and nutrient and fiber rich carbs as part of a healthy balanced diet.
3. Eat enough protein to support tissue repair and regeneration
Your protein needs may be slightly decreased during the rehabilitation phase compared to the inflammation phase but still higher than normal. Aim for 1.2-1.5 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. (4)
Choose high-quality protein sources that also provide other nutrients that are important for tissue healing such as zinc, vitamin C, iron and vitamin A.
4. Drink enough fluids to stay hydrated
Your fluid needs may be slightly decreased during the rehabilitation phase compared to the inflammation phase but still higher than normal.
Choose water or low-calorie beverages that also provide electrolytes that are important for muscle function such as sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium.
Key nutrients for injury recovery
Nutrition for injury recovery is more than just a simple food or nutrient. Rather you need a variety of foods to ensure you get the vitamins, minerals and key building blocks to help your body recover.
Protein is the nutrient that reinforces your body’s muscle tissue. It is also supports wound healing, inflammation reduction, keep your immune system strong, repair bones, hormone production and enzyme activity.
When you are injured, your protein needs increase to support the repair and regeneration of damaged tissues. A lack of protein can impair your healing process and lead to muscle loss.
One of the key amino acids for recovery is leucine since it has a muscle building effect. Additionally gelatin or gelatin based foods have been shown to support collagen synthesis.
Aim to spread your protein intake evenly throughout the day and include a source of protein at each meal and snack, 20-40 grams per meal depending on your protein needs.
Lean meats, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy products, soy, beans, lentils, nuts and seeds. You should be able to meet your protein needs through whole foods.
Vitamin A helps your body fight infection and inflammation. It also important for cell growth and development.
Vitamin A sources
You can get vitamin A from foods such as fortified breakfast cereals, dairy products, fruits, liver, eggs, carrots, sweet potatoes, spinach and kale.
Vitamin C is one of the main antioxidants in the body that helps to protect cells from oxidative stress and inflammation.
It is also essential for collagen synthesis, which is the main structural protein in connective tissues such as skin, bones, tendons, ligaments and cartilage. It’s key to pair any collagen powder with Vitamin C to maximize effectiveness.
Vitamin C also supports wound healing, immune function and iron absorption.
Vitamin C sources
Some of the best food sources of vitamin C are citrus fruits, berries, kiwi, bell peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, spinach, white potatoes and tomatoes.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fat that have anti-inflammatory benefits. They are also important for cell membrane fluidity and function.
Omega-3 fatty acids can help to reduce inflammation and pain associated with injury and promote tissue repair and regeneration. They also may help decrease muscle loss during your recovery.
Omega-3 fatty acid sources
Good sources of omega-3 fatty acids include fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring and sardines. You can also find omega-3s in plant sources such as flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, soybeans and unsaturated vegetable oils, such as canola oil.
Additionally, in some cases a registered dietitian nutritionist or your provider might recommend an omega-3 fatty acid supplement.
Zinc is a trace mineral supporting wound healing, collagen synthesis, immune function and antioxidant defense.
Some of the best food sources of zinc are oysters, beef, pork, chicken, turkey, yogurt, cheese, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, whole grains and fortified foods.
Vitamin D and calcium
Vitamin D and calcium are two nutrients that work together to maintain bone health and strength. Vitamin D helps to regulate calcium absorption and metabolism, while calcium provides the structural component of bone tissue.
Calcium and Vitamin D are also important for muscle function, nerve transmission and immune function.
Vitamin D and calcium sources
Some of the best food sources of vitamin D are fatty fish, egg yolks, liver, cheese,and fortified foods such as milk, yogurt, cereal, and orange juice.
Some of the best food sources of calcium are dairy products, sardines, salmon, tofu, broccoli, kale, bok choy, almonds and fortified foods such as orange juice, cereal, and plant-based milks.
Copper is a mineral that helps your body make collagen and heal wounds. It also acts as an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent.
You can get copper from foods such as shellfish, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and dark chocolate. (5)
Fiber is a type of carbohydrate that is not digested or absorbed by the body. It helps to regulate bowel movements, lower cholesterol levels, control blood sugar levels and promote satiety.
During injury recovery, fiber also helps to prevent constipation, which is a common problem among injured athletes who are less active or taking pain medications.
To increase your fiber intake, you should eat more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, lentils, nuts and seeds. Check out our posts on fiber rich foods and how to incorporate more whole grains in your diet.
Be sure to drink plenty of water when adding fiber to your diet avoid bloating or discomfort.
Supplements for injury recovery
In addition to eating a balanced diet rich in protein, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, minerals, and fluids, you may also benefit from taking some supplements that can support your injury recovery process.
You should consult with a registered sports dietitian nutritionist or your medical provider before beginning supplements.
Creatine can help you prevent muscle loss and enhance muscle regeneration during your rehabilitation phase. (6)Y ou can take 5 grams of creatine per day with a carbohydrate-rich meal or snack, such as a banana or a glass of juice.
Creatine may cause weight gain, bloating, or stomach discomfort in some people, so start with a low dose and increase gradually.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids can help you reduce inflammation and promote collagen synthesis during both the inflammation and rehabilitation phases. Try to get your omega-3 through foods, but you may choose to take a supplement.
You can take 3-4 grams per day of omega-3 fatty acids with DHA and EPA, in the form of fish oil capsules or liquid. Omega-3 fatty acids may interact with blood thinners or increase bleeding risk in some people, so consult your doctor before taking them.
Nutrition is a powerful tool that can help you recover faster and better from an injury.
By eating a balanced diet that includes adequate amounts of protein, vitamin C, omega-3 fatty acids, zinc, vitamin D, calcium, and fiber, you can support your body’s healing process and get back to your sport sooner.
However, remember that nutrition is not a substitute for medical care or physical therapy. You should always consult with your doctor before taking any supplements or making any major dietary changes.
*This is not medical advice and you should always consult with your medical provider.*
Steph Magill, MS, RD, CD, FAND has over 22 years of experience in public health and nutrition. As a performance registered dietitian nutritionist, Stephanie specializes in sports nutrition and provides simple and actionable information so that athletes can be well fueled for high performance on and off the field. Stephanie has a Master’s Degree in Nutrition and is a Fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.