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Eating Well After a Sports Injury

April 3rd, 2023

A sports injury may take you out of the game for weeks or even months. Without proper nutrition, you risk losing vital muscle mass, strength and neuromuscular control. But the right mix of proteins, nutrients and fatty acids will help your body repair and rebuild itself. Here’s how food can help accelerate your healing, so you can get back in action faster.

How Your Body Heals

When recovering from a sports injury, it helps to understand how your body heals. Researchers have identified two phases in the healing process. The first phase is immobilization, which includes the moment immediately after the injury, followed by a period of inactivity. The second phase is rehabilitation, the period when you introduce exercise and sports therapy into your recovery process, gradually developing strength and movement until full mobilization. 

Your nutritional needs will differ for these two phases of recovery. Here are some recommended strategies for each stage of your healing process.

Phase One: Immobilization

You can lose the most muscle mass in the days and weeks following a severe injury. Ensure you feed your body what it needs to minimize muscle loss, while minimizing inflammation and other complications.

  • Energy. Even though you’re not moving around as much, your body burns more calories than usual as you heal from an injury. Depending on the severity, you may burn between 15 to 50 per cent more energy. Don’t be afraid of overeating, as weight gain can help you maintain your metabolism and minimize muscle loss.
  • Protein. Although protein requirements differ for every injury and individual, increased protein intake is essential to rebuilding muscle, minimizing inflammation, maintaining metabolism and accelerating healing. Research has shown that athletes who ingested about 2.3 grams of protein per kilogram of body mass daily had less muscle loss than those who consumed the typical recommended daily intake of 0.8 grams per kilogram of body mass.
  • Fats. Essential fatty acids are instrumental in helping your body reduce inflammation and synthesize the protein it needs to heal. Increase the amount of omega-3 in your diet — they’re useful fats that can be found in foods such as salmon, tuna, nuts and seeds.
  • Vitamins and minerals. Micronutrients are also crucial to healing and recovery. Vitamins C, A and D aid in tissue repair, cell growth, bone health and immunity. Zinc helps your wounds heal and synthesizes proteins. There’s no extra benefit in consuming higher quantities than recommended, but be sure to get your maximum daily allowances.   

During the immobilization phase, you may want to reduce your carbohydrate intake. While they’re an excellent energy source for active athletes, they may result in too much weight gain while you’re less active.

Phase Two: Rehabilitation

Once you’re moving again and in active rehab, you should make some adjustments to your diet in the following areas:

  • Energy. Adjust your caloric intake based on the frequency, duration and intensity of your strength training. Every athlete is different, and a registered dietician can help you establish the optimal caloric intake for your program.
  • Protein. Continue with increased protein intake for muscle repair and rebuilding. Experts recommend a daily protein intake between 1.2 and 1.7 grams per kilogram of body mass. 
  • Carbohydrates. You can introduce more carbohydrates into your diet again, as appropriate to your rehab program and your weight and fitness goals.
  • Anti-inflammatories. To promote healing and immunity, continue to eat plenty of nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables and foods containing omega-3.

Lastly, don’t forget to drink lots of water. Hydration is fundamental for tissue repair, organ function and support of joints and muscles. 

Foods to Avoid

Some foods can have a detrimental impact on your recovery, prolonging the healing process. Here are some foods to avoid while you’re recovering from an injury:

  • Fried and fatty foods like pizza, fried chicken and French fries
  • Foods with added sugars, like soda, candy and ice cream
  • Alcohol, because it inhibits muscle protein synthesis

Although it’s not a food, sleep is another key ingredient in the healing process. Athletes should get between 8 and 10 hours of sleep every night.

Physiotherapy and Dietitian services in North Vancouver, Burnaby and Surrey

Legacies Health Centre offers sports therapy, dietitian services, kinesiology and active rehab and more, all under one roof. Get back in the game faster by visiting one of our convenient locations in Surrey, Burnaby and North Vancouver. Book an appointment today with one of our healthcare professionals.

Nilou completed her Bachelor of Science in Dietetics from UBC. She is registered Dietitian with 19 years’ experience, and is passionate about helping people with digestive and other chronic health issues such as diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and weight management that can impact one’s life.