Athletes constantly push themselves to the limit attempting to become fitter, faster, and stronger. Unfortunately, the constant pursuit of improvement can sometimes lead to injury that can lead to days, months, or even years of missed training and competition.
While nothing can guarantee that you will never get hurt or provide you with a heal-quick tool, there are nutritional interventions that can play an important role in enhancing the rate of recovery and reducing the time spent away from training and competition.
While the road to recovery involves numerous processes and support from a variety of disciplines, nutrition can clearly have a large impact on the healing process because the quality of the athlete’s rehabilitation and the athlete’s body composition matters when returning to play. The main focus is to ensure that the athlete is consuming adequate energy to support the recovery process and minimize muscle loss all while ensuring that no added fat mass is added.
For athletes who are unable to train during periods of injury, it may seem intuitive to reduce daily energy intake, however, you should be cautious of automatically reducing energy intake because healing requires energy!
The healing process following an injury can increase the metabolic rate considerably, depending on the type and severity of the injury itself. If energy restriction is too severe and results in a negative “in vs. out” balance, recovery from the injury will almost certainly be slowed. It’s important that you talk with a sports nutritionist to take a look at the athlete’s current nutrition and support any changes that are needed to offset muscle loss and support healing.
Let’s take a look at some basic guidelines and reasons that nutrition and healing go hand in hand.
Almost all injured athletes see a reduction in muscle mass and strength due to their decreased training, in fact, it can be up to 1.5% loss of muscle mass in only 5 days of immobilization, especially in the injured limb.
Consuming adequate protein is essential to minimizing muscle loss during the injury period but also in supporting healing. Proteins Build, it is their job! So, when it comes to the healing process our bodies get busy breaking down old, damaged proteins and synthesizing new proteins. By consuming adequate protein you will help the body do its job of regenerating and repairing the injured area, essentially speeding up the recovery process and supporting your return to sport.
To achieve this support, total daily protein intake should be between 1.6-2.0g of protein per kg of body weight. For example, a 135 lb. female: 135 x .453 = 61 Kg x 1.6g/2.0 of protein = 97 – 122 g of protein per day. A non-injured athlete is suggested to ingest 20-25g of protein at each meal, higher doses can be ingested by injured athletes, with studies showing that consumption of up to 40g/meal can help maximize protein support in the injured limb.
Carbohydrates play a much different role in healing and training than protein. Carbohydrates energize! Because of this, similar to non-injured athletes, carbohydrate requirements will depend on the type, intensity, and duration of exercise. Some athletes, during rehab, are burning more energy in their workouts than the athletes already in shape doing their activities, so it may make sense to increase carbohydrates during rehab.
As for athletes who are unable to train, it would be logical that carbohydrate requirements will be reduced in addition to a decrease in overall energy intake. In these cases, it would be wise to turn to lower glycemic index foods to help maintain fullness in a time when they may be eating less. Low glycemic foods are vegetables, beans, whole oats, low fat dairy, whole wheat, or sprouted grain bread – just to name a few.
Typical carbohydrate intake will be 5g+/kg body weight in non-injured athletes, but injured athletes may only need 2g/kg of body weight. It is important that you talk with your Dr or a sports nutritionist to discuss the best nutrition plan for your return to activity.
Micronutrient (vitamin/mineral) Requirements
We all know that calcium helps with bone remodeling, but there are many other nutrients that support healing and are important to know as well. For example, vitamin C is beneficial in synthesizing new collagen protein. In addition to calcium for bone formation magnesium, vitamin D, and phosphorus can also directly support new bone formation.
Most of these nutrients can be found in a well-designed/balanced diet, but vitamin D (supporting bone formation and muscle repair) can and often is deficient in athletes, especially in the winter months. It may be something to consider supplementing with. Checking with a healthcare provider will help answer that question.
I recommend a food-first approach to healing, but there are times when supplementation can come into play – vitamin D being one with collagen, protein powders, or creatine being a couple others. I strongly suggest talking to a Dr or sports nutritionist before starting any supplementation, especially for athletes under 18.
Nutrition should be an important focus of every athlete and should be used by injured athletes as a tool to support the body’s natural response to healing. The power macronutrient here is protein because of all the ways protein supports the body in building and rebuilding. It is an important nutrient for the athlete’s ability to compete at top performance.