Nutrition Injury RecoverySep 06, 2023
Written By: Lauren MacLeod, Registered Dietitian
Injury is an inevitable part of being an athlete–whether it’s a traumatic brain injury (concussion) or long-term injury (tendonitis), nutrition plays an integral role in recovery and return to sport.
Here are the evidence-based ways to use food and supplements to support healing and get back to doing what you love!
Even though your body is in recovery mode (and you may be less active than usual), you still need to nourish it with enough calories, carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Inflammation, wound healing, and the increased energy use of moving an injured body can all add up. These nutrients all work together to ensure your body has enough energy and building blocks to repair itself.
The most critical nutrient in recovery is protein. Adequate protein intake helps prevent muscle loss, a common occurrence in injured athletes. Focus on protein sources that are high in the amino acid leucine, which has been shown to directly stimulate skeletal muscle growth. High leucine foods include cheese, meat, and beans.
It is ideal to maintain protein intake at 1.3-1.8 g/kg current body weight, both for athletes in general and those who are injured. So if you are a 150 pound athlete, that’s about 88-122 grams of protein per day. This comes out to somewhere between 20-30g protein per meal and 10-20g protein per snack. Again, this can be highly individualized based on when and how athletes choose to eat their protein.
Do I need to supplement?
It is critical to focus on a food-first approach to injury recovery. However, some supplementation can help support your overall nutrient intake. Be sure to speak to a sports dietitian before choosing to supplement.
Collagen: Many athletes have heard of collagen, but they don’t actually know what it is. Collagen is the structural protein that makes up skin, hair, nails, joints, tendons, ligaments, and more. Research indicates that supplementing regularly with collagen can be beneficial for athletes recovering from chronic or acute soft tissue injuries, such as with ankles or knees.
However, collagen is not a complete source of protein; it won’t do its job if you aren’t already hitting your daily protein needs. It’s also important to combine collagen with a source of vitamin C; vitamin C is the boat that carries collagen to the parts of your body that need it most. For example, you can use collagen in a smoothie or oatmeal and be sure to include berries or orange juice on the side.
Creatine builds lean muscle and strength in both power and endurance athletes. There is emerging research to indicate it may assist in concussion recovery.
Calcium and vitamin D work together to support bone health, which is especially important for fracture recovery.
Omega-3 fatty acids are powerful anti-inflammatory compounds. Research shows omega-3s may prevent long term brain function loss in concussions.
No matter the injury, the body has an immediate inflammatory response, or swelling due to increasing blood flow in an area. The response could last for a few hours up to a few days based on severity of the injury. In the initial inflammatory stage, it is important to allow the body to do as it will. Consult with a sports medicine specialist and dietitian before incorporating anti-inflammatory supplements.
The Bottom Line
Regardless of your level of activity, your body deserves to be nourished. It still requires adequate proteins, carbohydrates, fats, fluid, and vitamins and minerals to support recovery. Even if you aren’t as physically active, your brain and muscles still need the fuel to carry out daily processes.