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What to Eat When Injured

If you are an athlete, you know that injuries are inevitable. We try to train smart by incorporating strength training, get enough sleep and recovery between hard training sessions, but for some of us we still get injured.

If you find yourself sidelined from your regular training, besides getting professional treatment from your PT, chiropractor, or sports physician, optimal nutrition plays a key role with reducing inflammation, rehabbing injured tissue, and preventing muscle loss. The first 48 hours are crucial to begin your new nutrition plan where you were previously eating for your normal training to now eating for your recovery. Here are a few nutrition tips to help you adjust your eating if you are injured.

Don’t Cut Calories

Post-trauma or post-surgery recovery can require up to 20 percent more calories since rehabbing from an injury requires energy to heal your muscles, bones and tendons. In addition, if you are walking with crutches your body is burning up to two to three more times more energy than walking alone. If you are injured your training will obviously decrease, but you will still be performing daily exercises as prescribed by your rehab team.

Eating sufficient food should be the first nutritional consideration since eating too few calories accelerates muscle loss especially during periods of immobility. In addition, not eating enough calories also reduces your protein needs which is crucial to maintaining muscle mass. If you cut back on your eating too much, worried about weight gain, you can rob your body the essential nutrients required to heal.

Eat More Protein

When you’re injured you lose muscle mass in the immobilized area of your body, and generally, due to decreased training. Immobilization decreases your muscle’s ability to absorb amino acids (protein building blocks) which aid with muscle growth and repair. This is called anabolic resistance. To overcome anabolic resistance, it is recommended to eat a high protein diet by consuming 20-35 grams of high quality protein every 3 to 4 hours during the day. During the repair phase, you may need double the amount of protein you previously ate. You should try to eat 1.6-2.5 grams of protein per kg of body weight throughout several meals.

For example, if you weigh 150# (150/2.2= 68 kg) and consumed 95 grams (1.4 g/kg) of protein daily pre-injury, then post-injury you may need up to 136 grams of protein daily (2 g/kg) or more. This may seem like a lot but adding an extra 30-40 grams daily can be spread out throughout the day. Instead of snacking on pretzels, choose a Greek yogurt, or consider adding an extra 2 ounces of lean meat to lunch and dinner which can boost your protein by an extra 32 grams daily.

Focus On Leucine

The amino acid, leucine, acts as a primary instigator to promote muscle protein building. When you are injured you actually need more leucine to gain the same benefits as when you were exercising. Leucine is found in both animal and plant protein-rich foods but is more prominent in animal foods such as milk, yogurt, meat, and eggs. It’s suggested to eat a protein-rich meal containing 2-3 grams of leucine every 3-4 hours during the day and around training/rehab sessions to stimulate muscle building. It’s also recommended to eat foods rich in casein protein (milk and dairy products) before bedtime since it provides a slower, steady supply of amino acids used to repair and build muscle while you sleep. Protein powders can be helpful if you struggle to eat enough protein from whole foods, but remember to use ones that are certified by either NSF Sport or Informed Choice.

Choose Your Carbs Wisely

Just because you are injured and eating more protein doesn’t mean you should avoid eating carbs. You just need to choose carbs that help promote healing. Whole grains, fruits, and vegetables contain important phytonutrients, antioxidants, as well as dietary fiber, and provide energy for your recovery. Eating more processed carbs from refined grains or foods with added sugars increases inflammation in the body. Switching from white rice to brown or adding in extra vegetables at dinner are ways to incorporate the carbs that will help you with your recovery.

You might still want to replace some of carbs you normally eat during heavy training so that you can fit in the extra protein your body needs to heal. Normally if you ate a higher carb breakfast after a hard training session or an extra snack during the day when training hard you may adjust this to eating a breakfast more protein based with a smaller amount of healthy carbs and fat. Remember cutting back on carbs too much can impact muscle protein building, so balancing the amount of carbs with protein is key to your recovery.

Add in Omega-3s

Adding Omega-3 fats is another tool in your toolbox to reduce inflammation and aid with muscle recovery. Yes, you can get enough omega-3s from food, but this can be difficult unless you eat these foods consistently every week. If you can’t eat omega-3 rich foods regularly, consider adding 3-4 grams (3000-4000 mg) of omega-3 fats through a supplement. Make sure the source of omega-3s are from EPA + DHA, not from other types of fats. Some supplement brands that are certified include Klean Athlete and Nordic Naturals Ultimate Omega 2x Sport.

It’s important to note that if you are having surgery, DO NOT take omega-3s two weeks before surgery and to check with your physician on when you can restart supplementation. Omega-3s can increase your risk of bleeding so you need to be cautious with any supplement you plan to take.

Minimize Alcohol Use

For those of you who drink, if you’re injured, drinking alcohol can impair your recovery. Alcohol increases inflammation and decreases blood flow to the injured muscle increasing the severity of damage and prolonging your recovery. Drinking alcohol also impacts your sleep and levels of human growth hormone (HGH). HGH plays an important role in building and repairing muscles which can decrease as much as 70 percent when drinking alcohol. So, think twice about how much and how often you are drinking when injured. Cutting back or avoiding it all together can lead to faster healing and get you back to running faster.

Consider Adding Collagen

If you are experiencing a tendon or ligament injury, it’s suggested to consume 15 grams of gelatin (collagen) with 50 mg of vitamin C within an hour of training to help with tissue repair. You can do this by combining two gelatin packets with 1 cup of fruit juice rich in vitamin C or use a collagen supplement such as Klean Collagen + C. The marketing is still a little ahead of the science in using collagen supplements, but the research is best explained in this podcast by We Do Science. Just make sure if you use a supplement that it is NSF sport or Informed Choice certified.

Add Extra Vitamin D, Calcium and Vitamin K

If you are suffering a bone injury, including a stress fracture, you should aim for 1500-2000 mg of calcium + 2000 units (50 mcg) of vitamin D daily. That means you would have to drink up to 6 cups of milk daily. Since most of us are not meeting the calcium and vitamin D recommendations, supplementation may be needed to meet your goals. In addition, eating foods rich in vitamin K also plays a critical role in bone healing helping calcium better absorb into the bones. Vitamin K rich foods include, hard cheese, egg yolk, green leafy vegetables, blueberries, blackberries, pumpkin, chicken, and beef.

If you’re injured start thinking about ways to promote healing faster by optimizing your nutrition plan. We can’t control everything when we get injured, but we can control what we eat. Knowing how to fuel your body while rehabbing an injury is crucial to help you get back to training pain free.

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