I’m not old, but five years ago I sure felt it. I had just finished playing indoor volleyball at UC Irvine and had begun pursuing a career on the beach. Mentally, I felt like I could take on the world, but my knees had a different opinion. I pounded painkillers and iced every day, but it didn’t make a difference. I was still in a lot of pain, and it affected my game. I was suffering from severe inflammation from overuse.
Injuries caused by overuse is an issue every player needs to pay attention to – not just “older” athletes. A study done by UC Davis in 2001 found that approximately nine million overuse injuries were reported in the U.S. by people under the age of 18. But these days, if you want to play high-level volleyball and eventually earn a college scholarship, it’s pretty much a necessity to play year-round, right? I know, because I was one of those kids: playing club until high school season started and then playing another season of club after our high school tournament ended.
I can attest to the fact that the only way to get better is to do many repetitions of a skill. However, all that jumping, hitting, and landing takes a toll on our bodies. Our knees, shoulders, ankles, and spines are not built to endure the same high-impact activity all year. But do any of us want to stop playing? Of course not! Luckily, taking time to learn about some eating techniques and nutritional goals that can help our bodies cope with this demanding lifestyle can have tremendous benefits in the long run.
When Inflammation Is Good
Ever been sore after a long practice or match? Maybe after lifting weights? What you’ve done is create micro-tears in your muscles and ligaments that need repair. Our body’s natural response to this damage is to send repair cells to that area. They help remove dead or damaged cells and initiate building new, stronger ones. This influx of cells causes temporary inflammation and is necessary to recover and ultimately get stronger.
Additionally, if you sprain your finger or your ankle, the area swells to try and immobilize the joint and ligaments. Your body doesn’t want the joint to move while the ligaments are damaged, so the swelling and corresponding pain is a signal from your brain saying, “Stop moving me around!” Increased blood flow in the area causes inflammation as the blood rushes killer cells and repair cells to the area. Killer cells break down dead and damaged cells and combat infection while the repair cells then get to work on building new, healthy cells.
However, if you’re not injured, you don’t want inflammation hanging around very long because it can end up being destructive.
Foods That Cause Inflammation
Certain foods—even natural, whole foods—put damaging chemicals, sometimes called free radicals, into our bodies: refined sugars, trans fats, and dairy products, to name a few. After digestion, the harmful chemical compounds that made up the food enter the blood and start to damage cells all over your body. If you’ve been playing volleyball, you already have some inflammation in your joints, which means extra blood is flowing to those areas. So the damaging free radicals from these food products are rushed directly to those already-inflamed joints.
These free radicals contribute to tearing apart your healthy cells, and therefore your body produces additional inflammation to combat the additional cell damage. In other words, a bad diet contributes to a longer recovery period. Volleyball players already have damaged cells at their joints from practice, matches, and working out, but then if you add in these inflammatory foods, you prolong the on-site inflammation and cause more damage to those cells.
When you have excess inflammation, your body attacks itself with too many killer cells and not enough repair cells to heal fast enough. Then you haven’t healed by the start of your next workout, and your joints are less than 100 percent. You’ll end up with even more tears and inflammation, and you’ll need additional healing time. But you don’t get longer healing time, do you? You have practices penciled in the calendar until you’re 91! So you must do what you can to prevent excess inflammation.
Solutions and Prevention
Think that icing and popping Advil is the best you can do? Wrong. To be honest, ice isn’t that effective. It just dulls the pain and increases blood flow a little bit. Advil (ibuprofen) and Aleve (naproxen) are NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs). They help reduce pain and artificially reduce inflammation a little, but they are drugs after all.
A better solution is to avoid eating fried foods (almost all fried foods have trans fats, even if they say trans-fat free), and cut out or cut down on dairy products like milk, cheese, and yogurt. Processed foods like chips and candy with refined flours and sugars, while undeniably tasty, are also the enemy. Every time you put these foods in your body, they contribute to slower repair times.
On the other hand, some nutrients can actually help prevent inflammation in the first place, when used in conjunction with avoidance of inflammatory foods. For example, the omega-3 fatty acid EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), raw coconut oil, and turmeric all have anti-inflammatory powers and are a great, all-natural way to start reducing inflammation. To get turmeric in your diet, try whipping up a homemade curry. You can also buy turmeric pills in order to easily incorporate the spice into your daily diet. For a boost of coconut oil, try the tasty smoothie recipe to the left.EPA’s are not readily available in a normal diet but can be supplemented with fish oil or specialized vegetarian oils.
Scientifically, inflammation is very complicated, but avoiding it is actually straightforward. How you discipline your diet and how educated you make yourself on the solutions can be what determines whether you stay injury free. I’m not as tall, or as fast, nor do I jump as high as some of my competitors, but because I eat to prevent inflammation, I can train longer, harder, and more often with less-frequent injuries, which evens the playing field.
Be a Brand New Rubber Band
Here’s a metaphor for you:
Imagine stretching a rubber band. If it’s brand new, it will stretch pretty far, right? Now picture a dry rubber band that’s been in the drawer for a long time. Does it stretch just as far, or is it kind of brittle and easy to break? Then think about making a small cut in the rubber band. Now it rips even more easily.
Ideally, you want your muscles and ligaments to be like the brand new rubber band that can handle a lot of stress. However, when you consume an inflammatory diet and practice multiple times each week, repeating the same motions over and over again and putting stress on the same joints, your joints, muscles, and ligaments are more like the dry and brittle rubber band with a cut in it.
Tropical Coconut Smoothie
Help prevent inflammation with this all-natural treat.
1 tbsp coconut oil
½ cup frozen pineapple
1 cup frozen mango
Handful of kale or spinach
1 cup almond milk
1 scoop vanilla rice protein
Blend and enjoy!
Russ Marchewka played indoor volleyball at UC Irvine and now plays professional beach volleyball. For more from Russ, visit WorldHealthHub.com or check out his YouTube page: youtube.com/volleyballnutrition.
Originally published in August 2013