While many players spend the off-season training to maximize performance, many others unfortunately spend their time recovering from injury or surgery. Everyone knows the importance of having time to heal following an acute injury or surgery, but what many people don’t know is the central role nutrition plays in the recovery process.
Immediately following an injury, the human body naturally begins the inflammatory process. Although painful and aggravating, an initial period of inflammation is critical for the healing of injured tissues; however, when this inflammation is allowed to linger for too long, the body can have trouble starting the healing process that will get you back on the court again. Along with rehab and therapy, there are many nutritional choices that can accelerate healing, from the types of food you choose to the amount of calories you eat.
One of the first things to remember when recovering from injury is that your body needs energy from calories to implement the healing process. A common perception is that when you get injured, you should eat a lot less because you’re not training and moving around as much, and thus not burning as many calories. But the truth is, following an injury or surgery, the body’s basal metabolic rate (the amount of calories that are burned at rest) increases anywhere from 15-50 percent, depending on the severity of injury. This means that you require additional calories above baseline, simply to support the healing process and to help the body generate new healthy tissue. The body’s need for more calories is especially noticeable following a major injury, such as a fracture or dislocation, or a major surgery, such as an ACL repair. Caloric needs will of course be less than when you are training and playing, but not by too much, and will certainly be more than your resting baseline. Making sure to avoid under-eating is probably the easiest step you can take to help your body restore health and function, before rehab has even begun.
Also important to the healing process is consuming the right levels of macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein, and fat).
When eating for recovery, don’t forget the importance of consuming enough protein. Amino acids and proteins are the building blocks of our body, and consumption of these macronutrients aids in healing. It is recommended that most athletes consume at least .8 g/kg of body weight in protein per day; when recovering from a serious injury, that number increases to 1.5-2g/kg. For example, a 68 kg (150 lb) athlete would normally require 54.4 g of protein a day but when recovering from an injury, that amount would increase to at least 102 g per day.
Along with protein, fats are vital when it comes to controlling inflammation. Sticking to healthy fats such as mono and polyunsaturated fats, as well as omega-3 fatty acids, can help your body to fight inflammation. These fats can be found in foods such as peanut butter, almonds and other nuts, avocados, olives, olive oil, flax, fish oil, and salmon. However, be aware that certain types of fats, namely omega-6 fatty acids and trans fats (usually found in fried and highly-processed foods), can actually increase inflammation in your body.
Making sure to include at least one source of protein, healthy fat, and carbohydrates at each meal can ensure that your body is getting enough of these nutrients to heal effectively.
But it’s not just about the amount of macronutrients you consume. Micronutrients—vitamins and minerals—are just as key when it comes to helping your body heal efficiently and effectively. Vitamins A, B, C, and D all play an important role in tissue healing, as do zinc, calcium, copper, magnesium, and iron. Pay special attention to getting enough of vitamins A and C, as they contribute to your body’s ability to repair damaged muscles, ligaments, and tendons. Also extremely important in the process of cell repair and regeneration is zinc. This mineral plays a major role in wound healing as well as improving the integrity of new connective tissue and is therefore crucial when recovering from an injury or surgery.
Incorporating these micronutrients into your diet can be as simple as making a few additions or substitutions to your daily meal plan. For vitamins A and C, plenty of fruits and vegetables per day should do the trick. Specifically, leafy greens, red and orange bell peppers, citrus fruit, strawberries, and sweet potatoes are all excellent sources of one or both of these vitamins. Zinc is found in high amounts in oysters, red meats, and poultry, although it can be found in plenty of plant-based foods as well such as nuts, whole grains, and fortified cereals. When consuming whole grains and cereals, however, be aware that another nutrient in those foods, phytate, can block your body’s absorption of zinc. Because of the effects of phytate, vegetarians may need to get the optimal levels of zinc through supplementation.
Note that certain vitamins and minerals carry a risk for toxicity in large doses, so be sure you speak with your physician before supplementing any of these vitamins in order to determine the correct dosages for your body.
For more info on dietary supplements visit the National Institute of Health’s website ods.od.nih.gov.
Recovering properly from an injury is not a passive process. Along with rehab, modalities, and other types of therapy, nutrition can play a major role in the rate at which your body recovers. When healing after surgery or a major injury, many things are often out of your control. Your surgeon may dictate the types of movement that you can do, or the timeline for when you’ll be back on the court. Nutrition, however, is one thing that is completely under your control. By staying mindful of calories, macronutrients, and micronutrients, you are giving your body the building blocks that it needs to form new tissues, repair damaged tissues, and heal as quickly and efficiently as possible.
For more from Stephanie, visit her blog itrainthereforeieat.com.
Originally published in May 2014