Best Foods for Sports Injury Recovery

Sports injuries are a nearly inevitable part of the process for athletes. We can prevent them as much as possible, but even the most conscientious athlete can fall prey to a coincidence, collision, or other scenarios that leaves them banged up. The good news is we can utilize nutritional strategies in combination with physical therapy, athletic training modalities, resistance training, and mental health to support the healing process. So what are some of the best foods you can eat for injury recovery? Read on to find out!

Goal: Fight Inflammation and Reduce Free Radical Production

Injuries, no matter what type, cause inflammation in our bodies. Our immune systems need some inflammation to aid in wound healing during the initial periods of recovery. But fighting this inflammation after the initial stage of injury may reduce recovery time and get athletes back on the field faster.

Lucky for us, nutrition can play a key role in fighting inflammation. And a healthy diet already contains anti-inflammatory foods to combat this oxidative stress and free radical production to support a speedy recovery. 

Foods that Fight Inflammation and Reduce Free Radical Production

Vitamin C – citrus fruits such as kiwi, grapefruit, oranges, strawberries, papaya, chilis, bell peppers Omega-3 fatty acids – olive oil, fatty fish (salmon, bluefish, mackerel, herring, tuna), avocado, flaxseed, walnuts, chia seeds, prickly pear/nopales Vitamin E – sunflower seeds, almonds, apricots, avocado, spinach, mamey Polyphenols – bilberry, black currant, chokeberry, cranberry, lingonberry, raspberry, strawberry, cherry, plum, dark chocolate, peanuts, hazelnut, linseed, rhubarb, red cabbage, buckwheat, graham flour

Add it to your diet: Combine strawberries, chia seeds, and spinach in a smoothie

Infograph listing anti-inflammatory foods for injury recovery

Goal: Protect Your Immune System

Don’t forget prebiotics and probiotics! They also have anti-inflammatory properties and protect the immune system, which can assist in recovery. They also help ensure the gut is primed to absorb all the other nutrients.

Foods that Protect Your Immune System

Prebiotic-containing foods: whole grains (oats, barley), onions, garlic, banana, jicama, apple, sweet potatoes, yacon.  Probiotic-containing foods: fermented dairy products (yogurt, sour cream, kefir), miso, tempeh, non-heated fermented veggies (kimchi, sauerkraut), and some kombuchas

Add it to your diet: Breakfast: Yogurt + Banana + Oat-based granola Meal: Stir-fry with tempeh, onion, sweet potato. Drink: Drink a glass of kefir or kombucha before bed

Goal: Preserve Lean Mass

Some injuries require a period of disuse surgery, such as being on crutches or having an immobilized bone. These injuries leave athletes at risk of muscle atrophy, a big word for muscle loss, which no one wants. Eating protein can signal the body to increase muscle protein synthesis, which means the creation of muscle tissue. Thus, increasing protein intake during injury recovery can prevent a loss of muscle mass. In injuries where disuse is not needed, lean protein remains an integral part of the diet as it plays a major role in muscle recovery and preserving lean mass.

Foods that Preserve Lean Mass

Protein – lean meats (lean or extra lean beef, turkey, pork, and skinless, boneless chicken), whey protein powder, plant protein powder, eggs, and combinations of plant-based foods that contain all essential amino acids.

Add to your diet: Snack: Whole-wheat toast + peanut butter as a snack Meal: Grilled chicken breast with barbecue sauce. Supplement: Whey protein isolate powder mixed with milk or check out these chocolate protein smoothie recipes

Goal: Promote Bone Health

For bone fractures, data seems to support that vitamin D may assist overall bone health, including healing and preventing additional fractures. Similarly, vitamin D and calcium seem to be beneficial in treating a stress fracture. Dairy products are the best way to get both vitamin D and calcium through food intake.

Goal: Improve Soft Tissue Integrity

What about for those soft tissue injuries, such as injuries to the tendons or ligaments? For these, vitamin C + collagen has an important role in increasing collagen production in connective tissues and improving tendon and ligament repair, and consuming gelatin or hydrolyzed collagen 30-60 minutes before physical activity has shown the best results. 

Add to your diet: Gelatin + an orange 30 minutes before a physical therapy session

Don’t underestimate the impact nutrition can have on return to play! Many great foods can enhance a balanced diet to support recovery from a sports injury. Injured athletes can maximize their impact by meeting with a registered dietitian as part of their sports medicine recovery plan!

Strategies to maintain skeletal muscle mass in the injured athlete: Nutritional considerations and exercise mimetics.
Rehabilitation Nutrition for Injury Recovery of Athletes: The Role of Macronutrient Intake
Nutrition for the Prevention and Treatment of Injuries in Track and Field Athletes
Pre- and Post-Surgical Nutrition for Preservation of Muscle Mass, Strength, and Functionality Following Orthopedic Surgery
Impact of Probiotics on the Performance of Endurance Athletes: A Systematic Review

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