When I have been injured in the past, the first place I look for relief is in rehabilitation exercises and bodywork. Bring on the thousands of dollars in physical therapy and massage therapy—anything that helps!
While I still invested the time and money in getting my body right after my injury at Tarawera Ultra Marathon, for the first time I also decided to look at what I was eating and seek the guidance of a nutritionist to get me back on track.
“As a nutritionist, I’m here to say that athletes should also be paying a great deal of attention to what they eat when recovering from injury,” says Will Benitez of On Pace Wellness. “When the body is injured, nutritional needs change as the body uses more of certain nutrients to manage inflammation and to heal the injured muscle, tendon, and bone. So while physical therapy may be beneficial if not necessary for successful injury recovery, nutrition is also an important part of the equation.”
During my first conversation with Benitez, I could hardly walk due to my painful and persistent back injury. Almost three months later, I’ve slowly been able to build my mileage up from walking one day a week to running five to six days a week.
Here are some strategies that Benitez and I have used to make sure that my nutrition was (and is) optimized for injury recovery, reducing re-injury risk to help me get back to a healthy state for increasing training volume.
Upon our first conversation, Benitez made it clear that eating enough is the most critical piece to injury recovery.
“Often, athletes reduce their caloric intake to mitigate weight gain while injured or simply because they’re not as hungry,” he says. “For either reason, this may be okay and warranted, but it’s important not to reduce calories too quickly or too extensively. Because calories are units of energy and the body needs sufficient energy to heal injuries, you don’t want to run the risk of not eating enough and thus slow down recovery. Also, if you’re exercising slightly less or in different ways due to the injury, it’s even more important that your nutritional intake is sufficient because you are still exerting your body.”
Benitez says that if mitigating weight gain is a priority, it may be safe to reduce your calories by 200-500 calories per day, depending on whether or not you continue exercising for a couple of weeks while your training is reduced during this injury time.
See how your body feels and what your weight looks like during and after those two weeks before you reduce any further. Be sure to listen to hunger cues. As always, your body knows best.
After you are sure you are getting enough food, the next step is to make sure you are eating the right foods. For Benitez, it was clear that we needed to reduce the inflammatory foods in my diet and replace them with foods that would help reduce inflammation caused by the injury.
“For Cat, we increased omega-3 fatty acids via foods like hemp and flax seeds,” Benitez says. “We also have been reducing inflammation by increasing nutrient-dense whole foods such as dark greens, cruciferous vegetables, and sweet potatoes.”
Reducing inflammation can mean reducing or removing certain foods that can be more inflammatory to people. For me, it was clear that my tortilla chip and cheese addiction was inflammatory and potentially inhibiting my healing. While we didn’t eliminate my favorite snack foods, Benitez helped me replace them with healthier, less inflammatory alternatives.
The last thing Benitez and I addressed to reduce inflammation was hydration. According to Benitez, when water intake is insufficient, blood flow is not optimal. The body relies on optimal blood flow for healing, and a dehydrated body will not only heal slower, but it will function worse than a hydrated body will. In my case, increasing my fluid intake to ninety ounces a day has jump-started the healing process.
Increase nutrients that your body uses for healing
According to Will, our bodies have an even harder time digesting heavily processed oils and added sugars while trying to heal from an injury.
“Reduce foods that include heavily processed ingredients,” he says. “What the body needs are more nutrients that are involved in the healing processes and those that keep the immune system strong.”
Here are some essential nutrients you should be getting when recovering from injury, or even just a hard workout.
Vitamin C helps boost immune system function and, according to Will, it is also essential for collagen formation and connective tissue repair. Athletes increase Vitamin C-rich foods in their diet. Look beyond just fruits and turn to bell peppers, brussels sprouts, broccoli, and cauliflower to get your daily dose of Vitamin C.
Omega-3 fatty acids, as mentioned above, are highly effective managers of inflammation. Will says that the typical Western diet does include a sufficient amount of these essential fatty acids, so we need to be active in including them in our diet. Fatty fish and other seafood supply omega-3 fats; however, some other excellent sources of these fatty acids include seaweed, algae, chia seeds, hemp seeds, flax seeds, walnuts, and soy foods. Supplements of omega-3 such as fish oil, cod liver oil, and flaxseed oil may be beneficial.
Other nutrients that are important for healing depend on the injury (for example, calcium and Vitamin D are important for bone injuries). Still, it’s safe to say that increased nutritional needs will include protein and zinc.
If you track your macros, Will recommends increasing your protein intake by 15-25%, especially in the early phase of injury recovery. Zinc is involved in cell membrane repair, immune defense, tissue repair, fibrosis (scar) formation, and more, so it’s vital for proper injury recovery and helping to prevent re-injury.
My diet wasn’t deficient in zinc. However, we’ve been increasing it through legumes, dark leafy greens, and cruciferous vegetables, which are all excellent sources of zinc.