It’s rare to find an athlete or fitness trainer who has never suffered an injury. And when the dreaded ‘I’ word happens you’ll want to do everything possible to speed up your recovery and in this respect nutrition is crucial.
Eat (a little) less
To avoid piling on the pounds when you’re not exercising, you’ll need to compensate for your reduced calorie output by eating less.
For many hard-training athletes, this is easier said than done as it may take a while for your appetite to re-adjust. If you’re used to consuming, say 3000 or 4000 calories worth of food, it’s not easy to cut back to a mere 2000 or 3000 a day when injury strikes.
Your body may need considerably fewer calories but your stomach capacity and your brain are set to expect more! Only those with iron willpower will be able to make a quick cut back.
Try trimming your calorie intake in a step-wise manner, shunning sugary snacks for fruit, and sports drinks for water (see ‘how can I avoid weight gain?’). But don’t severely restrict your food intake when injured. Your body needs adequate nutrition to heal your injury – eliminating healthy food hinders the process.
Maintain your protein intake
Make sure you don’t cut back on protein – you need protein for recovery. It provides amino acids, which are required for the formation and repair of body tissues.
There are no official protein recommendations for recovery but it would be wise to maintain an intake for endurance training, of between 1.2 and 1.4 g for each kg of body weight, that’s about 84 – 98g for a 70kg person. Although you’re not exercising as much, your body needs a little extra protein for healing.
Get enough calcium
If you have a stress fracture or a broken bone, your body needs this important mineral. Aim to eat at least three calcium-rich foods a day.
How to avoid weight gain?
To prevent weight gain when injured, try the following:
– Listen to your body and try to gauge how much food your body really needs.
– Learn to eat until you are satisfied, not stuffed.
– Keep temptation out of the way – don’t bring high calorie snacks in to your house.
– Eat off a smaller plate – it makes the amount you put on it look larger and means you will automatically eat at least 25 per cent less.
– Eat bigger portions of foods that fill you ‘up’, not ‘out’ (vegetables, salads, fruit) and smaller portions of calorie-dense foods (sugary cereals, white bread and pasta, cakes).
– Starting a meal with a bowl of soup, a salad, some fresh fruit or some fresh vegetables helps take the edge off your hunger pangs.
– Eating your food slowly will curb your desire to eat more then you need.
However, extra calcium (whether from food or supplements) will not speed the process. Experts recommend a daily intake of 700 mg, equivalent to a glass (170ml) of milk, one pot (150g) of yoghurt, a generous slice of cheese (25g) and a handful of almonds (40g).
Taking a supplement may not be the best option, though. In a 2007 study at Washington University School of Medicine, researchers found that women who got their calcium from food had healthier bones and higher bone densities than women whose calcium came mainly from supplemental tablets.
Foods containing 200 mg calcium
Milk – 1 glass (170 ml)
Cheddar cheese – 1 slice (25 g)
Yoghurt – 1 carton (130 g)
Broccoli – 10 sprigs (500 g)
Oranges – 3 oranges
Tinned sardines – 11/2 ( 36 g)
Almonds – 50 nuts (83 g)
Dried figs – 4 figs (80 g)
Don’t forget zinc and iron
Both of these minerals are crucial for healing yet are often lacking in fitness trainers and athletes’ diets. Low intakes may slow recovery. Men need 8.7mg or iron daily, women 14.8mg. Good sources include red meat, dried apricots, sardines, lentils, beans, whole grains and dark green leafy vegetables (see: ‘The iron content of various foods’).
Don’t take supplements unless you have been diagnosed as iron-deficient and advised by your doctor The daily requirement for zinc is 9.5 mg for men and 7mg for women. Like iron, it’s also found in red meat, as well as eggs, seeds, nuts, whole grains, milk and dairy products.
Iron content (milligrams/portion)
140g steak (2,9)
5 ready-to-eat dried aprictos (100g) (3,4)
100g canned sardines (2,3)
3 tbsp (120g) cooked red lentils (2,9)
200g baked beans (2,8)
2 eggs (1,6)
2 slices wholemeal bread (1,3)
100g broccoli (1,0)
100g spinach (1,7)
Get plenty of vitamins A and C
Your body uses vitamin A to make new tissues that are vital to healing, and also to make strong bones. Best food sources include liver, cheese, oily fish, eggs and milk. You can also get this vitamin from beta-carotene, the bright pigment in vegetables (such as carrots, red peppers and leafy greens) and fruit (tomatoes, mangoes).
Try to have at least two portions of vitamin A-rich and beta-carotene-rich foods each day during your recovery. Your body needs vitamin C to make collagen, a protein that makes up connective tissues and blood vessels.
When you’re injured, you need extra vitamin C to make more collagen. The average daily requirement is 40 mg but you can easily meet this by including one to two portions of berries, red peppers, leafy greens, and citrus fruit in your diet.
Eat for healthy joints
Once you’ve injured a joint, you’re at higher risk for developing osteoarthritis, a degenerative and painful joint condition. A nutrient rich diet – plenty of fruit, vegetables and whole grains and moderate amounts of fish, lean meat, pulses and dairy products – will help keep your joints healthy.
Add a weekly portion of oily fish, such as salmon, mackerel and herring, which is stocked with omega 3 fatty acids, is great for reducing joint stiffness, reducing inflammation in the muscles and joints and speeding recovery from injuries. Other good sources include flaxseed oil, walnuts, spinach, broccoli, pumpkin seeds and pumpkinseed oil, rapeseed oil, and omega-3 enriched eggs.
If you already suffer from pain and stiffness in your knees, elbows or shoulders, you may wish to supplement your diet with glucosamine and chondroitin. Glucosamine, a building block of cartilage, helps repair damaged joints, reduce pain and build synovial fluid, which lubricates the joints. Chondroitin is also a component of cartilage and connective tissue and helps stimulate cartilage repair and prevent further breakdown.
Menu for recovery
A carton of plain yoghurt; wholegrain toast with 2 teaspoons Manuka honey.
Benefits: Yoghurt supplies one third of your daily calcium for healing soft tissues and bones. Manuka honey contains high concentrations of antioxidants which help strengthen your immune system. The wholegrain bread provides a healthy dose of zinc and iron.
A handful of Brazil nuts or almonds.
Benefits: All nuts are rich in protein and healing-minerals such as iron and zinc, as well as vitamin E to help reduce inflammation.
Tomato, basil and garlic salad with feta cheese and wholegrain bread, plus a generous serving of fruit salad.
Benefits: Garlic is nature’s antibiotic. It contains a sulphur compound called allicin which supports the white cells that help fight off infection. The vitamin C in tomatoes helps promote healing. Wholegrain bread is rich in zinc and iron.
Mango and ginger smoothie (whiz together mango, a handful of ice, a 2cm piece fresh ginger and a carton of plain yoghurt).
Benefits: Ginger contains oils with potent antiseptic properties, to combat colds and chest infections. The betacarotene and vitamin C in the mango will boost recovery.
Baked salmon with wholegrain rice, broccoli and spinach.
Benefits: Salmon is packed with omega-3 oils, which help keep joints supple, reduce joint pain and fight inflammation. Wholegrain rice adds iron and zinc while the green veg are packed with healing vitamins A and C.