Recovery Nutrition Post-Injury

December 23, 2022

Injury is an inevitable part of an athlete’s life. Every athlete goes through a phase of injury in their athletic career. Return from athletic injury can be a lengthy and difficult process. Adequate recovery may result in positive adaptations for athletic capacity, performance and injury and illness risk, while inadequate recovery may result in maladaptations for athletic capacity, performance and injury and illness. Along with physical therapy , giving importance to proper nutrition during recovery phase is essential and these are divided into two phases.

Nutrition Goals in Phase 1

Manage inflammation(can alter the bacteria that live in our gut, and that alteration has the ability to interact with our immune system and eventually trigger it in a way that leads to chronic inflammation) by eating foods that lower inflammation.

Addition of antioxidants : Free radicals are unstable atoms that can damage cells, causing illness. When in contact with oxygen , it can cause harm to the cells. Antioxidants prevents that by reversing the actions of these free radical

Minimize Muscle Mass Loss By Eating High-Quality Protein Foods.

Manage weight by eating enough calories to help you heal but avoid weight gain. Wound healing after surgery, walking on crutches, and physical therapy all require a lot of energy (calories). However, you still may need fewer calories than when you were training and competing every day.

Foods That Lower Inflammation

  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Legumes (beans and peas)
  • Whole grains
  • Omega 3 
  • Curcumin
  • Fish rich in omega-3 fats (salmon, halibut, scallops, tuna, sardines, herring,
    anchovies, oysters, trout, mackerel)
  • Plant foods rich in omega-3 fats (walnuts, flaxseed oil, canola oil)

Phase 2: Rehabilitation progresses during the second phase of recovery. This may be a slow process, but following the nutrition goals for this phase can help you recover and return to sports participation.

Nutrition Goals in Phase 2

  • Regain muscle mass by enjoying high-quality protein foods.
  • Help your body continue to heal by including foods that are high in vitamin C,
    Zinc, vitamin D, Magnesium and calcium.
  • Ease side effects of pain medication (such as constipation) by adding good sources
    of fiber to your diet.

Vitamin C and Zinc

While all nutrients are important in healing, vitamin C and zinc are superstar nutrients for their roles in healing. Vitamin C is needed to make collagen protein, repair tendons and ligaments, and heal surgical wounds. Citrus fruits are high in vitamin C but don’t overlook other sources of vitamin C, such as strawberries, kiwifruit, baked potatoes, broccoli, and bell peppers.

Zinc is a mineral in animal foods such as meat, fish, poultry, and dairy. Zinc is also found in whole-grain bread, cereals, legumes (dried beans and peas), and nuts. It is better to get zinc from foods than supplements. High-dose zinc supplements can cause nausea and vomiting.

Calcium and Vitamin D

Calcium and vitamin D are nutrients associated with healthy bones, so if you have a bone fracture or a stress fracture, get plenty of these nutrients to strengthen your bones. The best sources of calcium and vitamin D are low-fat dairy foods. Fat-free (skim) milk has slightly more calcium than full-fat or low-fat (1%) milk and is fortified with vitamin D to help your body absorb calcium. Yogurt, a good source of calcium, is not always fortified with vitamin D, so check the nutrition label to ensure you are getting vitamin D. Green leafy vegetables are also a good source of calcium.


Athletes with increased collagen intake are found to have lower rates of joint, ligament, and ankle injuries compared to athletes who don’t take collagen supplements regularly. Consumption of Vitamin C-rich food is equally important to promote the body’s natural production of collagen

One can reduce the risk of injury by 100% when they get adequate amounts of Vitamin D, compared to athletes who do not get enough of the vitamin. Athletes can lower the risk for stress fractures and soothe musculoskeletal pain by increasing their consumption of Vitamin D-rich food like egg yolks, fatty fish, etc.

Omega-3 is a type of polyunsaturated fatty acid that comes packed with many health benefits. It can help athletes defend and recover from concussions and enables muscles to react faster. They also help synthesize stronger muscles and prevent muscle loss, which in turn helps you hold away fatigue longer and prevent overuse injury. Unfortunately, our bodies cannot produce Omega-3 on their own, which depends on our diet for adequate intake of healthy fatty acids. Athletes can hit the recommended dose by eating fatty fish such as mackerel, salmon, and herring. However, supplements can be just as effective, as seafood may not be easily accessible for some.

Ensure the diet meets the energy needs.

Athletes, especially women and those trying to maintain weight-class, may not eat enough due to strict dietary limitations. However, eating as much as you’re burning is important to avoid injuries such as ACL tears. Meeting your caloric needs also helps your body retain muscle mass. When your body doesn’t get enough calories, it enters a catabolic state. This means that it starts breaking down your muscles to get the energy you need. Weaker muscles can lead to an increased risk of overuse injuries.

Nutritional strategies are recommended depending upon the types of injuries:

Concussion: Early nutrition is key in concussion recovery. As soon as the decision has been made to remove the athlete from play, provide a protein-rich snack. When patients received at least 50 percent of their total energy expenditure and 1 to 1.5g/kg protein, outcomes were better than when they received less calories. Bonus: Omega 3s may also build muscle mass and strength as the athlete returns to full participation. Encourage the athlete to increase their intake of Omega 3-rich foods (salmon, mackerel, flaxseeds). Many athletes consider taking a fish oil supplement at this time.

Bone Injury: Athletes who are recovering from a fracture should aim for 1,500 milligrams of calcium each day. At this recommendation, an athlete could consume the following in one day. If vitamin D levels are not optimized, now is a good time to ask about ordering labs and correcting any deficiencies. Vitamin K2 also plays a critical role in bone healing. When vitamin K2 is activated, it allows osteocalcin to draw calcium into the bones. Food sources of vitamin K2 include egg yolk, chicken, and beef. Athletes should also ensure adequate intake of phosphorus and magnesium.

Tendon and Ligament Injury: It has recently been shown that the following protocol may positively impact tendon and ligament health: Consume 15 grams of gelatin and 50 milligrams of vitamin C one hour before training.8 This can be achieved by combining two food-grade gelatin packets with 8 ounces of vitamin C-rich juice. Copper is also a key nutrient for tendon health and can be found in organ meat, fish and few nuts.

Oro-Facial Injury/Surgery: Oro-facial injuries may require the athlete to alter the texture of their foods to make them easier to eat. Under-fueling and weight loss are common with these injuries, as it is easy to accidentally eliminate food groups and nutrients that are key for healing. Use the Oro-Facial Injury Food Recommendations chart above to coach athletes to eat from each group.

Conclusion: Ensure following the below tips for a proper recovery.

  1. Add adequate dietary protein
  2. Include Vitamin C, Vitamin D and  Vitamin E rich food
  3. Avoid alcohol
  4. Meet your energy demands during rehabilitation

Meryn Aricatt
Sports Nutritionist

Meryn, with a Master’s in Sports Science, is a pivotal member of the 'Evolve' vertical at iThrive, specializing in sports nutrition. She operates under the philosophy that "Nutrition can elevate a good athlete to greatness." Beyond her role at iThrive, Meryn imparts her expertise as an instructor for both the Functional Sports Nutrition and the Functional Nutrition Certification courses at iThrive Academy. She is passionate about helping sportspersons enhance their performance, ensuring they lead healthier, happier lives through the power of sports nutrition.

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