The Injured Athlete: Nutrition Needs

When an injury strikes, it can leave an athlete physically hurt, emotionally upset, and mentally drained. Speaking from experience, in college I recovered from 2 hip labral repairs with a recovery time of about 8 months. We all know that the way we eat is influenced by our emotions, so this can be a difficult time to navigate nutrition when you have so many other things on your plate. Depending on the injury severity, circumstances can change. Appetite can increase or decrease, physical activity minutes and intensity are adjusted, and nutrient needs change. 

What shouldn’t change is your meal patterning. It is STILL important to eat every 5-6 hours to keep your metabolism working effectively. If you are truly sidelined and unable to do much activity other than physical therapy, you may find that your meals and snacks may be smaller or you might want to focus on more fruits and vegetables and a little less carbohydrate. Your appetite may decrease from doing less physical activity. Listening to your body’s hunger and fullness cues is a great way to regulate your intake.

Always include a protein source with meals and snacks. When we injure any kind of tissue in our body, that tissue needs to rebuild and repair. Our muscles, ligaments, tendons, and bones all require protein and the associated vitamins and minerals to heal effectively. Even if you are attending physical therapy, it is still important to recover after those sessions with a little bit of protein within an hour.

Focus less on convenience sports foods and adopt a whole food approach. Sports drinks, protein shakes, and bars can be really convenient when leaving the gym or training center to help replenish what you need. However, with an injury, focusing on fresh fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, and fiber rich whole grains will provide you with the balanced diet you need to recover while helping maintain your weight and body composition.

Lastly, many athletes worry about body composition (losing muscle mass, gaining body fat or weight) during this time. Remember that some of this change is to be expected if you aren’t participating in the same time or intensity of exercise. While some change is appropriate and expected, you want to avoid large swings in weight (either an increase or decrease) that may impact your ability to recover from an injury. Setting a nutrition plan at the beginning of the recovery phase can help you maintain muscle mass and get you back to playing shape more quickly.

If you have been diagnosed with an injury and struggling to know what to eat, sitting down with a Certified Sports Dietitian can help.

Christine Steinmetz