By Randee Ochinero
Few things make time stand still like watching an athlete go down with an injury. Everyone holds their breath, hopeful the injured player will just stand up and walk it off. The old recommendation of RICE (rest, ice, compress and elevate) is often the standard of care but what athletes really need to do is address their nutrition in order to help prevent deficiencies and heal from injuries.
The typical teen diet is full of fatty, sugary and calorically dense foods that are unsurprisingly lacking in essential nutrients and micronutrients. Without education on proper nutrition, most kids would (and still might) opt to grab fast food day in and day out.
Most of us are aware of the downside to under-eating and how it affects athletes, yet it’s still a common issue with girls and women. Study after study has shown that proper nutrition is linked to an increase in not only physical performance and stamina but also mental capacity, academic performance, growth and health. Just because a kid can show up to practice after eating a bowl of cereal, skipping lunch and having frozen chicken nuggets for dinner day after day doesn’t guarantee they’ll be performing at their best. But the lack of nutrients in a teen’s diet could also be contributing to a variety of sports-related injuries.
So, where do you start?
Of course it’s easier to prevent injuries through good nutrition practices than to recover from injuries. If you’re looking for how to eat to recover from injuries, keep reading, I get there!
Micronutrients Are Vital
One of the most common injuries in female athletes are joint related, primarily ankle strains and sprains. There’s a direct correlation between collagen and joint strength, flexibility and bone density. While there are collagen supplements, eating a variety of fruits and vegetables containing Vitamin C will help the body produce the appropriate amount needed for each individual. A serving of red peppers, broccoli or even a kiwi will make up most of the needed intake of daily Vitamin C.
Another common deficiency in female athletes is Vitamin D. This is especially common in winter months and certain geographical areas. Studies have found adequate levels of Vitamin D (which is necessary for bone health and cell growth) greatly decreases the risk of injuries in athletes. Fatty Fish, eggs, cheese and fortified foods and going out into the sun can help with Vitamin D levels. This may be a supplement to look into depending on location and time of year.
The last micronutrient I want to hit on today is calcium. Study after study have shown direct correlations between sports injuries and adequate calcium intake. Eating a variety of dairy, nuts and seeds, leafy green vegetables and beans can increase calcium levels.
Eat enough food to fuel your lifestyle. If you undereat, your body must choose what deserves energy and what does not. It also may choose to enter a catabolic state – which is where the body starts to break down muscle for energy. Make sure you’re hitting on the big three macronutrients – carbohydrates for energy, proteins for muscle performance and fats for brain function and satisfaction.
Eat to Heal
Already have an injury and need to start the recovery process. You’ll want to start adjusting to the proper recommendations Need to still eat to heal – don’t assume calories need to be restricted. The body is used to being an athlete, so you need to fuel it properly.
- Increase anti-inflammatory foods like fruits and vegetables, healthy fats (salmon, avocado, etc.)
- Decrease processed foods and sugary foods
- Repair with proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamin d and calcium.
- Drink enough water. Fluids are vital to help facilitate blood flow to injury which will help move nutrients to the injured area quicker.
Adjusting to Your Injury
It’s common for athletes to think when they’re injured, they need to eat less in order to not gain weight. This is false and can actually hurt and prolong recovery.
When an injury occurs, the body’s response is to increase energy to heal. This increase in metabolic rate means you need to maintain the food you were eating and possibly eat more.
This is especially true if you have an injury that causes you to move in a different way than you’re used to. Have a lower body injury that requires a boot or crutches? You will be burning through energy adjusting to this new movement in addition to what the body is doing trying to heal.
So what should an athlete actually eat after an injury? Increase proteins, switch some starchy carbs out for more vegetables and drink plenty of fluids. Proper nutrition and time are needed to heal properly and get back ASAP. Keep in mind that muscle mass isn’t as vital to body function as the rest of it, so if you decrease calories while trying to heal, the first thing to go will be muscle. As an athlete, you’ve worked hard to build the muscles for your sport. Don’t let under-eating during an injury eliminate that hard work.
There is plenty of room in an athlete’s diet for sugary, fatty foods that are low in nutritional value but teens (ok all of us) love. When an athlete makes the conscious effort to start eating in a way that fuels their body properly, it’s not uncommon to see not only a decrease in injuries, but also the time spent injured will decrease.
Want to learn more about nutrition for the female athlete? Check out Fueling the Female Athlete.