Whether you're sidelined for a few days or a few months, food is the key to healing and recovering faster.
We all do our best to eat healthy every day. But if you tear your calf mid-Tough Mudder or herniate an intervertebral disc doing deadlifts, suddenly food isn't about fueling a workout, it's about fueling your recovery.
"If you get injured, your perspective on nutrition has to shift," says Pam Nisevich Bede, RD, sports dietitian with Abbott's EAS Sports Nutrition.
Your focus is now fighting inflammation and fueling repair. TBH, the majority of what we're about to tell you is the exact same nutritional advice for losing weight or gaining muscle. But the reason why is different—and if there's one thing every healthy gal knows, it's that motivation fuels success. There's something about knowing that eating clean can help heal your injury and speed your recovery that makes these tips seem more like changes and less like restrictions.
"Overall, the focus should be on anti-inflammatory foods, eliminating pro-inflammatory foods, keeping essential nutrient (vitamins and mineral) intake high, and boosting your protein intake for complete healing," Bede says.
The more serious the injury, the more critical the diet. "When recovering from surgery, for instance, your nutrition needs will be drastically higher than recovering from, say, tendonitis," she adds. (Related: 6 Natural Pain Relief Remedies Every Active Girl Should Know About)
Whether you're coming off serious surgery or just trying to get your knee to quiet down from your long run last weekend, consider this is your nutrition roadmap to optimizing healing and speeding recovery, so you can get back in the gym or on the trail as quickly as possible.
Inflammation is your new enemy.
For soft tissue injuries—that's everything from a sprain to a strain or tear to tendinitis—reducing inflammation becomes your biggest objective, says Anna Turner, RD, CSSD, nutritionist at St. Vincent Sports Performance in Indianapolis, IN.
When your body is threatened, it sends out an inflammatory response to go fight off the invader. A small amount of this is good—it's what heals cuts and helps repair damage, including that to muscle fibers. But when your body is in a prolonged state of inflammation—from, say, a major injury or a super inflammatory diet—your immune system is chronically in high gear, which over time can not only inhibit progress on healing, but can actually lead to more swelling and damage, Bede explains.
Fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats such as chia and flax seed help reduce inflammation in the body. "Think of using these foods the same way that you use ice to reduce inflammation," Turner says.
And while increasing the number of anti-inflammatory foods is super important, so is decreasing the amount of pro-inflammatory foods, she adds. Foods that can cause inflammation: refined sugars (candy, doughnuts, white bread), oils (margarine, shortening), processed meats (hot dogs, lunch meats, sausage), and foods high in saturated and trans fats.
Resist the urge to cut calories.
Your instinct is probably to cut back on calories since you're no longer working up a sweat every day. Unless you're coming off two-a-days, resist that temptation and keep eating at the rate you have been. Your body heals from macro and micronutrients, so you need to keep calories up to keep supplies of nutrients up, Turner explains.
Plus, the act of healing boosts your metabolic rate, Bede adds. Muscle protein synthesis—which we think of as the process of building muscle from a workout, but it's also the process of healing an injured tendon—is an energetically expensive process. Some research shows mending boosts your metabolism by 15 to 30 percent depending on the type and severity of the injury. "Significant injuries [think: ACL tear, broken bone, things that'll take you out for a few months] can absolutely require as many calories and nutrients as a hard workout," she adds. "If you cut back drastically, narrowly focused only on avoiding weight gain, the healing process will indeed be hampered and the end goal—getting back on your feet—will be hindered."
Plus, if it's a soft tissue injury, like a pulled quad or calf muscle, you'll most likely only be out of the gym or limited for a few days to a few weeks. "Here, I wouldn't adjust your overall diet too much," Turner says. "What I would do, though, is become highly educated on good foods for reducing inflammation."
If you're super concerned about gaining weight, meet with a sports dietitian, Bede suggests. He or she can do more personalized tests, like a bod pod, to determine what your basal metabolic rate is and give you calories (and macro breakdown) to shoot for.
Focus on quality of calories.
You may have lived and breathed by calorie counts pre-injury, but your lifeline to health is now the quality of your calories. "Many athletes grab whatever fuels them, just to keep energy levels high and to crank through a workout, but when sidelined by an injury, you don't need quick fuel or energy level spikes to help you make it through one more set," Bede explains.
Your sole focus now is high-quality calories—those that provide vitamins and minerals along with energy—for fuel that both fills you up and heals you. That means food with fiber, protein, and colorful phytonutrients. Speaking of...
Eat a sh*t-ton of produce.
It's impossible to score proper amounts of antioxidants and phytochemicals—the protective compounds found in plants—without eating enough fruits and vegetables in a day, Bede says. While a handful of servings can cut it normally, aim now to eat around 10 servings daily, Turner suggests. That may seem like a ton, but it'll help optimize recovery.
"All fruits and vegetables are based on an ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity) value, which tells you how high in antioxidants each fruit and vegetable is," Turner explains. Generally, you can just reach for whatever variety of produce is on hand, but Turner suggests loading up on the top 10 ORAC fruits and vegetables to make sure you're getting the highest possible number of antioxidants. Those 10 include goji berries, wild blueberries, dark chocolate, pecans, artichoke, elderberries, kidney beans, cranberries, blackberries, and cilantro. (Check out the full list.) And don't forget a variety of leafy greens, like spinach, kale, chard, arugula, mustard greens, and watercress, Bede adds.
Switch out your oils.
You know to stay away from fried food already, and when eating for an injury, you want to do so because vegetable oils like corn and soy are pro-inflammatory, Bede says. But even a few you might cook with—avocado oil, safflower oil, sesame oil—are also rich in pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids, she explains. Instead, use flaxseed oil for low heat and walnut oil for high, both of which are rich in inflammation-fighting omega-3 fatty acids.
Fuel with healthy fats.
"We still need fat in our diet, but if you're injured, this would be a time to dial in your fat sources and make sure they mostly come from unsaturated fats, such as chia seeds and flax seeds, that can work in our favor to reduce inflammation," Turner says. Other healthy sources: those cleaner omega-3 oils; omega-3-rich fish like salmon, sardines, and anchovies; avocados; and, especially, nuts and nut butters. "Studies suggest nuts are associated with reduced markers of inflammation, so while you'll want to watch your portions due to your reduced calorie burn while you take time off to heal, definitely eat a variety of nuts," Bede adds. (Related: 6 Healing Foods to Help You Recover from a Running Injury Faster)
Up your protein—but skip the red meat.
"In addition to reducing inflammation, the second way in which a healthy diet can help an athlete recover from an injury is by preserving or helping rebuild muscle mass," Turner says. You know how protein is crucial for the process of rebuilding damaged muscle fibers after a workout? Well, that process of muscle protein synthesis is the exact same thing going on to heal any soft tissue injury—which is why research suggests scoring additional protein when recovering.
Plus, "the more muscle an athlete losses during this limited activity period, the more time it will take to come back to 100 percent," Turner points out.
In addition to building and repairing muscle, protein also helps build and repair collagen, keep your immune system healthy, and, if you replace empty calories with the satiating macro, you'll keep your lean body stores intact and hunger at a minimum, Bede adds.
Bede recommends most women aim for around 1 gram of protein per kilogram of body weight a day (g/kg/day) when healing. But a 2015 study analysis in Sports Medicine reports that an even higher protein intake—around 2 to 2.5 g/kg/day—can help minimize muscle loss while you're immobilized. That's a ton of protein for most of us, and the researchers add that, at the very least, you shouldn't drop below your gym-going protein count. Your best bet: Increase your active intake by one or two servings a day, at least hitting Bede's bar of 1 g/kg/day.
Aim for 20 to 30 grams of protein at each meal and snack to maximize muscle healing, the Sports Medicine study analysis says. Plant proteins are the most ideal—organic soy, hemp seeds, chia seeds, beans and legumes, quinoa—along with fish, low-fat dairy, eggs, and chicken. Definitely stay away from processed meats and eat red meat super sparingly, since both are very inflammatory, Bede adds.
Cut back on carbs.
"Athletes should always associate carbohydrates with length and intensity of exercising," Turner says. When either of these increases, the amount of carbohydrates your body needs increases as well. But when you're working out less (or not at all), your body needs less carbs.
Plus: "When carbohydrate intake reduces, this allows room for more protein in your diet for healing and preservation of muscle mass." Turner says.
What carbs you are eating should come from whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. And since refined carbs equal inflammation, so now's a great time to take a real look at how whole all your grains really are. That sourdough slice that comes with your favorite soup special, the white rice in your sushi—these were all relatively inconsequential within the bigger picture of your otherwise healthy diet before. But now even the small cheats contribute to inflammation and, therefore, slow down your healing timeline.
Minimize treat yo' self indulgences.
Many of us live by the 80/20 rule of dietary balance—but let's be real: That 20 percent indulgence isn't exclusively composed of dark chocolate, red wine, and other injury-approved anti-inflammatory foods. You're probably slipping in a few cookies here, a delicious slice of non-cauliflower crust pizza there.
And while we're typically in full support of small indulgences to save your sanity, refined carbs are enemy number one now. "You need to forget the more indulgent items and focus on small meals consisting of nutrient-dense fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy, and lean protein," Bede says. (Sorry.)
...And that includes booze too.
The debate over whether alcohol is inflammatory or anti-inflammatory is a hard one. Knocking back upwards of three drinks a night will certainly exacerbate inflammation and prolong the healing time of soft tissue injuries, according to a study in Sports Medicine. Bede leans conservative and recommends hitting pause on pouring yourself a glass if you're trying to optimize your healing. But, she concedes that there is some research to suggest that low to moderate alcohol intake can act as an anti-inflammatory for your body.
Our stance: If you're cleaning up your worst nutritional habits and steering clear of your fave indulgences for the sake of faster healing, having a few glasses of wine a week isn't going to wreak havoc on your system and may just save your sanity. If you're going to drink while recovering, reach for a glass of red wine or a beer, since both are packed with inflammation-quashing polyphenols.
Add in key supplements.
"Another ingredient you'd be wise to add to speed along recovery is beta-hydroxymetylbutyrate, or HMB," Bede says. "HMB is a naturally occurring amino acid metabolite used to help your body repair from injury and fight muscle breakdown and post-exercise soreness—to help get you back on your feet faster, so you can be active and healthy." Aim for a supplement of 3 grams of HMB a day. (It'd take a few thousand avocados to score this from your diet, Bede says.)
Other beneficial supplements Turner likes: fish oil, curcumin, and tart cherry juice to reduce inflammation; glutamine along with HMB to maintain muscle mass; and hydrolyzed collagen to help rebuild ligaments and tendons.