All About Injury Nutrition
If you've been running for a while, you know how it goes. One minute, you're crushing tempo miles or hill repeats, flying high on the satisfying feeling of building your mileage or working down your easy mile pace, and then... it hits. Maybe you take a wrong step off a curb and end up with a sprained ankle (been there!). Maybe it dawns on you that the nagging pain in your foot or your hip just isn't going away (yep, done those too). Or maybe the minor ache you thought you could shake off is getting worse with every run, and you're starting to realize that you might have a stress fracture - again.
All of a sudden, you're facing 2-6 weeks on the couch instead of the trail. It seems like your big running goals will never get over that injury hump. Is there anything more frustrating?
Injury is a pain (literally!) - so it's not surprising that I get asked all the time about nutrition for injury recovery and prevention. Nutrition can't fix an injury by itself. And it can't necessarily prevent one, either. But it can help you recover faster, rebuild your fitness, and stay healthy for longer.
The best way to avoid having an injury derail your training is, of course, not to get hurt in the first place. That means investing time and energy in a wide variety of tools, like strength training, mobility work (yoga, foam rolling, etc), sleep, and nutrition. (Bonus tip? Don't skimp on sleep - it's the number 1 way to help your body recover more efficiently.)
In general, you can reduce your chances of getting injured by ensuring you're meeting your energy needs and getting in an adequate mix of nutrients. Underfueling is a very common cause of injury, particularly bone injuries. When we don't take in enough energy, our body stops producing certain hormones (such as estrogen). Among other things, this increases bone turnover and impairs production of new bone - and weak bones mean more fractures.
Thinking about food constantly, unexplained weight loss, loss of your menstrual cycle, and fatigue are all common signs of underfueling. Disordered eating is very common in endurance athletes, but you don't have to have an eating disorder to be underfueling. I don't recommend any diet that restricts intakes according to types of food (such as Keto or Whole30) or timing of meals (intermittent fasting). There's not enough evidence to indicate that those diets are superior for athletes... but there's a heck of a lot to suggest that restriction of carbs and other types of foods is harmful to performance!
If you're trying to lose weight while in the midst of a training cycle - stop! Your body needs increased fuel when training increases - cutting calories impairs recovery and performance, which increases your chances of injury.
Possible deficiencies in nutrients that impact bone health - such as Vitamin D and Calcium - could also put athletes at higher risk for a fracture. Be sure to include foods like dairy, soy, dark leafy greens, and fatty fish like salmon or tuna, which all contain important nutrients for healthy bones.
What if you already got injured and you're trying to get back on track with training? Well, nutrition can help you there, too. It's easy to get discouraged when you're hurt and can't do the sport you love. The tendency is to either restrict your energy intake in an attempt to prevent weight gain, or to "give up" and start eating much more energy-dense, highly processed food than you normally would. Neither approach is a great idea.
The best way to get through your injury and get back to training is to support your body with enough nutrition for the recovery process. Focus on protein intake (eggs, meat, chicken, beans, soy), fruits and veggies, and unsaturated fats (fatty fish, avocado, plant oils, nuts, seeds) to give your body plenty of what it needs to rebuild.
Continuing to eat a diet high in plants and minimally processed foods is a great way to set yourself up for success when you return to training. Adopting the "burn-it-down" approach - throwing up your hands and resorting to 24/7 McDonald's, bacon, ice cream and potato chips - will set you back further from your baseline, meaning you'll have to do extra work to get back to where you were. Those types of foods (fried, heavily processed, high sugar) are also associated with inflammation, which is not ideal when you're recovering from an injury. It's fine to have them as a part of your diet (no forbidden foods here!), but making them the bulk of your diet isn't going to help you feel good or recover more quickly.
Injury sucks, and recovery can try your patience. But with the right approach to nutrition, you'll get injured less often and bounce back faster when you do!
Need a resource to get you started on fueling right and promoting healthy bones? Check out my Fueling Tips for Female Athletes download (it's free!).
Vitale, Kenneth C et al. “Sleep Hygiene for Optimizing Recovery in Athletes: Review and Recommendations.” International journal of sports medicine vol. 40,8 (2019): 535-543. doi:10.1055/a-0905-3103
Wentz, Laurel et al. “Dietary and training predictors of stress fractures in female runners.” International journal of sport nutrition and exercise metabolism vol. 22,5 (2012): 374-82. doi:10.1123/ijsnem.22.5.374
De Souza, Mary Jane PhD*; Williams, Nancy I. ScD. "Beyond Hypoestrogenism in Amenorrheic Athletes: Energy Deficiency As a Contributing Factor for Bone Loss." Current Sports Medicine Reports vol 4,1 (2005): 38-44. doi: 10.1097/01.CSMR.0000306070.67390.cb