Nutrition and Injury Recovery in Sports

Most players have encountered injuries whether it’s a knee, calf, shoulder or back, but how many have considered the role nutrition can play in both prevention and recovery from injury?


Any player’s normal diet should include plenty of whole-grains, vegetables, fruit and lean protein to provide a wide range of nutrients, vital to maintain good health, offset oxidative stress and maintain strength – hopefully helping to avoid injury. But what if the worst does happen? What is actually happening to the body and what can you do to help yourself?


When injuries are sustained there is a natural cycle of activity that takes place to help the body through the stages of recovery.  This splits down into 4 stages: Acute phase, followed by three stages of healing: Inflammatory, Proliferation and Remodeling. Research shows that each of these benefits from a specific and appropriate intake of vitamins, minerals and amino acids (protein).


During the acute phase the body responds to the injury by increasing the flow of blood to the site of injury. This brings in immune antibodies, which can start to help the healing process, removing damaged tissue. This is why we often see reddening and swelling around an injury.  This reaction quickly turns to the first stage of healing: inflammation.  From the onset (and possibly lasting for several days, depending on the injury), the immune response continues and fluid continues to collect in the area. This is a perfectly normal reaction, but if not moderated by the body, can slow down the healing process.


After inflammation comes proliferation, which can last for several weeks. This is where the body starts to lay down new tissue (collagen) to replace that damaged during the injury (skin, muscle, ligaments etc).  Finally, the remodeling phase takes over, during which the new tissue created during proliferation is reinforced by fibroblastcells to build back the strength and stability that may have been missing during the earlier stages of recovery.


A common reaction to injury is to cut back on the number of calories consumed.  After all, if you can’t train, you don’t need as much energy, right? Think again.  Studies show that as the body heals it uses more energy to aid recovery (potentially increasing energy needs by 15%), and where bone breakages are concerned there may be a potential additional 20% increase in energy demand.


This can mean that the calorific requirement may be more than anticipated, so think twice before cutting back – just make sure that all your calories come from nutrient-dense foods: fruit and vegetables, whole-grains and lean protein.


During the inflammation stage, pay attention to your fat intake.  Saturated fats (those found in processed meats such as ham, bacon, salami, pate, plus baked goods such as cakes, biscuits, croissants) can increase the inflammatory state in the body so should be avoided. 

Instead focus on eating oily fish, avocado, olive oil and nuts and seeds, which are rich in omega-3 and unprocessed omega-6 fatty acids and have an anti-inflammatory effect. 


Adding spices into your diet can also provide anti-inflammatory compounds: turmeric, ginger, garlic and bromelain (found in pineapple) can all be positive aids.


After a few days you’ll be entering the proliferation stage, so make sure that you eat plenty of protein (amino acids) to help build new tissue. And, in order to enable the body to convert this protein into collagen you’ll need a good intake of vitamin C.  Broccoli, bell peppers, tomatoes and cabbage are all rich sources – better, in fact, than citrus fruits. 


Other nutrients closely associated with collagen repair include Vitamin A and Zinc. Deficiency in either can result in slow tissue recovery. Sources of vitamin A include liver, cod liver oil, green leafy vegetables, carrots, sweet potatoes and butternut squash. Zinc can be accessed from oysters, beef, liver, with small amounts in almonds, brazil nuts and pumpkin seeds.  


Having worked hard to plan these nutrients into your diet, absorbing them is clearly essential, so avoid drinking caffeine or alcohol as these can inhibit digestion and absorption of vitamins and minerals.


Essential nutrients for healing

Essential Fatty Acids

Needed for the management of inflammation, essential fatty acids can be sourced through fish, olive oil, nuts, avocados, seeds and fish oils.


Glutamine and Arginine

These two proteins are the most important amino acids to help tissue repair. Glutamine is needed by fibroblast cells, which help produce fibrous and scar tissue, while arginine helps with the production of other essential proteins for production of new tissue. Meat, fish, beans, coconut, nuts, soy and dairy, will help deliver good quality proteins.


Vitamin A

Needed to help form strong collagen tissue particularly in skin tears/injuries. Sources of Vitamin A: liver, cod liver oil, green leafy vegetables, carrots, tomatoes, sweet potatoes and butternut squash.


Vitamin C

A powerful antioxidant that helps offset free radicals generated by injury. It also helps with collagen formation and some studies have suggested it may reduce delayed onset muscle soreness. Sources include broccoli, bell peppers, tomatoes and cabbage, citrus fruits.



Low zinc status is often found where wound healing is slow.  It can also impact on the immune system, leading to frequent infections. Vital from the onset of injury, good sources include oysters, beef, liver, with small amounts in almonds, brazil nuts and pumpkin seeds.



Muscle relaxation can be aided by Magnesium – if often helps alleviate cramps, and offsets DOMS. Sources include Pumpkin seeds, Lima beans, Muesli, Brown rice, Brazil nuts, baked beans, wholemeal bread.