Injured Athlete Nutrition

Injured athlete

Phase 1

The first phase of recovery from injury or surgery involves immobilization of the injured body part (for example, a leg cast or an arm sling). Lack of movement will result in loss of muscle mass. Phase 1 may last for a few days or many months, depending on how serious your injury is.

Nutrition Goals in Phase 1

  • Manage inflammation by eating foods that lower inflammation.
  • Minimize muscle mass loss by eating high-quality protein foods.
  • Manage weight by eating enough calories to help you heal but avoiding weight
    gain. Wound healing after surgery, walking on crutches, and physical therapy all require a lot of energy (calories), but you still may need fewer calories than when you were training and competing every day.

Foods That Lower Inflammation

  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Legumes (beans and peas)
  • Whole grains
  • Fish rich in omega-3 fats (salmon, halibut, scallops, tuna, sardines, herring,
    anchovies, oysters, trout, mackerel)
  • Plant foods rich in omega-3 fats (walnuts, flaxseed oil, canola oil)

High-Quality Protein Foods

Protein is needed to heal wounds, repair broken bones, build healthy blood cells, keep your immune system strong, and support muscle protein growth and strength. Focus on high-quality protein foods (those that contain all of the essential amino acids). If you’ve had orthopedic surgery, it is normal for your appetite to be low, so eat a small amount of protein at each meal and snack.

Foods that are high in protein include:

  • Eggs, egg whites, and egg substitutes
  • Low-fat cheese and cottage cheese
  • Low-fat yogurt (regular and Greek)
    Low-fat milk
  • Low-fat soy milk
  • Lean meats (beef, pork, chicken, turkey, lamb, bison)
  • Fish
  • Soy foods (tofu, tempeh, miso, soy nuts, soy vegetable protein)

Phase 2

Rehabilitation progresses during the second phase of recovery. This may be a slow process, but following the nutrition goals for this phase can help you recover and return to sports participation.

Nutrition Goals in Phase 2

  • Regain muscle mass by continuing to enjoy high-quality protein foods.
  • Help your body continue to heal by including foods that are high in vitamin C,
    zinc, vitamin D, and calcium.
  • Ease side effects of pain medication (such as constipation) by adding good sources
    of fiber to your diet.

Vitamin C and Zinc

While all nutrients are important in healing, vitamin C and zinc are superstar nutrients for their roles in healing.

Vitamin C is needed to make a protein called collagen and for repairing tendons and ligaments and healing surgical wounds. Citrus fruits are high in vitamin C, but don’t overlook other sources of vitamin C such as strawberries, kiwifruit, baked potatoes, broccoli, and bell peppers.

Zinc is a mineral found mostly in animal foods such as meat, fish, poultry, and dairy foods. Zinc is also found in whole grain breads and cereals, legumes (dried beans and peas), and nuts. It is better to get zinc from foods than supplements. High-dose zinc supplements can cause nausea and vomiting.

Calcium and Vitamin D

Calcium and vitamin D are nutrients associated with healthy bones, so if you have a bone fracture or a stress fracture, make sure to get plenty of these 2 nutrients to strength your bones. The best sources of calcium and vitamin D are low-fat dairy foods. Fat-free (skim) milk has slightly more calcium than full-fat or low-fat (1%) milk and is fortified with vitamin D to help your body absorb the calcium. Yogurt, a good source of calcium, is not always fortified with vitamin D, so check the nutrition label of your favorite yogurt to make sure you are getting vitamin D.


It may sound odd to mention fiber with healing foods, but the pain medications that are commonly prescribed after injury or surgery cause constipation. Prunes or prune juice (along with drinking plenty of water) have a natural laxative effect that can alleviate constipation while on pain medications. Other good fiber sources include fresh fruits and vegetables, high-fiber whole grain cereals, and legumes.

Source: Sports Nutrition Care Manual 

PDF Nutrition for the Injured Athlete from Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics