Top Foods for Sports Injury Recovery

Anti inflammatory diet foods

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Whether you are training for a marathon, lifting weights at the gym, or playing recreational softball, getting sidelined by an injury is no fun. Immediately after the injury occurs, you may rush home to ice the affected area and pop some anti-inflammatory medicine.

While you hope it is just minor and heals on its own, if pain persists you may need to seek medical attention from a sports medicine doctor or orthopedic surgeon. Oftentimes, weeks of physical therapy can help to heal and strengthen the injury and in the worst case, surgery may be needed.

While these are the obvious steps to take after a sports injury, focusing on nutrition may be an important piece not to overlook. Eating for your injury and choosing the right foods may help you heal faster and speed up your recovery. Here is what you should know about sports injuries and what foods and nutrients to focus on so you can return to your sport as quickly as possible.

What You Need to Know About Sports Injuries

Sports injuries may occur while participating in exercise or a sport. You may be at risk for a sports injury if you don't warm up properly before working out, aren't regularly active, or play a contact sport. Injuries can also occur from repetitive use or overuse.

Contact sports, such as football and basketball, see more sports injuries than non-contact sports, such as running and swimming. But injuries can occur in any sport.

Sports injuries also vary greatly in terms of severity. Some may mean taking a few days off from activity to rest and repair the injury and others may entail weeks to months of rest and rehabilitation.

Most Common Sports Injuries

  • Sprain: A sprain is an overstretching or tearing of ligaments or tissues that connect two bones together at a joint. They most commonly occur at the ankle when you accidentally twist your ankle in an awkward motion.
  • Strain: A strain is an overstretching or tearing of muscles or tendons—the thick fibrous cords of tissue that connect bone to muscle. A pulled muscle is one type of strain.
  • Stress fracture: Stress fractures are tiny cracks in bone that are caused by repetitive force, often due to overuse. They are commonly seen in weight-bearing bones such as the lower legs and feet.
  • Broken bone: A broken bone is a complete or partial break in the bone caused by trauma, overuse, or diseases of weakened bone.
  • Dislocation: In some instances, an injury may cause a bone to be dislocated, or forced out of its socket. This can lead to swelling and weakness.
  • Concussion: A concussion is a type of brain injury that is caused by a bump, blow, or jolt to the head or by a hit to the body that causes the head and brain to move rapidly back and forth.
  • Inflammation: One of the most common types of inflammatory injuries are shin splints, which occurs when the muscles and tendons around your shin become inflamed.

Many sports injuries happen immediately and cause pain and discomfort right away. Other types, such as overuse injuries, can creep up over time and may not be noticed until long-term damage occurs. It is important to rest even if an injury is very minor.

Complicated and more serious injuries can grow from small ones, so take care as soon as possible and try to not let a less severe injury go untreated. If you suspect that you have an injury—even a minor one—it is important to see a healthcare provider for accurate diagnosis and a treatment plan. Accurate diagnosis, rest, and recovery are imperative to healing and getting back on your feet.

How Food Can Help You Recover

Food plays an important role in metabolism, energy production, hemoglobin synthesis, lean mass and bone mass maintenance, reducing inflammation, and improving immunity. These characteristics are vital when recovering from injury.

Getting adequate nutrition means you will heal faster. In fact, calorie and nutrient needs are even higher than usual in order to fight sarcopenia, which is the progressive loss of skeletal muscle mass and strength.

When an injury occurs, the body requires more energy and protein from nutritious foods to aid in the healing process. Ensuring the correct amount, timing, and frequency of protein intake has shown to increase strength and prevent muscle mass loss during recovery.

While some research points to whey protein as the most favorable type of protein, other research shows no significant differences between type of protein and that amount of protein consumed was more important to promote healing.Additionally, certain foods can help fight inflammation that occurs during an injury.

When you get injured, inflammation can occur within 1 to 2 hours. During this process neutrophils flood the affected area and remove cellular debris, which is followed by a regenerative response where new cells replace previously damaged ones. Although inflammation is actually a helpful part in healing process, it should not go on for too long—which is where anti-inflammatory foods are key.

What Foods Should You Choose

There are a variety of specific foods and nutrients that are important to focus on when injured. Including these foods daily may help in the healing process and speed up your recovery. Here's what your daily nutrition should consist of when you are recovering from an injury.


Protein prevents the loss of lean muscle mass, especially when the injury requires the body part to be immobilized. As a result, higher protein intakes are necessary to maintain strength and heal the injury.

Frequently when injuries occur, the athlete may reduce their intake due to less movement. If all macronutrients are proportional, this means that protein intake is decreased as well, which may impede wound healing and increase inflammation.

Studies show that increasing total protein has better outcomes on muscle protein synthesis and injury healing.

Timing of protein intake also plays an important role in recovery. One study showed that muscle synthesis rate was 25% more effective when participants were fed evenly distributed amounts of protein across breakfast, lunch, and dinner compared with uneven protein distribution.

Protein foods to focus on are eggs, chicken, turkey, fish, and steak. Dairy foods such as yogurt, cheese, and milk are also good sources of protein. If you want more plant-based protein sources look to tofu, beans, nuts, tempeh, edamame, and soy milk.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

According to research, omega-3 fatty acids from food and supplements may be beneficial for sports injuries due to their anti-inflammatory properties.

Animal models show that omega-3 fatty acids can alter muscle metabolism and affect the way it responds to exercise. The research shows that a muscle already nourished with omega-3 fatty acids may respond differently to a trajectory of humans diseases, including injury. It is important to note that animal research does not necessarily translate to human conditions.

While it is important to consume foods high in omega-3 fatty acids following injury to decrease inflammation, there is further evidence to suggest they are important to eat on a regular basis as well to improve outcomes.

Food sources rich in omega-3 fatty acids include fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, mackerel, sardines, and cod liver oil, flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, and soybeans. Although not as high in omega-3s, pasture-raised eggs, some meats and dairy products, hemp seeds, and spinach contain smaller amounts.

One study highlights the consumption of a Mediterranean diet high in omega-3s and monounsaturated fats can help decrease inflammation in the cartilage after injury, preventing osteoarthritis.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is best known for its role in bone health, but research also shows it plays a role in skeletal muscle growth, immune and cardiopulmonary functions, and inflammatory modulation. All of these factors are important for athletic performance and injury recovery.

Additionally, vitamin D deficiency is common in the general population as well as in athletes, which can lead to complications such as depression and osteoporosis. Meanwhile, high serum levels of vitamin D are associated with reduced injury rates and better sports performance due its role in increasing muscle strength.

If you are an athlete or engage in sports activities, it is a good idea to get your vitamin D levels tested by your healthcare provider.

Food sources of vitamin D include cod liver oil, salmon, swordfish, tuna, orange juice, milk, and plant milks fortified with vitamin D, egg yolks, and fortified breakfast cereals. UVB light from the sun can also form vitamin D through a chemical reaction in the skin. But, it is best to balance your exposure by using sunscreen when spending large blocks of time outdoors.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C plays a major role in many phases of wound and injury healing. In the beginning phases, it is responsible for clearing the neutrophils from the inflamed site. Vitamin C also contributes to synthesis, maturation, and secretion of collagen.

The body works to maintain high levels of vitamin C to ensure availability for collagen synthesis. When a wound or injury occurs, vitamin C can become depleted and supplements may be needed.

One review studies looked at 286 studies that studied vitamin C supplementation on musculoskeletal injuries. The studies showed that vitamin C supplementation may be beneficial to accelerate bone healing after a fracture, increase collagen synthesis, and reduce oxidative stress.

Food sources of vitamin C include citrus fruits, bell pepper, tomatoes, broccoli, strawberries, Brussels sprouts, and white potatoes. If you are considering taking vitamin C supplements, talk to a healthcare provider to determine if your current medications may be impacted and to determine the best dose for you.


Along with vitamin D, calcium works to maintain bone health in athletes. There are many known benefits to weight-bearing exercise on bone health, but without adequate calories and nutrients, bone health may suffer and put the athlete at risk for osteopenia and osteoporosis.

Bone stress injuries are a concern in athletes and modifiable risk factors include physical activity, energy availability, and calcium and vitamin D status. Foods rich in calcium include dairy and fortified plant-milks, cheese, yogurt, fortified orange juice, tofu, edamame, canned sardines and salmon with bones, and almonds.


Zinc is an important mineral involved in immunity, metabolism, and anti-oxidative processes. One study reviewed zinc status in athletes compared to the control population. The study found that despite high zinc intake, serum zinc concentrations were lower in athletes.

This data suggests that athletes have a higher zinc requirement compared to those are not physically active.

Another study looked at the role minerals play in age-related muscle mass, muscle strength, and physical performance. Zinc status was positively associated with physical performance in older adults.

Zinc is important nutrient to prevent injuries as one ages. Food sources of zinc include whole grains, dairy products, oysters, red meat, poultry, chickpeas, and nuts.


Magnesium is involved in hundreds of biological processes making it essential for preventing and healing sports injuries. It is required to maintain normal nerve and muscle function, heart rhythm, blood pressure, the immune system, bone integrity, blood glucose levels, and promotes calcium absorption.

Studies show magnesium to be a significant predictor of bone mineral density in athletes, even after adjusting for calories, vitamin D, calcium, and phosphorus. Foods rich in magnesium include nuts and seeds. black beans, edamame, lima beans, quinoa, yogurt, spinach. and dark chocolate.

Other Considerations

If your injury leads you to a healthcare provider always follow their recommendations. You may need a series of imaging scans, such as MRIs, and you may need to work with a physical therapist. Listen to their guidance before returning to your sport.

For example, they may want you to limit your mileage running or the amount of time playing in the beginning and work up slowly. Going back too intensely too fast can result in a re-injury and sidelining you even longer.

In addition to nutrition, adequate sleep and stress reduction plays a critical a role in speeding up recovery.

One study examined the effect of sleep deprivation on muscle injury recovery due to high-intensity exercise in mice. The study found that sleep deprivation reduces muscle protein synthesis, which slows the repair of muscle, slowing the healing process.

You also may want to employ stress-reduction techniques to improve stress management in order to speed up the healing process. After all, an injury is both physically painful as well as mentally taxing, especially if the injury is keeping you from achieving your goals.

One study used a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction intervention to reduce the perception of pain, decrease stress and anxiety, and increase the positive mood in injured athletes. The results showed an increase in pain tolerance and mindful awareness in the injured athletes and a decrease in stress/anxiety scores. Consequently, the researchers recommend mindfulness be used as part of the rehabilitation process.

A Word From VeryWell

While sports injuries are certainly discouraging, with the right nutrition, sleep, and stress reduction regimen in place, you are more likely to be back on your feet in no time. Be sure to include lots of protein, omega-3 fatty acids, and many micronutrients in your diet to help fuel your body during the healing process.

You also should prioritize sleep and stress management during your rehabilitation period and always listen to the recommendations of your healthcare provider or physical therapist before returning to your sport. By adhering to their guidance and caring for your body you will be back doing what you love in no time.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What foods help to heal wounds?

    Foods that help to heal wounds include foods high in protein, vitamin C, and zinc. Focus on beef, chicken, seafood, and beans, strawberries, citrus fruits, and broccoli, and fortified grains.

  • How do you help your body heal faster?

    Eating well, sleeping, and stress management can help your body heal faster. Focus on healing foods rich in protein, omega-3s, vitamin C, and zinc and be sure to prioritize sleep and stress reduction techniques.

  • How does nutrition affect injury recovery?

    Food can certainly be medicine when it comes to injury recovery. Good nutrition decreases inflammation, provides key nutrients to tissue-building cells, and minimizes muscle atrophy to preserve strength.

21 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Rebecca Jaspan, MPH, RD, CDN, CDCES
Rebecca Jaspan is a registered dietitian specializing in anorexia, binge eating disorder, and bulimia, as well as disordered eating and orthorexia.