Every time I have a running injury, I go through the same crisis: how on Earth should I eat when I’m not running? Should I eat less? More? Can eating help heal injuries?
Admittedly, I’ve gone into panic mode—watching what I eat and worrying about weight gain due to time off. But cutting calories is the last thing injured runners should be doing. Eating can help heal injuries, especially if you eat the right foods. If you skimp on calories, your body may not get the fuel it needs to heal and you may be on the sidelines longer than you have to be.
If you struggle with listening to your body’s cues for hunger when you aren’t running—think of it this way—you will always run faster a couple of pounds heavier than if you are injured. Plus, it is natural for runners to have different seasons of weight. Even the pros don’t stay at their “race weight” all year long.
So, how does eating help heal injuries? I spoke with three mother runners who are also sports nutritionists and I’m here to dish on what healing foods to eat and when.
In this article, I will cover:
- Should you eat less when you’re injured?
- How much should you eat when injured?
- Does being injured make you hungrier?
- What foods promote healing?
- What foods slow healing?
- When to eat healing foods to heal your injury
- What you should eat based on what injury you have
- And what supplements can help heal injuries
Should you eat less when you’re injured?
No, you should not eat significantly less when you are injured. In fact, following the days after your injury, you may need to eat more.
A 2015 Sports Medicine journal study finds “The single most important nutritional consideration during reduced muscle activity and/or immobility is to avoid nutrient deficiencies.”
Why? Because it delays recovery and can make you weaker:
“Cutting calories not only delays recovery but can facilitate further muscle breakdown because the body will use muscle for energy,” explains Amy Stephens, a registered dietician to elite runners.
Overall, when you’re injured and not running, your caloric intake may be less based on how much you ran before, says nutritionist Kellie Cope. But you still need calories to repair your body.
“Feeding and fueling still play a critical role in the rehabilitation process. The goal is to manage inflammation, promote recovery, minimize muscle loss, and manage weight,” she explains.
How much should you eat when injured?
An athlete who is injured should not eat much less than when they were training. Research shows the calorie needs of an injured athlete are not significantly lower than an active athlete, notes Jennifer Scott, a marathoner and registered dietician.
“Your caloric needs are less BUT your body still needs a good amount of calories to HEAL. So even though you’re not doing as much on the outside, your body is being very active on the inside,” she notes.
Athletes should listen to their hunger cues and pay attention to WHAT they are eating (more on that later). In general, Stephens says here is what you want to eat when injured:
- 1.7-2 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight or 25% of your calories for the day (for muscle repair)
- 5-6 grams of carbohydrates per pound of body weight or 45-50% of your calories for the day (to avoid muscle wasting)
- and .5 grams of healthy fats per pound of body weight or 25-30% of your calories for the day (to manage inflammation)
Please note these numbers are just general guidelines and no need to obsess over macros or count calories. Trust your body to tell you what it needs.
Does being injured make you hungrier?
When I was recovering from my hamstring tear in 2020, I remember feeling hungrier than when I was running 80+ miles a week. What gives?
Research shows that, depending on the severity of the injury, your metabolism can speed up 15 to 20 percent in the days following the trauma as it works to heal your injury. This number is even higher after surgery.
If you have an acute injury such as a muscle or tendon tear or broken bone, your body is using more energy to repair itself. Therefore, you may feel hungry when injured because you are burning calories to heal your injury.
What foods promote healing?
While athletes need to make sure they are eating enough calories to give their bodies the fuel they need to heal, they also need to make sure they are eating brightly colored fruits and veggies, protein, and other vitamins and minerals.
Foods high in antioxidants & Omega 3s to fight inflammation.
Some of these foods include:
- Berries and cherries
- Coffee & Dark Chocolate
- Kale, Spinach, Broccoli
- Walnuts, Seeds (flaxseed oil), Hemp Hearts
- Fatty fish- Mackerel, Salmon, Whitefish
- Ripple non-dairy milk (great for smoothies)!
- Ginger & Turmeric
Protein repairs broken bones, build healthy blood cells, keeps your immune system strong, and supports muscle protein growth and strength.
Some research also suggests a higher protein intake in injured athletes can help preserve lean body mass.
Focus on high-quality protein foods (those that contain all nine of the essential amino acids-EAAs) and the branched-chain amino acid (BCAA), leucine, aids in muscle protein synthesis, which again needs to be included in an overall consumption of essentials amino acids.
Foods dense in EAAs AND BCAAs include:
Foods high in vitamin C, zinc, vitamin D, and calcium will help your body continue to heal.
Vitamin C and zinc play key roles in healing. Vitamin C is needed to make collagen and for repairing tendons and ligaments (and other wounds). Citrus fruits are high in vitamin C, but here are a few other that pack the same or even more of a punch!
- Acerola cherries
- Parsley, Thyme, Rosehips
- Baked potatoes
- Bell peppers (yellow, red, orange)
- Green Bell (just lower amount than red, yellows, oranges)
Zinc is a mineral found mostly in animal foods such as:
- Dairy foods
- Whole-grain breads and cereals
- Wheat germ
- Legumes (dried beans and peas)
- Nuts (pecans and cashews)
Note: It is better to get zinc from foods than supplements. High-dose zinc supplements can cause nausea and vomiting.
Calcium and vitamin D are nutrients associated with healthy bones and immune regulation.
Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium, and regulate skeleton muscular function and the immune system.
Sources of Calcium (Other than dairy and fortified foods) are:
- Blackstrap molasses
- Bok choy
- Cooked collard greens
- Cooked kale
- Cooked turnip greens
- Cooked broccoli
- Soy nuts
- Some instant oatmeal
- Baked beans
- Dried figs
The best sources of Vitamin D are:
- Fatty fish, like tuna, mackerel, and salmon
- Foods fortified with vitamin D, like some dairy products, orange juice, soy milk, almond milks, and cereals
- Beef liver
- Egg yolks
- Some mushrooms
What foods slow healing?
Alcohol and refined sugars should be avoided if you are healing an injury.
Studies show that alcohol consumption decreases protein synthesis in skeletal muscle.
Runners recovering from a running injury should also avoid refined sugars. Research has found that people with higher sugar diets have more inflammatory markers in their blood.
When to eat healing foods to heal your running injury
Eating a well-balanced meal is always a good idea, injured or not. However, when injured it is of utmost importance to eat healthy foods and your basic macronutrients of healthy fats, complex carbs, and protein.
When you eat these healing foods can speed up recovery.
Research shows there are 3 stages of healing:
The 3 Stages of Healing of running injuries
- Inflammation: This happens within the first 4 days of your injury. This is when your immune system is activated and damage-control cells rush to the injured site. Eat extra fruits and veggies to fight the inflammation.
- Proliferation: This happens after those first 4 days. It is your body that builds new tissue, restores blood vessels, and covers the surface of any exposed wounds. Eat a lot of protein, complex carbs, and healthy fats.
- Remodeling: This period is when the injured area begins to build itself back up, regaining strength (and scarring). It lasts as long as your injury does. Continue to eat a lot of protein, complex carbs, and healthy fats. Aim to sneak a variety of protein into every meal and snack.
Research has also found that a dose of protein before bed can help promote muscle synthesis. So, feel good about that bedtime snack!
What should you eat based on your injury?
Injured runners can also tailor their diets to meet their injury recovery needs.
Here’s what to eat based on the type of injury you have.
- Stress fracture: Eat more foods rich in calcium, vitamin D, vitamin C, vitamin A, and magnesium
- Ligament or tendon tear: High-quality protein from milk, yogurt & eggs, Vitamin C, and Vitamin A
- Surgery: Eat more foods with protein, collagen, and zinc
- Runner’s knee: Protein, Vitamin C, and Vitamin A
- Tendonitis: Focus on foods with antioxidants and healthy fats
- Arthritis: Focus on collagen and Vitamin C
- Muscle strain and tendinosis (tendon degradation): Get more branched-chain amino acids (BCAA)
- Muscle tear: protein, iron, Vitamin C, and Vitamin A
What supplements should runners take?
It’s always best to get your vitamins and minerals from REAL food. However, sometimes that isn’t possible or your body needs a more potent dose. (A blood test getting your levels is useful here).
Here are common supplements runners need, especially injured runners.
- Iron: This essential mineral helps transport oxygen from your lungs to your muscles. Female runners especially run low on iron, particularly in the summer.
- Leucine: This branched-chain amino acid stimulates muscle protein synthesis faster than other amino acids.
- Casein: This is a milk protein that contains all the amino acids your body needs to build and repair muscle.
- Creatine: Another amino acid that may help prevent muscle loss, especially while a limb is immobilized.
- Whey protein: This protein may boost ligament, tendon, and muscle healing when consumed within an hour after exercise or rehabilitation.
- Collagen: When taken before exercise with vitamin C may help with the recovery of ligament and tendon injuries.
As with most nutritional questions, there is no one-size-fits-all answer as to what supplements to take. A blood test can tell you where you are deficient.
Being an injured runner is a confusing time. But don’t make it harder (or longer) than it has to me. Don’t overthink your food. Eat! Eat healthy and well, and the miles and PRs will come.
I want to help you reach your running goals and stay healthy doing so! Find out more about my coaching services.