Nutrition & Injuries
All athletes can experience an injury, and CrossFit athletes are no exception. (As a note, if you are interested to learn if CrossFit athletes are at greater risk for sport-related injuries, checkout my recent post ‘CrossFit and Injuries’). The topic of this blog, however, focuses on the relationship between nutrition and injuries.
While nutrition rarely is a direct cause of injuries, there certainly is a relationship between nutritional status and injury risk. In the short-term, entering a workout in a low-energy state (such as when you have not eaten all day and then head to the gym after work) can decrease coordination, mental focus, and concentration. Errors in judgement that result from an altered cognitive state can increase the risk of accidents and other injuries. Additionally, the feeling of muscle glycogen depletion (low stores of muscle carbohydrates from inadequate fueling), particularly in the athlete that is used to consuming a macro-balanced diet, can also increase injury risk. Perhaps you had not fueled very well during the day, and then go to snatch what is normally an appropriate amount of weight in the afternoon workout. Athletes have dropped the bar due to their lack of energy for an effective movement. This could have very dangerous repercussions for both themselves and others.
Long-term nutritional status also influences risk of injury. Female athletes are at much greater risk for engaging in fad diets and disordered eating habits (though men are not immune). Over time, significantly under-consuming calories in efforts to lose weight can result in an inadequate intake of calories, specific or all macronutrients, and vitamins and minerals. This nutritional inadequacy can result in loss of bone mineral density and places the athlete at greater risk for stress fractures and other bone injuries. All athletes that fail to consume a sufficient, balanced diet, particularly one high in fruits and vegetables, risk an inadequate consumption of vitamins and minerals. Overtime this can result in a compromised immune system and predispose the athlete to getting sick and/or injured. Finally, athletes that are not focusing on proper hydration practices can risk dehydration during exercise; in severe situations, this can result in heat stress injuries including heat exhaustion and stroke.
These are only just a few examples of how our nutritional status affects our risk for injury. It also cannot be overemphasized how important our nutritional intake is for our recovery from injury. Recovering from an injury, including bone and musculoskeletal injuries, requires the appropriate amount of calories, protein, and vitamins and minerals, among other nutrients, for optimal healing. Without an adequate intake of nutrients, injury recovery is prolonged and can heighten the athlete’s frustration.
Some general tips if you are recovering from an injury include the following:
- Consider adjusting your calorie intake. Refer to the Icon calculator for an adjusted calorie recommendation. Specifically, you will want to revise your activity factor, which will likely lower your calorie needs. Some individuals will have an activity factor as low as 1.3 or 1.4, depending upon the extent of the injury and how much movement has been limited. Adjusting your kcal intake can help prevent unintentional weight gain related to decreased activity
- A note on calories: avoid going too low in how much you are eating. Some athletes worry excessively about weight gain during this time period and underestimate how many calories their bodies still need to support recovery, which still requires energy from the foods we eat. If we go too low in calories, we can lose significant amounts of muscle mass and will prolong the time for the injury to recover. See recommendations above for an appropriate amount to be eating.
- Ensure an adequate protein intake. For a musculoskeletal injury, the amino acids that we get from the metabolism of protein intake become the building blocks for repairing the damage. A protein intake of 1.4 to 1.8 grams of protein per kg of body weight is typically appropriate. This protein intake also helps to preserve our lean body mass when our activity (and stimulus for muscle) is decreased.
- Get more fruits and veggies! Fruits and vegetables are powerhouses of vitamins, minerals, and other antioxidants needed for tissue repair. This includes, but is not limited to, zinc, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E, selenium, lycopene, and beta-carotene. Unfortunately supplements are not an adequate replacement – they just do not work as well as food. Aim to get at least 5 to 7 servings a day of fruits and vegetables, and ideally up to 8 to 11 servings!
- Eat more fish. Healthy fats, particularly the polyunsaturated fats we find in fish are high in omega-3 fatty acids, which help our body’s anti-inflammatory response system (& inflammation contributes to our experience of pain). Consuming sufficient omega-3’s – and again, from food, not supplements, supports recovery as well. Aim to get fish at least 2 to 3 times a week. Other sources of omega 3’s includes flax seed, walnuts, and canola oil.
Time and patience, of course, are essential ingredients for recovery as well. However, what I love about nutrition is that while an injury (either getting one, or recovering from one) can feel like it is out of our control, nutrition is something that we have complete control over. So let us use it to support our maximal performance and overall health and well-being!