For athletes and regular exercisers of all types, injuries can seem like the end of the world. When your sport or activity is such a big part of your life, suddenly being unable to train and compete leaves a gaping hole.

Most people in this situation would be willing to do whatever it takes to get back on the field or in the gym as soon as possible. This commonly means regular physical therapy sessions, daily rehabilitation exercises, medications, dietary supplements and even joint supports or braces. In extreme cases, surgery may be required to get someone back to the top of their game.

But among these therapies, treatments and gadgets, one thing is often overlooked: diet.

Food can be used to help your body recover, repair and develop the strength required to get back to action. Knowing which foods to eat at every stage of your recovery can promote a healing response, reduce inflammation, encourage muscle and bone repair and growth and provide the energy required for all of these processes.

Injuries have three stages:

  • inflammation
  • proliferation
  • remodeling

The inflammatory stage

The first stage of healing occurs immediately following the injury and lasts from a couple of days to around a week, depending on the severity of the injury. The area is usually painful, warm to the touch and appears red and swollen.

Inflammation is a necessary part of the healing process. It is a defense mechanism to protect us from infection and injury. Its purpose is to remove damaged tissue so that the body can begin to heal.

However, too much inflammation can also be detrimental and result in tissue destruction. This is uncommon in healthy individuals but can occur in those with autoimmune diseases. While anti-inflammatory medications can be used in the short term, side effects such as gastrointestinal issues can develop with prolonged use.

In these early stages of an injury, these foods will help to control the levels of inflammation in your body:

  • avocado
  • olive oil
  • oily fish (sardines; mackerel and salmon)
  • nuts and seeds
  • berries (blueberries, strawberries, etc)
  • dark green veggies (kale, spinach, broccoli)
  • tomatoes
  • turmeric
  • ginger
  • garlic and onions

You may notice the high volume of unsaturated fats in this list. Omega-3 fatty acids found in oily fish help reduce inflammation as they are involved in the production of inflammatory mediators. If you're not a fan of fish, you could try a fish-oil supplement.

Another nutrient found in abundance in many of these foods (nuts/seeds, avocado, spinach) is vitamin E, which is an important component in our diets for protecting the body against "pro-inflammatory" molecules called cytokines. Tomatoes make the list for their high lycopene content, and berries contain many antioxidants including anthocyanins, which give berries their colors.

As well as ensuring you consume plenty of these anti-inflammatory foods, it is best to avoid processed foods high in saturated fat, red meats and vegetable oils which are known to be "pro-inflammatory."

The proliferation and remodeling stages

This second stage of healing is called the proliferation stage, also sometimes known as the repair stage. It begins once inflammation starts to die down. The body lays down collagen to repair the injured tissue, which can take over six weeks for more severe injuries.

During this phase, oxygen and vitamin C are particularly important to aid collagen formation. This stage of healing also requires a significant increase in metabolism to provide the energy required for collagen formation and deposition. Therefore, it is important to ensure you are taking on enough calories, despite not being as active as usual.

The third, remodeling stage, is where the collagen laid down in stage two is strengthened and realigned to make it capable of withstanding the stresses placed upon it. This stage can last from three weeks to two years! The nutritional and energy requirements at this stage are similar to those of the proliferation stage, which is why they have been grouped together.

In both stages, your calories should come from:

  • Protein (lean meats, eggs, beans, legumes and protein supplements). Protein is vital following injury to help the tissues repair and grow, and it become especially important if the individual is immobilized due to their injury — to prevent excessive muscle wasting.
  • Balanced fat intake (fish, avocado, olive oil, nuts). A mixture of fats, even including some saturated fats should be consumed while in the proliferation and remodeling stages. Ensuring sufficient fat intake will mean your body does not need to resort to protein for its energy sources.
  • Varied, colorful fruit and vegetables (broccoli, peppers, tomatoes, spinach, oranges). A good mixture of fruit and vegetables is required to ensure we are getting enough of the essential vitamins A and C. Both are essential in making new tissues and wound healing.
  • Good, quality carbohydrates (whole grain oats, rice, sweet potato and quinoa). Because you'll be less active than when training, fewer starchy carbohydrates are required. Take on good quality, unprocessed carbs to help provide the energy your body needs for the healing process.

And for those with bone injuries, be sure to include calcium-rich foods to aid bone healing (dairy products, broccoli, kale and sardines).


Food supplements can be used to improve a diet even further, although should not be relied on and used as a substitute for a healthy recovery diet.

The most important supplements which may be of benefit to those recovering from an injury are:

  • Zinc plays a role in protein and collagen synthesis, tissue growth and healing.
  • Iron is part of the system that provides oxygen to the injury site.
  • Copper assists in the formation of red blood cells which bring oxygen to the injury and acts with vitamin C to form elastin and strengthen connective tissues.


Maintaining fluid intake during an injury is really important. Dehydration can reduce the body's healing ability since water is a major component of healthy cells. Dehydration also reduces the efficacy of blood circulation, which will in turn reduce the supply of oxygen and nutrients to the injured tissue.

Current advice suggests a minimum of 1.5 liters of fluid a day, and more in warm weather. This should mostly be in the form of plain or flavored water, although juices, teas, coffees (ideally decaffeinated) and milk can all be included.