Food Rx: Eating for Injury Prevention

As I write this, I'm in a wheelchair. It's the latest result of numerous knee surgeries to repair my cartilage. I wish I could say that I injured my knee doing something athletic and impressive, such as running a killer speed workout, squatting six times my body weight at the gym, or even winning the three-legged race at a summer picnic.

But I did it in my kitchen. I slipped on a phantom slick spot that mysteriously evaporated within seconds. I landed on my knee hard. I didn't know it at the time, but that quick, hard fall punched a hole in my cartilage.

Ever since, I've been researching every conventional (and unconventional) way to heal my knee. I've had state-of-the-art surgery. I've taken supplements that I used to scoff at. I've changed my eating habits. (No, I didn't give up chocolate.) In the process, I've made some startling discoveries about nutritional remedies that can help heal injuries and even prevent them in the first place. Here's what's been working for me.

Eating for Injury Prevention

There's no doubt that smart training helps prevent injuries. But so will a wholesome diet, filled with foods that will enable your body to mount a strong defense against muscle strains and tears. Here are three nutritional strategies to prevent injuries:

1. Eat more. If you followed Survivor: The Australian Outback TV series, you may have noticed how gaunt the participants appeared after subsisting for weeks on daily rations of rice. This type of chronic malnutrition puts your body in prime "injury-waiting-to-happen" mode.

Many runners get stuck in this mode for extended periods of time, either to lose weight or because they're too busy to cook a real meal. How do you know if your body needs more calories? Keep track of your weight and eating patterns. If your weight fluctuates for no apparent reason, or if the quality of your eating is sporadic and generally unhealthful, you should consider a slight increase in high-quality calories.

2. Pile on the protein. True, a high-carbohydrate diet will fuel your running. But many runners take this advice to the extreme, living on bagels, pasta, and energy bars. Besides carbohydrate, you also need 80 to 100 grams of protein a day to maintain your muscles and other soft tissues. A small 3-ounce serving of chicken provides about 25 grams of protein, a glass of milk 10, a soy burger 14, and a hard-boiled egg 6. If you're only eating one protein source a day, you're not consuming enough. Try to include some protein in every meal.

3. Don't forget zinc and iron. Runners often skimp on these two important trace nutrients found predominantly in red meat. Though research hasn't linked zinc and iron deficiency with increased injury rates, I've noticed the connection when working with injured athletes, and so have many of my sports-nutrition colleagues.

You need 15 milligrams of zinc and 18 milligrams of iron a day. Most runners don't consume nearly that much, which is why I recommend eating a zinc- and iron-fortified breakfast cereal or taking a multivitamin that contains both minerals. Foods that are good sources of both zinc and iron include lean beef, poultry, seafood, and lentils.

Dining During Downtime

If you get injured, the length of your downtime is determined by the severity of your injury, and the degree to which your body is nutritionally prepared to handle this new stress.

If you have a severe injury as I do, and you can't run, you're probably wondering: "How can I avoid gaining weight?"

Relax. Even though you're not running, you're still burning calories between 5 to 15 percent more than usual to repair your tattered body. Also, for most injuries, total downtime usually lasts about 2 weeks. After that, you might not have the green light to run, but you may be able to do other forms of exercise, such as swimming or pool running.

But if you restrict your calories too much during this initial 2-week period, you might lengthen your recovery because your body won't have enough protein to both repair your injury and carry out typical bodily functions.

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