Eating right when injured

There is always a risk of getting injured when playing rugby. This may result in players missing out on training and matches for weeks or months and may also have many other consequences, which, if not addressed, can lead to a recurrent cycle of injury. Nutrition during this time is absolutely critical to promote speedy recovery.

In SA Rugby's Practical Nutrition for Rugby guide, they discuss the nutritional needs for an injured rugby player.

Precise nutritional considerations will vary depending on the type of injury as well the individual situation. However, a change in energy expenditure is common to all injuries and this is exaggerated if players are unable to train for long periods of time. Gaining fat mass and losing much-needed muscle mass makes rehabilitation more problematic.

The additional fat gain places an extra load on the injured body part once training is resumed, placing players at more risk for further injury. Thus, central to rehabilitation is the avoidance of muscle mass loss and fat mass gain, which requires a combination of a modified eating plan and a rehabilitation training programme.

Tips to avoid getting injured in the first place

To reduce the risk of injury when training or playing a match:

  • Ensure that adequate carbohydrate and fluid (e.g. a sports drink) is consumed to avoid fatigue during training/playing a match. Immediately after training or the match, have a recovery snack/drink to replenish muscle energy stores which helps repair of any muscle damage.
  • Avoid alcohol immediately after a match and if injured no alcohol should be consumed for 24-48 hours as it delays recovery by causing extra swelling and bleeding.
  • Note that inappropriate creatine use may cause an unnecessary load on the muscles of growing players, increasing the risk of injury.

Avoid putting on weight when injured

To reduce unwanted fat mass gain and prevent loss of muscle mass when injured Energy in should not exceed energy out. This means cutting back on total food intake, especially concentrated sources of calories from foods that are typically used when training (e.g. sports drinks, bars, recovery snacks).

Avoid eating out of boredom and resorting to high-fat comfort foods such as crisps, chocolates, cakes, etc.

The diet should focus on nutritious, low-fat foods such as low-fat dairy and lean meats (good sources of protein), fresh fruit and vegetables and high-fibre cereals and breads – all these foods are good sources of either protein, calcium, iron or vitamin C, which are essential in promoting healing.

What to eat to promote recovery

Ensure an adequate intake of vitamins C and E, which are anti-oxidants and help the healing processes. Good food sources of these nutrients are fruits and vegetables (especially the citrus variety), seeds and vegetable oils. Sufficient dietary iron (lean meats) and calcium (low-fat dairy) are also important.

If a short-term anti-oxidant supplement or immune booster supplement is required, this should be prescribed by the sports physician or dietitian.

Foods to reduce inflammation

There is currently no convincing evidence that glucosamine sulphate and chondroitin sulphate can reduce joint pain or boost recovery from a strenuous workout. However, if there is existing cartilage damage, there may be some benefit. Note that several supplements are combined with herbals and may be risky. 

Note that medications to reduce inflammation should be taken with meals to prevent gastric upsets.

Head, neck and jaw injuries

If chewing or swallowing of foods is difficult, special meal replacements and special foods may be needed but this should be calculated and prescribed by a sports dietitian.

If immobilised, in plaster or on crutches, players may not be able to shop for food or cook. In order to stick to their nutrition programme, careful planning and the help from friends or family will be needed.

Source: Practical Nutrition for Rugby by Dieticians Shelley Meltzer and Cecily Fuller, courtesy SA Rugby.

(Health24, August 2011) 

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