Recovery from Injury Like an Expert: 3 Ways Nutrition Can Help


by RACHELE POJEDNIC O2X Specialist Ph.D., Ed.M.
I recently suffered a major knee injury – tearing my ACL, MCL and meniscus, which required a pretty massive surgery to fix. I can tell you from experience that working through an injury is challenging, both mentally and physically. Finding support for the mental part of recovery is critical, and there is also an important role for nutrition with regard to the physical component. The key areas to focus on after an injury are energy balance, protein and vitamin C intake, and hydration.

  1. Eating Enough.

Energy balance is very important when you are recovering from an injury. Your body needs a significant amount of calories to facilitate tissue rebuilding and you want to be careful not to under fuel. At the same time, however, it is also likely that you are not being as physically active. The best way to monitor this is to watch for weight loss or gain over the weeks following the injury. Weight loss indicates negative energy balance (not enough calories) and weight gain is positive energy balance (too many calories). It’s a very individualized equation and will depend on your current state of muscle mass and diet, but giving your body adequate energy can be key to a speedy recovery.

  1. Protein.

Protein intake is critical to repairing soft tissue that may have been damaged in something like a muscle or tendon strain/sprain or even after something more traumatic like a bone break. While muscle building, per se, will be challenging after an injury, protein is going to provide the amino acid building blocks for regeneration. The recommendation is for 20-25g of high-quality protein for 3-4 meals per day. High-quality protein includes all essential amino acids and will come from animal sources (i.e. meat, dairy), mixing plant food sources, or supplementing with whey or pea protein. Contrary to popular belief, a collagen supplement does not provide all essential amino acids and does not actually become collagen in the body.

In order to maximize collagen production in the body, you can take a Vitamin C supplement, which is the key molecule for collagen building.

  1. Hydration.

Staying hydrated (and, if you can, even moving gently) means that you are able to bring blood, and thus nutrients, immune cells and waste to and from the tissue in an efficient manner. If you are dehydrated, it is likely that the tissue is being deprived of the building blocks it needs to regenerate. Paying attention to hydration status (urine color and thirst) is important and hydration needs can be met with water and teas.

Bonus: A Tip About Inflammation. One last note with regard to recovering from an injury is modulating inflammation. It’s pretty popular right now to take anti-inflammatory medications, supplements, and even ice baths to reduce inflammation, but this strategy actually seems like it either does nothing for recovery or may even make things worse (because you mask the body’s own healing process and cut off blood supply).

Anti-inflammatories should be taken to reduce pain, but excess supplementation beyond nutrient-rich foods should likely be avoided.

Let your body do the work!


RACHELE POJEDNIC O2X Specialist Ph.D., Ed.M.

Rachele is an Assistant Professor of Nutrition at Simmons University and founder of the Strong Process Forum. She received her Ph.D. from Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy in Biomechanical and Molecular Nutrition & Exercise Physiology. She is also an avid cyclist and an active member of the fitness community. You can find her writing in publications like Time, Runner’s World, and The Wall Street Journal.