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When you think of ways to prevent the kinds of overuse injuries that commonly affect those who participate in endurance sports—such as runner’s knee or plantar fasciitis—you probably don’t think about nutrition. It’s true that proper nutrition can do little to prevent injuries caused by factors such as overtraining or wearing the wrong type of running shoes. But specific eating habits can be an effective part of a comprehensive injury-prevention strategy that includes such measures as getting adequate muscle recovery and using the right equipment.
After all, your diet creates the building blocks of your body structure. Just as a well-built house is more likely to survive an earthquake, a properly nourished body is better able to withstand, say, a rigorous half-marathon training plan. That said, here are four specific eating habits that will help you reduce your risk of injury.
1. Eat Enough
The worst nutritional mistake you can make with regard to injury prevention is to eat too few calories. When your body doesn’t get enough calories to meet all of its tissue maintenance and energy needs, it will enter a catabolic state—which means your muscles begin eating themselves. Consequently, catabolism compromises your body’s ability to repair tissue damage incurred during workouts, which slows muscle recovery and increases your risk of injury.
How do you know if you’re eating enough? No need to obsessively count calories. Instead, monitor your workout performance, your body weight, and your body composition. When you’re not eating enough, the first indication is likely to be a decline in your workout performance. And when you’re in a catabolic state, your body weight will go down while your body fat percentage remains the same, indicating that you’re losing muscle, not fat.
2. Don’t Forget the Fat
Fat has a bad reputation, but it’s needed in the diet to create healthy cell membranes that are resistant to damage during exercise. Certain types of fat are also essential ingredients in compounds that participate in the inflammation process, which can keep small injuries from becoming big ones. In one study from the University of Buffalo, 86 female runners were interviewed about their eating habits and current injury status. Their level of fat intake turned out to be the single best dietary predictor of injury status, with the women who ate the least fat being the most likely to have an existing injury.
The women in the Buffalo study who had the lowest injury risk got roughly 30% of their daily calories from fat, and that’s a good number to target, as long as you’re eating the right types of fat. Make sure that no more than 10% of your total daily calories come from saturated fat, and try to consume twice as much unsaturated fat as saturated fat. Also, do your best to hit a daily target of 3,000 mg of omega-3 essential fats.
3. Keep the Calcium Coming
Bone strains and stress fractures are uncommon in swimming and cycling, but quite common in running—especially for those with low bone density. That’s why calcium, the most important nutrient for bone health, is so key. The recommended daily intake of calcium is 1,000 to 1,300 mg. But the average adult consumes only 500 to 700 mg daily. You can avoid a calcium deficiency and the resulting increased risk of bone injuries by consuming three servings of low-fat or non-fat dairy foods per day. Research suggests that calcium supplements are even more effective than dairy foods in maintaining bone density.
4. Train, Shower, Eat
When you eat is every bit as important as what you eat when it comes to preventing injuries. Muscle and joint tissue damage that occurs during a workout is repaired most quickly in the two hours immediately after the workout—provided you eat during that time. The most important nutrient to consume for post-exercise tissue repair is protein, but research has shown that consuming protein with carbohydrate is even better, because carbs stimulate muscle protein synthesis as well as restock depleted muscle glycogen stores.
In a study involving Marine recruits, those who used a carbohydrate-protein supplement daily after physical training through 54 days of boot camp had 33% fewer total medical visits, 37% fewer muscle and tendon injuries, and less muscle soreness than recruits who used a carbohydrate-only control or a placebo. While there are lots of carb-protein supplements formulated especially for use after exercise to speed muscle recovery, regular foods containing carbs and protein will do the job as well. Think a tall glass of low-fat chocolate milk or a turkey sandwich on whole-wheat bread. Both are tasty ways to avoid post-workout hunger—and injury.