Food is fuel—and the type you eat matters. Just as scientific studies have proven that certain kinds of food, such as protein powder, can boost athletic performance, strength and power, it makes sense that certain foods can protect your physical health. Millions of Americans suffer sports-related injuries annually, with nearly 4 million of them children. Whether you’re recreationally active or a professional athlete, it’s valuable to learn as much as you can about how to eat both to avoid injury and to treat it.
It’s obvious that you raise your risk of injury if you jump into intense activity without any kind of warm-up, but it’s less obvious what nutritional “red flags” might raise the same risk. Experts at the Gatorade Sports Science Institute recommend nutritional screening with your doctor or a registered dietitian for energy deficits, nutritional quality, vitamin D levels, glycogen and protein recovery, lipid profile, alcohol avoidance and hydration status. When you plan meals and snacks, choose whole, natural foods and avoid processed foods and high amounts of refined sugar and saturated fat, which may make high-impact exercise uncomfortable.
Proper hydration is critical for exercise at any level, since being even 1 to 3 percent dehydrated can negatively impact both physical and mental performance. Drink before you get thirsty. During moderate exercise of an hour or less, drink 3 to 8 ounces of water every 15-20 minutes. For longer workouts, drink the same amount of fluid – but choose a sports drink of 4 to 8 percent carbohydrates rather than plain water.
Carbohydrates provide glycogen, the body’s primary source of energy for exercise. If you fail to maintain adequate glycogen stores, intense exercise can deplete your energy supply and lead to a breakdown of protein stores, which could negatively impact muscular performance. Nutritious sources of quick-digesting, simple carbs include fresh fruit, smoothies and crackers.
The workout you plan to complete can help you decide what to eat before exercise. For a moderate, 30- to 60-minute workout, a carb-rich piece of fruit or whole-grain bread between 30 to 120 minutes before your workout may be sufficient. A longer endurance workout, such as a 2-hour run, might be more successful if you eat a high-carb meal several hours beforehand.
Having extra protein when you’re injured as well as before or after strength training is also a smart idea. Protein ingested near the time of exercise raises the anabolic response of muscles, which can aid muscle growth and repair. Pre-exercise, choose a fast-digesting protein such as whey powder.
How to Recover
If you’re recovering from an illness or injury, including certain nutrients in your diet may help you heal faster. For example, anti-inflammatory foods, such as ginger, turmeric, garlic, cocoa, blueberries, pineapple and tea can help reduce swelling and encourage a healing response.
You should also try to eat more when you’re recovering, as your basal metabolic rate is likely between 15 and 50 percent higher than they are at baseline levels.