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Eating for Strength and Recovery after Sports Injury

Contributors: Christine Rosenbloom, PhD, RDN, CSSD

Reviewers: Academy Nutrition Information Services Team

Published: January 12, 2018

Reviewed: January 05, 2023

eating for strength and recovery
FogStock/Vico Images/Alin Dragulin/FogStock/Thinkstock

Active people don't want to think about having an injury, but anyone who participates in sports knows that muscle pulls, sprains, broken bones, stress fractures or orthopedic surgery may sideline you for a while. What you eat after injury can help you recover from surgery, heal wounds and strengthen bones and muscles to get you back on your feet and back to an active lifestyle.

When injury strikes and you have to limit your physical activity, there is no need for the post-workout protein shakes or energy bars. Instead, eat nutrient-rich foods three to four times a day to provide the nutrients your body needs.


Focusing on high-quality protein foods aids wound healing and plays an important role in your body’s immune system. If you've had surgery, it is normal for your appetite to be low. Try eating a small amount of protein at each snack and meal. Eggs, low-fat cheese or cottage cheese, yogurt and plain baked chicken all provide quality protein and are usually well-tolerated in the early days after injury or surgery. Individuals that follow vegetarian and vegan eating styles can get high-quality protein from soy-based foods or from a variety of other plant sources, as long as sufficient calories are consumed. Plant-based milks are popular, but other than soy-based beverages, many are low in protein compared to cow's milk. Protein is not just for muscle building; it is a key nutrient in bone building. So, if you have a fracture, make sure to include protein with every meal and snack.

Vitamin C and Zinc

While all nutrients are important in healing, vitamin C and zinc are superstars for their roles in healing.

Vitamin C is needed to make a protein called collagen and is needed for repairing tendons, ligaments and healing surgical wounds. While citrus fruits are high in vitamin C, don't overlook other sources, such as strawberries, kiwi fruit, baked potatoes, broccoli and bell peppers.

Zinc is a mineral found in higher amounts in animal foods — meat, fish, poultry and dairy foods — but it also is present in whole grains, fortified breads and cereals, beans and peas (legumes) and nuts and seeds. It is better to get zinc from foods than supplements, especially because high-dose zinc supplements can cause nausea and vomiting.

Vitamin D and Calcium

Calcium and vitamin D are nutrients associated with healthy bones. So, if you have a stress fracture, make sure to get plenty of these two nutrients to help strengthen your bones. Milk and fortified soy milk are good choices. Yogurt, also a good source of calcium, is not always fortified with vitamin D, so check the Nutrition Facts Label of your favorite yogurt to make sure you are getting vitamin D.

Dietary Fiber

It may sound odd to mention fiber with healing foods, but pain medications commonly prescribed after injury or surgery can cause constipation. Whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds contain dietary fiber. Prunes or prune juice have a natural laxative effect that can alleviate constipation (along with drinking plenty of water) while on pain medications.

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