How to Eat and Move when you’re Injured

17 Apr

A big part of what we talk about in the Science Lab is moving properly and keeping yourself healthy through a gradual approach.  However, most people suffer some kind of injury during their training, and the topic of how to eat during a lay off comes up quite frequently. Injury can make or break an athlete, whether they’re pro or amateur.  How you deal with it determines whether you rise to the occasion or spend the rest of your life holding back.

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When I first started on my path to better health, I suffered a major accident.  It was actually the most horrific accident I have ever personally seen, and unfortunately it happened to me.  Winter was turning into Spring, and I was getting the itch to be outdoors more.  At this point I wasn’t into fitness the way I am now.  I had a Vespa that I would drive around town, and it was fun, but I wanted something that would allow me to go further.  While it might seem odd to move from a Vespa to a Harley Davidson, I have ridden motorcycles and ATV’s my whole life.  (I am from the South after all!)  I opted for a Sportster and decked it out “James Dean style”.  I was ready to embrace my inner Kerouac, even if it just meant that I’d be able to go to the grocery store 8 miles away.

I was definitely scared, and in retrospect it was kind of silly what I did, but the circumstances set me up very poorly.  Because I paid cash, they were able to let me ride the bike out on my own; if I had financed it, that wouldn’t have been the case.  So I got a little unlucky there.  To make a long story short, I came down the hill and the motorcycle stalled.  I had to re-start it, and as I left the driveway of the dealership, it began to stall again.  So I went to hit the clutch, but probably ended up hitting the brake, and I accelerated.  The bike then spun out on the sandy roads of Minnesota in April (residue from snow removal) and as I went to brace my foot down, my ankle snapped off of my leg.  If you think this was a joke, and you are tempted to make fun of me for my misfortune, I will have nothing to do with you; this was extremely traumatic and even talking about it right now is something very difficult.  If you have ever seen the Joe Theismann injury or the recent Kevin Ware injury, it was like that.  (At least, I assume; I can’t watch the Kevin Ware injury because of what happened to me.)

In a very real way, who I have become today is a direct result of sitting in a chair for six months after the incident.  I had already started my typical “stop eating M & M’s and drinking Cokes” diet, and had lost some weight.  That’s about the same time I started thinking, “I am too smart to be fat”.  As I talk to people in the Science Lab today, it’s not often that I need to research things all that much because when I was in that chair, I literally drank up information with a straw.

(As a funny side note, having no pain medication was not an option, but I was only on it for 3 days.  I’m also a sometimes-professional poker player; in those 3 days, I won about $50,000 dollars playing online poker, so it was tough getting off of the pain medication for more than one reason.)

The focus of my research became the ability to mobilize fat without extreme calorie restriction, and not only was I able to figure it out, but I determined that the calorie-restricted model was severely flawed for many reasons.  I write a lot of articles about that though.

The Basics of Physical Therapy and Why it’s Important for you To Know

The basics of Physical Therapy go like this:  get the patient moving, increase the patient’s range of motion, and make the patient stronger.  That’s my version at least.  Healing requires energy; it’s an extremely stressful time for the body.  Although it can be difficult to eat when you’re out of commission, tour body needs as much food (if not more) to recover during this time than it did while you were training.  This is the case for that elbow sprain you incurred doing hang power cleans, as well as that meniscus tear you sustained doing ATG squats, so let’s start there.  When you’re injured, the worst thing you can do is go on a diet.  You certainly should do what you can to help your body rid itself of inflammation and toxins, and we will talk about how to do that, (Some of it will be conjecture on my part based on what I know related to exercise physiology.) but it has nothing to do with under feeding.

Injury Is a Toxic Event for Your Body 

While severe injuries do require a substantial amount of time off to heal and rehabilitate, there will come a point where things have improved enough that you can return to light activity.  You want to get back to normal, but your strength will be diminished and your body will be inflamed.  To remove toxins and inflammation, you need to move.  This applies for both small and major injuries.  So while resting is a key component, maintaining and restoring mobility is top priority.

For example, inflammation builds up in your ankle after a leg injury; it’s swollen and stiff but you’ve got the go-ahead to return to light duty.  Once you can move more comfortably, a great strategy is to perform dynamic stretches or myofascial release (foam rolling) for your gastrocnemius and tibialis to pump out the inflammatory agents and improve your range of motion.  Without engaging in some kind of stretching or exercise, the inflammation just stays there and your recovery time will be lengthened.  You often hear of athletes needing to get their knees or elbows drained.  The reason is simple; they can’t rest.  They have too much on the line to take weeks off from training, but they also have teams of doctors and coaches to make sure they’re not doing anything that will result in more overall damage.  So rest is important but active movement (not static stretching) is necessary if you want to minimize your time off.

Should I Eat Carbs?

The simple answer is, “YES!”  Carbohydrates are a key to both muscle protein turnover (also known as healing) and maintaining a healthy metabolism.  Does that mean it’s cheesecake for lunch and Ben n’ Jerry’s for dessert?  No, it doesn’t.  We’re talking the same carb sources you know are good for you, that you’d eat any other time of your life; sweet potatoes, white rice, etc.!  Many people find that when they are injured, it is difficult to maintain weight; without activity, you do put yourself in a position to gain some poundage.  While this is preferable to wasting away during a forced recovery period, I would probably recommend some control days; maybe one on/two off for most people.  That is to say, one carbohydrate day and two “control days”.  Even though you’re injured, the control days shouldn’t be excessively low carb; you just want to keep the scale in a range of 1 to 5 pounds as an example.  The control days are basically meant to keep your inflammation levels low.  That combined with moving (however you can) will gradually release the inflammation around the affected area and aid in the healing process.

Thoughts on Supplements

I think we can keep this one pretty short.  You probably don’t need a whole lot of carbs, especially when you’re forced into a sedentary lifestyle, so that brings us to protein.  Whether you’re recovering from a superficial injury or a catastrophic event, I think there is value in supplementing with protein from eggs or whey.  You should shoot for amounts even higher than 1 gram per pound of body weight.  You don’t need to take this to an extreme, but clearly protein goes a long way to regenerate new tissue, and that is what your body needs when you are injured.  Another suggestion is to intake some BCAA’s (branch chained amino acids).  Even if you are having no problem getting most of your protein from real foods, two 10g servings of BCAA’s would increase your amino profile and potentially lead to better healing.

You can let an injury break you down, or you can use the time to set new goals.  Eating is a big part of the recovery process, and you’ll still be doing plenty of it.  Don’t worry about gaining a little weight; it’ll only make you stronger.  Continue to utilize the strategies that you’ve learned, and make nutrition a priority.  Nothing is more important than your recovery, both physically and mentally.  You have to go forward with the attitude that you WILL be up and moving as soon as you can, that this is just a bump in the road.  In the end, your goal is to get back into the gym, restore your body’s functionality, and eventually surpass your old PRs.  If you believe in yourself, you’ll achieve.


  • Injury can make or break an athlete, whether they’re pro or amateur.  How you deal with it determines whether you rise to the occasion or spend the rest of your life holding back.
  • The basic goal of physical therapy is to get the patient moving again, improve their mobility, and then strengthen their injury so they can return to normal activity.
  • As soon as you can move, start stretching and doing light exercise to pump out inflammation and improve nutrient partitioning to the injury.  The sooner this happens, the faster you’ll recover.
  • Without proper nutrition, your recovery will be compromised.  Although it can be difficult to eat when you’re hurt, the worst thing you can do is go on a diet so you don’t get fat.
  • Stick to your regular diet; don’t avoid carbs, and try to get more protein in the form of shakes.
  • Supplementing with BCAAs is probably a good idea.
  • Approach your recovery with a positive attitude and get back out there when it’s safe!  Don’t rush into things, but don’t hide from fear of re-injuring yourself.  Be smart about the risks you take but don’t be overly cautious.
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