Although physical activity has numerous health-related benefits, competitive sports participation carries an inherent risk of injury. Sport-related injury can vary in severity and impairment to an athlete’s health. The result can range from a short-term side-lining to a long-term disability that concludes a career with a tear-jerking press conference.
An unexpected entry on the disabled list or an unplanned hiatus from training can also sting an athlete mentally. Sport psychologists have described the cascade of emotions following an athlete becoming incapacitated as being akin to a grief response. To an athlete, it’s a shadow of torment that often manifests as anger, depression isolation, helplessness, and frustration.
Unfortunately, sports injuries often require restricted activity or immobilization, which leads to impairments in muscle strength and function and an ensuing loss of muscle mass. Collectively, these factors can make a return to pre-existing form excessively challenging.
Although often overlooked, nutrition interventions may serve as a viable measure to mitigate the loss of muscle mass and function associated with muscle disuse and aid in the recovery and return to training and competition.
Here are 3 nutritional considerations to help minimize muscle atrophy and diminished function associated with injury.
1. CALORIE BALANCE
Muscle disuse during a period of injury is often accompanied by reduced physical activity and energy expenditure as well as a coinciding reduction of appetite. Consequently, many athletes end up eating less in an attempt to maintain calorie balance. It has been well established that calorie deficits negatively influence the synthesis of muscle proteins and this is a key contributor to accelerated muscle loss.
While the intuitive response may be to reduce food intake during periods of reduced training or activity, the need for less calories may not be as obvious as it seems.
It’s important to note that during the healing process, calorie expenditure is sometimes increased, particularly if an injury is severe. Heightened metabolic activity may initially be driven by inflammatory responses to the injury, and if ambulation becomes more challenging, as in the case of crutch-walking, energy expenditure can become even more significant.
2. HIGH PROTEIN FROM QUALITY SOURCES
An accelerated loss of muscle tissue during a period of muscle disuse and reduced food intake may be more attributable to a decrease in protein intake which is often a natural consequence of reduced calories.
The metabolic process responsible for changes in muscle mass is muscle protein balance. This is the balance between the rate of muscle protein synthesis and muscle protein breakdown. In order to achieve a positive net protein balance and inhibit muscle losses, the rate of protein synthesis must exceed the rate of protein breakdown. This can be accomplished by ingesting relatively high amounts of protein and/or amino acids at regular intervals throughout the day.
Research has shown that consumption of essential amino acids may stave off decrements in functional mobility and muscle loss stemming from disuse. The essential amino acids leucine, isoleucine, and valine are what’s referred to as branched-chain amino acids (BCAA). Of the three BCAA’s, leucine has gained special interest as it has shown to be a potent stimulator of muscle protein synthesis. Some studies have suggested that leucine supplementation may have protective properties for muscle health during periods of physical inactivity. Therefore, protein sources with a high leucine content which include whey, beef, and chicken may be especially beneficial.
3. CREATINE SUPPLEMENTATION
One of the potential benefits of creatine that is of particular interest to strength athletes is an increase in lean body mass which results from creatine supplementation. Creatine supplements are capable of increasing expression of a variety of growth factors involved in skeletal muscle growth and function and may also be of benefit during rehabilitation following a period of muscle disuse.
Oral creatine supplementation has been shown to improve muscle mass regeneration following limb immobilization and rehabilitation. It has also been shown to temper the decline in an important transporter protein called GLUT-4 which is responsible for skeletal muscle glucose uptake.
These factors suggest that creatine supplementation may be a promising nutritional counter measure to muscle mass loss during disuse and to improve rehabilitation.
There are some people who may remain wary of the safety of creatine supplements. However, the available evidence indicates that creatine monohydrate supplements have an excellent safety profile and when ingested in proper doses, appear to pose no serious threat to healthy individuals.
Harm to the human body sustained while participating in sports and intense training is unfortunately an unavoidable risk. Losing the ability to perform due to an injury can present short and long-term consequences to an athlete’s health and career including emotional distress and depression. Appropriate nutritional interventions may potentially lessen the duration of time off and enhance recovery from injury.
Train smart and good luck!