When an injury sidelines a cyclist, the natural reaction is to cut back on calories until it's time to ride—and burn energy—again. But the healing process demands fuel, too. "It's like fixing a house," says sports dietitian Cynthia Sass, RD, CSSD. "A crack in the foundation requires raw materials to patch things back together, and in the body those raw materials come from what we eat."
Proteins, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants help heal wounds, relax stressed tendons and mend fractured bones more quickly. So in addition to your doc's advice to elevate and ice, choose the right combinations of foods to speed recovery and get back on your bike. Here's where to aim your cart at the Stop & Shop:
Buy: Carrots, spinach, sweet potatoes and kale for vitamin A; oranges, strawberries, peppers and broccoli for vitamin C
Why: Vitamin A helps make white blood cells for fighting infection, "which is always a risk with injury," says Sass. Vitamin C has been proven to help skin and flesh wounds heal faster and stronger, making it a valuable ally when caring for road rash. Vitamin C also helps repair connective tissues and cartilage by contributing to the formation of collagen, an important protein that builds scar tissue, blood vessels and even new bone cells.
Buy: Lean turkey, sirloin, fish and chicken
Why: Lean meats are packed with protein, a critical building block for producing new cells. In a 2008 study published in the Journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, researchers at the University of Ottawa identified a protein that acted like a bridge between damaged tissues, promoting repair. Because athletes require about 112 grams of protein per day (for a 175-pound male or female) for optimum healing, eating meat is an easy way to rocket toward this goal faster.
Buy: Eggs, milk and yogurt
Why: All three are good sources of protein; milk and yogurt also contain calcium, which repairs bone and muscle. The vitamin D in dairy products improves calcium absorption and helps injured muscle and bone heal: A 2010 study published in the Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery reported that boosting this nutrient's levels in deficient patients produced earlier results.
Buy: Fortified cereal
Why: It contains zinc, a proven asset to the immune system and to healing wounds. Along with red meat, fortified cereals are the best sources (some deliver 100 percent of your recommended daily value). By itself, zinc doesn't repair damaged tissue, but it assists the nutrients that do. "Just don't overdo it," Sass cautions, adding that too much—more than 40 grams a day for an adult—of this potent mineral lowers HDL cholesterol (the good kind) and actually suppresses your immune system. Cereal supplies moderate zinc doses as well as whole-grain carbohydrates, which fuel your body's healing efforts and keep it from dipping into protein for energy. "Eating enough carbs ensures that your body puts all of its available protein toward repairs," Sass explains.
Buy: Salmon, tuna and trout
Why: In addition to an added protein bonus, fish is packed with omega-3s, fatty acids which quench the inflammation that slows recovery from tendinitis, bone fractures and sprained ligaments.
Most of us heed our doctor's advice to use rest, ice, compression and elevation to reduce inflammation and speed recovery. But should we also rely on anti-inflammatory measures such as cortisone injections, large doses of ibuprofen and other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs? In a 2010 study done at the Cleveland Clinic, in Ohio, researchers concluded that these measures may actually slow healing and that moderation is key. They observed that in acute muscle injuries, inflammatory cells (called macrophages) aided growth that sped muscle regeneration. In other words, a little inflammation actually facilitates healing. This makes anti-inflammatory foods, such as fish and berries, particularly valuable to cyclists on the mend. "These foods throw a big bucket of water on inflammation, but they don't put the fire out entirely," says dietitian Cynthia Sass.