Whether you’ve been training for days, months, or years, injury prevention should be at the top of your priority list every time you hit the gym. Training hard certainly takes its toll on the body, but athletic injuries are often caused by preventable issues such as nutritional imbalances and poor nutritional quality. Injuries often occur following exercise-related fatigue, which can be the result of inadequate energy intake, glycogen depletion, and low iron levels. Fortunately for vegans, nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables build a strong defense against aches, pains, tears, and strains, and vegan diets rich in beans, nuts, and other plant proteins are perfect for building and maintaining a robust infrastructure that can withstand whatever exercises you throw its way. Here’s what vegan athletes should know about preventing injuries and healing them when they happen.
1. The vegan advantage
What many people don’t realize is that meat and dairy are inflammatory foods, and inflammation is your worst enemy when you’re trying to recover. By sticking to a plant-based diet, you automatically eliminate many inflammatory foods and improve your recovery time between workouts and after injuries. Some vegan athletes have found that removing gluten from their diets also reduces inflammation and expedites recovery time. Meat-based protein is also acid-forming, which hinders the body’s ability to recover. By eating protein-rich foods that come from plants, you can reduce your time on the couch and get back into the gym where you belong.
2. Omega-3s to reduce inflammation
Omega-3 fatty acids are the key to reducing inflammation, and you don’t need to eat fish to get them in your diet. Try raw walnuts and a mixture of natural seeds (such as flaxseeds) to get your daily dose of omega-3s. Some vegans rely too much on carbohydrates and refined omega-6 oils in their diets, but these foods can make injury inflammation worse. Another great food for naturally reducing inflammation is ginger, which contains compounds that contribute to reducing pain and swelling in the joints and muscles. And don’t forget about turmeric, a spice that has become famous for its anti-inflammatory and pain-fighting properties.
3. Collagen and vitamin C for ligament and tendon flexibility
Collagen helps keep the body’s ligaments and tendons flexible so they can withstand tough workouts. Meanwhile, vitamin C plays a role in helping collagen do its job and hold the bones together properly. Excellent vegan sources of these foods include citrus fruit, broccoli, strawberries, and dark leafy greens. Cherries, for example, are an excellent source of vitamin C, collagen, and a phytonutrient called anthocyanins. Eating a handful of delicious cherries after your workout helps repair bodily tissues, enhances the absorption of iron, and reduces inflammation.
4. Calcium, magnesium and vitamin D for bone strength
These are the three nutrients famous for healthy bones because calcium builds and maintains strong bones, while magnesium and vitamin D assist with calcium absorption. Luckily for vegans, no dairy products are required to establish this nutritional trifecta. Pack your diet with leafy green vegetables, raw nuts, and seeds to get the nutrients your body needs to stay active. Also, pure coconut water contains magnesium and potassium to promote muscle recovery and relaxation.
5. Zinc for healing power
Another nutrient that aids in injury prevention and recovery is zinc, which is great for healing tissues and wounds by supporting the immune system and helping the body regenerate its muscles and tissues. Lentils and brown rice are two excellent vegan sources of zinc to get a meat-free boost of healing power. Another great vegan source of zinc is pumpkin seeds, also known as pepitas.
6. Hydration for joint and tissue health
It’s easy to focus on the food part of your vegan diet, but don’t forget about pure, clean water. When your body is well-hydrated, your joints and tissues are less susceptible to tears and injuries. Make sure to drink lots of water with your vegan meals to help prevent injuries, heal existing ones, and aid digestion as well.
7. Preventative health
For vegan athletes, it’s simply not enough to increase your daily dose of nutrients when you start to feel pain, as your total dietary intake of these nutrients must remain constant over the course of months and years to prepare your body to fight off injuries and heal them when they happen. If you have suffered an injury, you will likely need to adjust your energy intake to match the decreased volume and intensity of exercise and aid in rehabilitation. This is also recommended to prevent weight gain and muscle loss. Eating a wide variety of whole vegan foods and avoiding simple sugars and dietary fats are great ways to preserve what you’ve been working so hard to build and get back to the gym as quick as possible.
Chris Willitts is the founder of VegetarianBodybuilding.com, creator of the V3 Vegan Bodybuilding System and Mindful Strength. He’s also a contributing writer for Muscle & Fitness, Vegan Health and Fitness Magazine, and Natural Muscle Magazine.
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