How Nutrition Helps Your ACL Surgery Recovery

Are you pre or post-ACL surgery looking at helping your ACL surgery recovery?

You are in the right place! 

Eating the right foods at the right time is vital to helping your body recover faster after ACL surgery and speed up your recovery timeline. In this blog, we will go over the stages of recovery and how to modify your nutrition during these stages for a swift and successful recovery!

Image from Back In Action Physiotherapy

Why is Nutrition Important during Your ACL Recovery

It is important to provide your body with the nutrients it needs for recovery. Though you may have heard differently, athletes have elevated nutritional needs during injury recovery. Post-surgery metabolism increases! 

During recovery, the healing process requires just as much, if not more, nutrients from your meals than if you were training. Proper fueling will set you on track for a swift and successful recovery!

Stages of Recovery in ACL Surgery Recovery

From a nutritional perspective, we can divide an ACL surgery recovery timeline into five phases! We break down the fueling focuses into five phases to match the recovery plan set forth by your athletic trainer or physical therapist.

Phase 1: Immediately after Surgery through Week 2

Recovery Focus: Range of Motion

Fueling Focus: Control inflammation, promote wound healing, regular bowel movements, prevent muscle atrophy

Phase 2: Week 2 – Week 5

Recovery Focus: Range of motion and increase strength

Fueling Focus: Decrease inflammation, prevent muscle breakdown, scar tissue management

Phase 3: Week 6 – Month 3/4

Recovery Focus: Increase knee strength and build back muscle

Fueling Focus: Energy maintenance, muscle growth, and building, inflammation management

Phase 4: Month 4 – Month 6

Recovery Focus: Muscle building, strength, and stabilization

Fueling Focus: Muscle growth, increased energy needs, inflammation management

Phase 5: Month 6 and Beyond (Returning to sport)

Recovery Focus: Returning to play and sports

Fueling Focus: Meet energy needs for return to play, manage inflammation with new training load, hydration

Knowing how to fuel during these phases will help you meet your recovery and rehabilitation goals. Below, I break down the fueling focuses you will prioritize during your recovery. 

Nutrition Areas of Focus when Recovering from ACL Surgery

Managing Inflammation

The first nutrition area of focus when recovering from ACL surgery is inflammation! Managing inflammation is a fueling focus in all 5 phases and should be a priority during your recovery.

Inflammation is your body swelling due to the body bringing blood and nutrients to help heal your injury. The inflammatory response is different for all athletes. Generally speaking, after the initial swell after surgery, you want to control the swelling in your body as you heal and get back to training. 

Adding anti-inflammatory foods to your fueling plan will help you manage inflammation and heal faster.

Examples of Anti-Inflammatory Nutrients

Sports Dietitian recommended anti-inflammatory foods are:

  • Dark Leafy Greens (Kale, Spinach, Romaine)
  • Blueberries
  • Blackberries
  • Cherries
  • Pomegranate
  • Pineapple
  • Garlic
  • Onion
  • Turmeric
  • Salmon
  • Tuna
  • Seeds and nuts
  • Avocado

I recommend including 2-3 servings of these foods daily during your ACL recovery.

Scar Tissue and Wound Healing

The next fueling focuses are on wound healing and scar tissue management. After your initial swelling post-surgery, your body will start to build up scar tissue. This is a normal response post-surgery and will help to heal but just like inflammation, too much of a good thing is a bad thing.

During the first four weeks of your recovery, you will work on getting your range of motion back and ensuring your wound heals appropriately. Adding nutrients like vitamin C, Zinc, and vitamin D into your diet will help heal your injury without a large build-up of tissue. Below are some examples of foods that contain these vitamins and mineral

Vitamin C: Oranges, bell peppers, and tomatoes

Vitamin D: Egg yolks, salmon, and fortified orange juice 

Zinc: Beans, nuts, or red meat 

Muscle and Strength Building

Commonly, I see athletes start to lessen their protein intake following surgery but you want the exact opposite! Maintaining or even increasing your protein after ACL surgery is what your body needs for recovery. 

During post-surgery healing, your body will remodel your muscles and tissues. Maintaining carbohydrate and protein intake during this time is essential to support this process. Proper protein intake is necessary during all recovery phases but especially in the first two weeks to prevent muscle breakdown.

Lowering protein intake will slow your recovery and increase muscle loss. Prioritizing your protein intake will get you back into practice sooner and help your body heal. 

In recovery phases 3 and 4, you will start building strength and you must provide your body with the right fuel to do this.

I recommend 10-15 g of protein in snacks and 20-30g of protein in meals to help your body build muscle mass. 

Examples of Protein

Here are some of my favorite protein options for injured athletes:

  • Chicken
  • Turkey
  • Turkey products
  • Fish
  • Tuna packets
  • Tofu
  • Lean beef (90/10 or better)
  • Low-fat milk
  • Low-fat Greek yogurt
  • Eggs
  • Cottage cheese
  • Low-fat cheese/ string cheese
  • Edamame

Energy Maintenance

Just as if you were to fuel your body in practice, your body will need the energy to heal your injury. Fueling your body will provide the energy you need to promote healing and recovery. 

You need just as much if not more, energy-rich nutrients during recovery as you would during performance/practice days. Keeping up with your carbohydrates and your proteins will ensure that you are doing this for yourself. 

What if I am worried about weight gain?

The biggest concern I hear from athletes during recovery is weight gain. The athletes that have this fear often start to under-fuel their bodies. During recovery, your body needs to have the nutrients it needs to recover. If you start to lose weight, it could lead to a longer recovery period. With weight loss, there is a dip in the energy you need to power your recovery and muscle building. 

This is natural and okay! After surgery, your body will change, but your goal should always be recovery and strength. 

Do I need to eat carbohydrates?

Absolutely! Your body needs a similar amount of carbohydrates during ACL healing that you would need if you were still training, especially in the beginning.

As you work through the other phases of recovery, your carbohydrate needs will change and are individualized to your recovery. 

Not only are carbohydrates your energy source for your body but they have magnesium and zinc, which are minerals that help with muscle healing and recovery. 

Fluid Intake

Hydrate! Even though you aren’t sweating through workouts, staying hydrated during recovery is essential. Hydration helps with swelling. It also helps with GI function and bowel movements, which can be a real struggle after surgery. Most athletes will experience stomach problems and no bowel movements. This is due to being under anesthesia, possibly the medication, and/or the lack of activity. 

I recommend female athletes aim for 3L of water a day and male athletes 4L of water a day.

Conclusion

Proper nutrition can greatly impact your ACL surgery recovery timeline. Including the proper amount of protein, anti-inflammatory nutrients, and micronutrients will help speed up your recovery timeline.

Nutrition during your recovery from ACL surgery is very individualized but I hope this blog has given you a starting point on your recovery journey.

If you want to learn more about proper recovery, consider working with a sports dietitian to build out an individualized plan. We offer 1:1 consultations to help kickstart your journey with nutrition education and an individualized plan.

Taking time to optimize your nutrition during your recovery improves your timeline and your performance on the field. 
If you are ready to meet your goals, sign up for a 1:1 consultation to get started today!

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