What Should Athletes Eat to Help with Recovery from Ankle Surgery?

One of the biggest mistakes athletes make when they are recovering from ankle surgery is inadequate nutrition and under-fueling. Lack of prioritization on their fueling increases inflammation and slows down their recovery. It is a common misconception that nutrition during this period is not important due to low activity levels but in actuality, it is crucial.

In this blog, I’ll be sharing with you nutrition areas of focus and nutrients to prioritize during recovery from ankle surgery.

Why is Nutrition Important during Your Recovery From Ankle Surgery?

Unfortunately, injuries are inevitable in sports. Proper fueling can help prevent injuries from occurring but almost all athletes report injuries during their playing careers. Recent studies have shown that 30% of elite adolescent athletes report injuries weekly.

Ankle injuries are some of the most common, especially in team sports, with many requiring surgery. Including proper nutrients at the correct time will speed up recovery and rehabilitation.

Nutrition Areas of Focus when Recovering from Ankle Surgery

Recovery from ankle surgery may be broken down into 2 stages; Healing & Recovery and Strength, Rehab & RTP

Stage 1: Healing and Recovery

This phase of recovery happens until about two weeks post-surgery. During this initial recovery phase, the focus is on managing inflammation, increasing the range of motion, and healing. Ensuring you are consuming adequate micronutrients and anti-inflammatory foods should be a focus in this phase.

Additionally, protein needs are high in this phase. Failure to eat the right amount of protein can result in rapid muscle loss and strength. I have included recommendations below for protein intake below.

Stage 2: Strength, Rehab, and Return to Play

After about two weeks post-op, you’ll start to move into the strength, rehab, and return-to-play phase (from a nutritional standpoint). Your fueling focus now switches to energy maintenance, micronutrient intake, and inflammation management. Based on the rehab program you receive from your athletic training or physical therapist, nutrition is individualized to your recovery timeline and goals.

What Should I Eat After Ankle Surgery?

An uncommonly known fact about post-surgery recovery is that your body’s metabolism increases. This is a result of the healing process. Athletes have elevated nutritional requirements after surgery and not meeting them can slow down recovery.

Do I need to eat carbohydrates?

Yes! Just because you aren’t training doesn’t mean your ankle doesn’t need the energy to heal itself. Carbohydrates are one of your body’s primary sources of energy and your vital organs (think heart and brain) fuel of choice. As your body is recovering from injury, it needs carbohydrates to power these organs and your body’s healing process.

Not only do carbohydrates provide energy but they provide zinc and magnesium. These two important minerals assist wound healing and muscle recovery.

What if I am worried about weight gain?

Weight gain is one of the biggest concerns I hear from injured athletes. This fear can actually hinder an athlete’s recovery. Athletes who are worried about weight gain after ankle surgery often end up under-fueling during their recovery prolonging their return back to sport.

If you are losing weight after your injury, it is a sign of under-fueling. If you are under-fueling you are hurting your recovery. I understand weight gain can be scary but it is much better than weight loss during recovery. Weight loss = not enough energy for recovery and rebuilding!

It is natural for your body composition to change after surgery since you are not training at the same level. This is natural and okay! During your recovery time, your focus should be on recovery and strength.  

Protein

One of the biggest mistakes I see with athletes is a sudden and dramatic decrease in protein intake following their ankle injury. This under-fueling of protein is likely because of side effects like nausea and stomach issues after surgery. This drop in protein intake can result in slow wound healing and increased loss of muscle loss around the ankle and in your leg! Maintenance, or even an increase, in protein and energy intake, is important for athletes recovering after ankle surgery.

Examples of Protein

I recommend eating 20-30g of protein in your meals and 10-15g of protein in your snacks to help with muscle maintenance and healing.

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

Collagen

Collagen paired with a Vitamin C source is also a helpful protein source for after ankle surgery. I recommend taking 15g of collagen paired with 50mg of vitamin C one hour before your rehab.

What Vitamins and Minerals Help Healing?

Energy consumption is not the only important part of fueling your body while recovering from ankle surgery. The vitamins and minerals (micronutrients) in foods also play an important role. 

Vitamin C

Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that helps decrease inflammation, repair damaged cells, and assists with wound healing after surgery. Some of my favorite sources of vitamin C are

  • Oranges, clementines, and citrus fruit
  • Strawberries
  • Kiwi
  • Bell peppers

Vitamin D

Adequate vitamin D consumption is important for overall health and recovery after surgery. It is important for bone and muscle health. Low Vitamin D levels have been correlated with prolonged recovery. Incorporating at least one of these Vitamin D sources each day can help prevent this from happening!

  • Sardines
  • Salmon
  • Fortified Whole Milk
  • Fortified Orange Juice
  • Eggs

Calcium

Even when you aren’t injured, adequate calcium intake is essential for proper bone health. If your ankle surgery included pins or manipulation of the ankle bones, you want to ensure proper calcium consumption to assist with bone recovery. I recommend one of the following calcium-rich foods to be consumed daily

  • Cow’s milk
  • Greek Yogurt
  • Almond Milk
  • Fortified Orange Juice
  • Fortified Plant Milk

Zinc

Zinc works with Vitamin C to ensure your surgical wound is clean and healing properly. This mineral is found in the following foods.

  • Oysters
  • Beef
  • Cereal
  • Oatmeal
  • Pork
  • Turkey

How to Decrease Ankle Swelling After Surgery

It is important to understand that prolonged swelling can have negative effects on your ankle recovery but after surgery, it is necessary to aid in the healing process.

After surgery, the body’s immediate response is inflammation which is crucial for the healing process. Blood flow and swelling rush to the area helping fight infection and promote healing.

Like mentioned earlier, too much or long-lasting and uncontrolled inflammation after your surgery can lead to scarring and loss of range of motion. Too much of anything can be a bad thing!

Anti-inflammatory foods

Anti-inflammatory foods play a key role in decreasing inflammation. Athletes incorporating anti-inflammatory foods into their nutrition goals will accelerate their recovery. Anti-inflammatory foods help heal the hardships that surgery puts on your body. Here are some of my favorite anti-inflammatory foods for injured athletes:

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

Fluid Intake

Just because you aren’t training, doesn’t mean you should stop drinking! Staying properly hydrated during recovery keeps swelling down and it also helps with GI function. Many athletes will experience stomach problems (and possibly no bowel movements) as a result of medication and/or lack of activity. Sitting in one spot for an extended period of time can slow down digestion resulting in you feeling stuffed up and bloated.

Drinking enough water can help your digestive system regular and everything moving along!

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

Conclusion

Proper nutrition can have a big impact on your recovery from ankle surgery. Including the proper amount of protein, anti-inflammatory nutrients, and micronutrients will help speed up your recovery timeline.

Nutrition during your recovery from ankle 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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