Best foods to heal a calf injury from running

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In the sport of running, it’s fairly common to suffer from injury. Calf injuries, along with other types of soft tissue injuries, are common in distance runners. If you’re dealing with a calf injury, this article will help you understand the various types of calf injuries, how to reduce inflammation and muscle loss as you recover, and how to prevent a future calf injury from running. 

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Types of calf injuries from running

There are three main types of calf injuries. Understanding what type of injury you have can help you determine the cause and how to prevent it from recurring. A physical therapist who specializes in sports injuries can help you rehab your muscle and provide exercise recommendations to strengthen the muscles and ligaments to prevent future injuries. 

Gastrocnemius injuries

You may have heard of this injury type referred to as “tennis leg”. Runners usually explain feeling a “pop” or sudden tear in the upper calf. It usually occurs when a runner is doing more sprinting or jumping in their training. (1)

Soleus injuries

The soleus muscles run along the inside and outside of the lower calf. Soleus injuries usually happen slowly, overtime and are caused by movements associated with uphill running. However, they can occur more suddenly with a hill at the end of a long run. (1)

Plantaris injuries

Plantaris injuries are the least common type of calf injury. These usually occur with more quick movements and feel similar to gastrocnemius injuries. Similarly to tennis leg, runners may hear a “pop” with this injury type. (1)

Nutrition goals for recovery

It’s important to note that there are limited studies on nutrition recommendations for injury recovery. The primary goals for injury recovery include:

  1. Limiting muscle loss,
  2. Reducing inflammation, and 
  3. Promoting healing

Limiting muscle loss

Athletes require more protein than the average person. A calf injury from running is no exception. Increased protein intake may help reduce the amount of muscle that is lost while you are resting the muscle and changing your exercise routine (hopefully, with the advice of PT). 

Athletes require at least 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (2). To find this amount, take your body weight in pounds divided by 2.2, then multiply that number by 1.6. For example, a runner weighing 150 pounds may require about 109 grams of protein per day. Higher amounts of protein may be recommended based on your stage of recovery (2).

Food sources of protein include chicken, lean beef, fish, eggs, beans, lentils, nuts and seeds. Dairy products like milk, yogurt, and cheese also provide a good source of protein. 

While food sources of protein are recommended to get first, it can be difficult for some runners to get enough protein into their diet. Whey protein, soy protein, or pea protein contain the best quality of the amino acid, leucine, which is helpful for healing muscle.

Reducing inflammation 

After the initial inflammatory response by the body with a calf injury from running, it is important to support the body in it’s healing process by including anti-inflammatory foods in your diet. 

Omega-3s

Omega-3 fatty acids are known for their anti-inflammatory properties. Foods high in omega-3s include fatty fish like salmon and mackerel, flaxseed, chia seeds, and walnuts. These foods can help reduce inflammation and promote healing in your calf (2). 

If looking to supplement with omega-3s, look for third party testing to ensure low mercury levels. I like to recommend this brand. However, if you are eating fatty fish twice per week, you likely do not need to use a supplement. 

Complex carbohydrates

Complex carbohydrates provide energy and fiber to reduce inflammation (2). Foods like whole grains, sweet potatoes, legumes, and vegetables provide prebiotic benefits to the body along with a sustaining energy source to help muscles repair damage. Simple carbohydrates like soda, and highly refined sugars can increase inflammation, so try to limit intake of these types of carbs. 

Vitamin C

Vitamin C is important for collagen production, which is essential for healthy muscles and tendons. Foods high in vitamin C include citrus fruits like oranges and grapefruits, strawberries, kiwi, bell peppers, and broccoli. Aim to include these foods in your diet to promote healing (4).

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is an essential nutrient that plays a role in many bodily functions, including bone health, immune system function, and muscle strength. It’s also important for injury recovery and can help reduce inflammation (3).

Vitamin D is commonly known as the “sunshine vitamin” because our skin produces it when exposed to sunlight. However, it can also be obtained through certain foods and supplements. Here are some food sources of vitamin D: fatty fish, egg yolks, fortified foods (cereals, milk, yogurt, or orange juice), and mushrooms. Supplements can also be used if you aren’t getting enough vitamin D or if lab results show a deficiency. 

Promote healing

Creatine is a supplement that is often used by athletes to enhance their performance and build muscle. While some studies have suggested that creatine supplementation may reduce muscle damage and inflammation, more research is needed to determine its effectiveness for healing calf injuries specifically. 

A recent study showed that supplementing with creatine followed by a maintenance low dose of creatine showed a decrease in muscle and strength loss after muscle immobilization (2). It’s also important to note that creatine supplementation may have some potential side effects, including dehydration, muscle cramps, and gastrointestinal issues.

Avoid reducing caloric intake too much. Many runners get concerned about potential weight gain while in recovery. However, calorie restriction may lead to a slower healing process. Listen to your internal hunger cues to guide how your food intake changes. If you are feeling less hungry due to decreases in your energy expenditure, listen to that cue. However, if you ignore hunger levels and limit intake, you may be missing out on the necessary nutrients to heal and recover. 

Include a source of probiotics to support your microbiome. The bacteria in your gut, aka microbiome, helps with stress response and hormone signaling. Probiotics like yogurt with live cultures, refrigerated kimchi or sauerkraut, or kombucha consumed daily may help prevent future injury and promote healing. 

Recap

Key nutrition considerations to heal a calf injury from running include limiting muscle loss, reducing inflammation, and promoting healing. Including enough protein, omega-3s, vitamins C and D, complex carbohydrates, and probiotics are recommended. 

Work with a Registered Dietitian to hone in on specific nutrition recommendations based on your injury type, training load, and lab values. A dietitian can help with supplement recommendations and meal or snack ideas to ensure you are getting enough nutrition to support the healing process. 

A physician and physical therapist can help determine the type of injury you may be suffering from along with exercise recommendations to strengthen the muscle and prevent future injuries. 

This information is for educational purposes only and is not meant to be a substitute for medical treatment or diagnosis. You should consult with your doctor before changing your diet or starting supplements for any health condition.

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