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  • Writer's pictureMicaela Zettel, PT, MScPT, MCISc AHCP SEM, BScHK(hons),


Updated: Oct 16, 2021

Why is recovery important? When we exercise, play sports and train we are using our body, moving, generating and using energy. Our energy systems, depending on how well trained, can carry us during an activity, but need optimal recovery for optimal performance. With increasing amounts of repetition and volume, we deplete either local and/or global energy stores. Global could be overall fatigue and a decreased ability to perform. These need to recover for us to continue to function and perform optimally, or we find ourselves underperforming and/or dealing with injury and pain. There are many things that can be done to help promote recovery. We have covered the role of SLEEP and now will cover the role of NUTRITION.

Our metabolism is always working and it moves between two states known as catabolic (breaking down/using = gives out energy) and anabolic (building up/replenishing energy stores). We need to maintain a balance between these two states of metabolism. Anabolic metabolism typically occurs at night while sleeping, and catabolic while we are moving and using our bodies.

We must be in balance between breaking down (catabolic) and building up (anabolic). When this is out of balance, usually not enough anabolic (ahem - not getting enough or good sleep……check out this blog), we find ourselves tired, underperforming, and often dealing with injuries. Youth are especially prone because they have higher energy demands for growth and development, as well as they tend to be increasing their sport and activity participation, not to mention their brains are developing (until age 25). We can support the balance of our metabolism through nutrition (& sleep). Having good nutritional habits and diet can support metabolic demands needed for performance AND recovery. If good nutritional support is not present, recovery from training is impaired and the athlete ends up eventually dealing with injuries that just don’t seem to go away.

How can we eat for better recovery?

Having a balanced diet, eating whole foods, hydrating well and getting enough carbs, fat and protein are always top of mind. We can also ensure that we are getting the vitamins and minerals that our bodies need, in enough quantity, to support our metabolism and recovery.


Vitamin C:

Plays an integral role in the function of the immune system and in healing, collagen repair and replacement (think skin, ligaments, tendons and fascia). It is also required for manufacturing of the neurotransmitter dopamine (so important for enhancing our mood!) (3). It also helps the body absorb non-heme iron (+++ important for athletes, especially our female athletes). There are a lot of natural sources of vitamin C that you can obtain through diet. Supplementation may be indicated for some. (For more on vitamin C’s role in iron absorption read this blog)


Also involved in immunity, as well as growth and wound healing, and proper taste and smell. A deficiency in athletes can cause a loss of appetite, weight loss, fatigue, and lowered endurance (1).

Vitamin B complex:

(Includes thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin, pyroxidine (B6), pantothenic acid, biotin, folate, and vitamin B12).

This complex ensures that energy is produced in the body's cells and muscle is built and repaired (1). Increased exercise has shown the need for increased B complex needs. B complex can be met through a well balanced diet (1). Athletes that follow a vegetarian diet or restricted caloric diet are more susceptible to a deficiency. Deficiency of B vitamins may worsen performance during high intensity exercise and reduce ability to build and repair muscle (1).

Iron: (we have an entire blog dedicated to the role of iron, click below to check it out!)

Iron caries oxygen in the blood delivering it to the cells and organs in the body that need it. Iron is vitally important for athletes and is a topic all on its own. To learn more about iron and its role read this blog: “MUST READ: Iron Deficiency and The Female Athlete. What you don’t know about IRON but probably should”.


Involved in many metabolic reactions in the body including energy metabolism, blood sugar control, blood pressure regulation, protein creation, and muscle function (1). It works with calcium in muscle function (calcium = contraction of muscle and magnesium = relaxation of muscle). Many studies show that magnesium intake is low, particular in youth female athletes (1). If your athlete is suffering from muscle cramps, charley horses, restless legs or sore and tense muscles - they may have an imbalance in calcium and magnesium (3). The most common indicator of magnesium deficiency is constipation (3). The muscles of the digestive system cannot work properly to move food along without enough magnesium (3). If you or your athlete is experiencing these symptoms, supplementation may be needed (3). If you don’t have enough magnesium for digestion, then you don’t have enough for recovery and performance.


Is a bone building nutrient and involved in muscle function. Bone building happens in childhood through into early adulthood. Nutritional intake (vitamin D and Calcium) and amount of weight bearing activity in younger years affects bone density later in life (1).

Calcium must be present for normal muscle contraction and for blood clotting (1). The body keeps a tight rope on maintaining blood calcium levels and will draw from bone if it is too low in the diet. More than 50% of youth do not consume enough calcium with youth females getting less than youth males (1). Youth athletes that are most susceptible to calcium deficiency are those that do not eat dairy products or soy (may be due to allergies or other reasons), are vegetarian, or do not eat enough calories. Ensuring that calcium fortified foods and calcium intake are part of daily diet as consistency is key (1).

Vitamin D:

Important in the function of the immune system and plays a role in inflammation. We get vitamin D in two ways: 1. by direct sunlight exposure and our skin manufactures it, 2. through our diet and is absorbed in our gut (1). Even with these two ways, getting enough can be a challenge for the body, especially in youth athletes. There are a few scenarios where athletes are more susceptible to this deficiency. Athletes who play indoor sports have less exposure to sunlight and have been found to have lower levels of vitamin D (1). Female athletes in high school who exercised for more than 1 hour per day and who had low vitamin D intake had more stress fractures, regardless of dairy or calcium intake (1). If you live in high altitudes or warmer weather only happens a couple months of the year (that’s us here in Ontario), if you have dark skin and if you do not like dairy products or fish (1). In these scenarios, vitamin supplementation may be necessary to ensure vitamin D levels are high enough for adequate function and performance.

*Vitamin D levels can be tested through a blood test. Talk to your health care provider if you suspect this.*

As you can see, we have touched on just a few key factors that you might not have considered for you or your athlete in their nutrition and it’s role in recovery and performance. We cannot ignore the importance of carbs, fats and proteins either…..but that will be another blog all on it’s own, to save you from an essay worth of nutrition information!

We are providing this information because in our practice we work with many athletes of all levels, and often their pain and injuries are strongly influenced by poor recovery strategies, including sleep and nutrition. We refer many of our clients to work with other health care providers including natural paths and nutritionists, to address these often overlooked areas of health. It’s an integral component to their health and performance, at all ages.

** If you are wondering wether you are getting enough vitamins and minerals to support your performance and recovery, we recommend working with a health care provider such as a natural path, to learn about your or your youth athlete’s specific needs. They will be able to create a customized plan for you. The book “Eat Well, Age Better” is also an excellent resource to learn more. **


(1) Eat Like a Champion by Jill Castle, MS, RDN, CDN (2015).

(2) Sports Med (2015) 45 (Suppl 1):S93–S104 DOI 10.1007/s40279-015-0398-4 (3) Eat Well Age Better by Aileen Burford-Mason, 2012. (4) (5) Sports Nutrition, 2nd Ed. Heather Hedrick, Lisa Burgoon, Alan Mikesky. 2009.

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