The Science Behind Optimizing Injury Recovery

Alex Eriksson
Written By: Alex Eriksson
May 11th, 2017
Updated: June 13th, 2020
Categories: Articles Recovery
14.9K Reads
The Science Behind Optimizing Injury Recovery
Learn about the science of recovering from injuries including which foods to eat, supplements to take, & practices that can help you bounce back faster.

Suffering an injury as a result of training or sports practice can spell the end of an athlete's career as they know it.

It can be an incredibly frustrating, and scary time, regardless of your expertise or lack thereof.

Does it have to mean the end of your competitive life, the wet blanket thrown on your fire for the iron? Not necessarily. However, importance must be emphasized that you do things the right way.

At this juncture you may be thinking "hey if I go to my doctor, it'll be ok", but this isn't always the normal outcome.

In fact, going to a general practitioner (who may not be educated in sports medicine), with a sports-related injury may compromise your ability to ever function at 100% again.

The Problem With The “Traditional” Medical View

When you go to your GP, he will almost certainly recommend ice, rest and NSAID medication.

Related: Warming Up For Dummies - A Lifter’s Guide to Injury Prevention

These drugs will reduce pain, and swelling, but they also prevent the normal inflammatory process necessary for a complete recovery and may result in incomplete structural formations during healing.

Think of a building that needs steel support beams, but you make do with wood. It’ll hold, but it’s far from optimal and may damage when exposed to heavy loads.

Optimize Your Inflammatory Response The Natural Way

Without a doubt, NSAID medications can provide fast relief from pain and swelling, but they are not the best approach if you plan on remaining in your beloved sports discipline longterm.

A better approach is to optimize the inflammatory pathway; allowing it to do what it was intended to do, but while controlling excessive inflammatory processes. Consider these as superior alternatives to NSAIDs:

Omega 3's help with inflamation

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3s have been shown to have numerous functions, but the one that is most necessary for recovery following an injury is its ability to modulate inflammation1. This is different from its natural anti-inflammatory effect, which may be counterproductive to our goals.

See, the anti-inflammatory effects are most pronounced at high doses; but when consumed in moderate amounts of 3-9g daily, it elicits an optimized inflammatory pathway, reducing the pro-inflammatory effect of omega-6 fatty acids.

Omega-6’s are found in many things we consume daily, ranging from vegetable oils, snacks and many animal products, but omega-3 is not. By actively reducing intake of omega-6, and increasing omega-3, you help to optimize the ratio of the two fats, and not swing the inflammatory response in one particular direction.


Inhibits pro-inflammatory enzymes and excess macrophage recruitment.

Try to consume some garlic every day, or supplement with an extract containing 600-1200 mg daily if you dislike garlic's natural odor.


IGF-1 or insulin-like growth factor-1 is best known in bodybuilding circles to boost muscle growth. Under growth hormone’s direction, it is synthesized in the liver and is involved in the recovery of tissue including joint and bone2, promoting regeneration following an injury or strenuous resistance training.

In fact, it was found in a study3 that persons with chronic inflammatory conditions also possessed lowest levels of IGF-1, which suggests that IGF-1 by itself is anti-inflammatory in addition to being an effective healing agent.

Interested in naturally boosting your IGF-1 levels? Try consuming more of the following:

  • High Protein Foods: A study published in 20114 revealed significant increases in IGF-1 levels in participants consuming a high protein diet, particularly whey protein (+1g/kg bodyweight), compared to a group receiving a placebo drink. Though the participants in this study were all between the ages of 70-80, a higher intake is likely to correlate with increases IGF-1 levels, common in athletes.
  • Soy Isoflavones And Capsaicin: Boosts IGF-1 production in the liver via synergistic action. This action was discovered while investigating hair loss5, but the systemic increase in IGF-1 levels when used orally results in improved recovery nevertheless.
  • Colostrum: This is the first milk produced following birth, and occurs in humans, goats and cows. It is extremely nutrient-rich and has been found to contain high levels of IGF-16 along with numerous other growth factors. Though it is impractical to drink colostrum as is, supplementation with powdered extracts is common and effective for a speedy recovery following injury.

Intermittent Heat Application

Though it is a tightly held belief that icing an injury is the best way to initiate recovery, it may be unfounded. Yes, icing can ease acute pain and swelling, but if used repeatedly will delay recovery.

However, research has found that periods of intermittent “hyperthermia”, such as half an hour in a sauna or hot bath, can promote and speed up healing.

Sauna can help with injury rehab

This action of heat is attributed to specialized units known as heat shock proteins (HSPs), which help to repair abnormal structural repairs, speed up recovery from injury7 as well as boosting muscle growth by up to 30% following periods of inactivity. This is beneficial for two primary reasons:

  1. It can help to fix the incomplete recovery of connective tissue that may have occurred following poor treatment modalities.
  2. Can help recover muscles mass following an injury which led to atrophy of muscle tissue.

As if the HSPs are not enough on their own, short periods of controlled heating also significantly boost HGH expression, which in turn promotes, even more, IGF-1 synthesis in the liver.

Maybe it’s time to move to the tropics?

Cissus Quadrangularis

An ancient Ayurvedic herb used for centuries for pain relief and to hasten recovery of broken bones. These claims have now been confirmed by science, thanks to studies8 carried out on subjects consuming the herb.

One key finding of the study was the increased expression of osteopontin, a protein which promotes fast, efficient remodelling of new bone tissue. Among other observed benefits were reduced chronic inflammatory states, reduced pain and improved mobility, which form a very strong case for consuming the herb in an effort to speed up recovery.

Topical Analgesics

If you need a modest pain relief preparation without the disruptive nature of NSAIDs, topical analgesics such as Tiger Balm among many others can be a lifesaver. These preparations often contain any of these three main ingredients, all of which deliver mild pain relief.

They typically include:

  • Menthol: Provides pain relief via action at the kappa-opioid receptors located in the skin.
  • Camphor: also provides pain relief via stimulation of the kappa-receptor as well as a mild anaesthetic action.
  • Capsaicin: delivers pain relief by depleting a chemical compound that mediates pain, known as Substance P. by depleting this compound9, pain impulses are not transmitted to the brain as efficiently.

Some lotions can help combat inflamation

Are All Topical Analgesics The Same?

Ingredient wise, they are the same for the most part. Excluding preservatives, the main different is the dosage form or the medium in which they are presented. In the case of topical analgesics, these include:

Related: Complete Guide To Increasing Workout Recovery

  • Ointments: Old school, heavy petroleum based preparations. Today, only used for ingredients whose absorption is boosted by lipophilicity of the carrier.
  • Creams: 50-50 preparations of oil and water based materials, useful in treating conditions that need coverage but also a porous surface.
  • Gels: Also combination preparations of oil and water, but in which water predominates and only a small amount of oil is used. Gels are quickly becoming the most popular type of topical analgesic preparation because they are light, do not occlude pores and wash off easily.

Optional Boosters

Though the tips listed above will promote efficient recovery from an injury, consider these few the supporting cast, which may help things along as well. If you feel that a little more speed wouldn’t hurt, try these on for size:

  • Vitamin C: Necessary for biosynthesis of collagen, a deficiency can stall recovery.
  • Magnesium: Helps boost IGF-1 synthesis.
  • Natural Growth Hormone Boosters: Increases regeneration of tissue, in addition to enhancing liver synthesis of IGF-1. There are a few supplements on the market that actually work.

Recovery from sports related injuries, or any injury for that matter, can be a very trying time. However, you must realize that tissue takes time to regenerate, regardless of how fast you speed up the process.

By using some of the techniques outlined in our guide, you will recover faster, and likely be able to perform at optimal efficiency in your sports disciple again.

Potent prescription meds are not the definitive way to go; seek out the services of an experienced sports physician and insure your well-being and optimal recovery.