How nutrition can aid injury recovery: A case study with Dan Lawson, Brighton’s very own pro ultra runner

Dan Lawson is a local legend in the ultra running world. His record is impressive; He runs for the GB Ultra Team, the current world and European champions at the 24hr distance. He is a world record beater for the longest distance run in a week on a treadmill (completed in a tent outside Jubilee Library) and he’s the course record holder for Ultrabalaton, Steenbergen Ultra, Grand Union Canal Race and the Ridgeway Ultra. Last year he finished second in the iconic 153 mile Spartathlon Ultra Marathon, the 2nd fastest British time ever. It's safe to say Dan runs A LOT – up to 325km a week in the lead up to events. The chance of injuries are high at this intensity of training. Dan recently had to pull out of the Belfast International 24 hour track race at 22 hours with a suspected stress fracture.

Dan’s injury was pretty severe. He didn’t run for over 3 weeks – trust me this is a lifetime in his world. In order to maximise his chances of healing quickly he looked at all aspects of rehabilitation –physio, rest and nutrition. A good nutrition programme combined with the right physiotherapy can help the rate at which tendons and muscles repair, positively influence the inflammation process and minimise the rate of muscle mass loss during the rest and recovery period.

Dan’s rehab nutrition programme.

Calcium: Before a thorough assessment with a physiotherapist it was suspected that Dan had stress fracture. Because of this I looked at Dan’s diet to check he was getting adequate calcium to aid bone repair. As Dan has a largely plant based diet I suggested adding fortified plant milks and dried fruit like figs into his diet as they are good sources of non dairy calcium. He was already eating a lot of leafy greens which are calcium rich plant sources. Research has also shown that optimal calcium intake also reduces the risk or further stress fractures for elite endurance athletes.

On proper examination his injury turned out to be Pes Anserinus Bursitis/Tendonitis – inflammation of the area inside of the knee where tendons and muscles attach, plus inflammation of the bursa, a fluid filled sac which helps reduce friction of the tendons and muscle.

With this knowledge I looked the the nutrients which help aid muscle and tendon repair and how to fit these into Dan’s diet.

Protein: Regular protein intake every 3-4 hours is essential in the initial stages of injury to minimise muscle mass loss and aid muscle repair and regeneration. Leucine is the best protein for this as it directly stimulates muscle cells. Dan’s diet did contain a small amount of leucine rich foods like tuna and almonds but the quantity and frequency wasn’t enough to optimise recovery. We introduced food and supplement sources into his day including hydrolysed whey isolate protein powder into a smoothie after cross training and swimming. For his dinner we agreed on adding some tuna, lentils or both into his meal . Other snacks included almond butter and avocado or banana on rice cakes.

Polyphenols: These are photochemicals with antioxidant properties which are important during the inflammation stage of injury. They are thought to dampen down the scale of inflammation therefore speeding up transition time into healing. Evidence also suggests that coupled with omega 3 supplementation – another good anti-inflammatory, they can reduce the pain associated with tendionpathies. I introduced frozen berries into Dan’s breakfast smoothies and added walnuts and olives to his meals. Dan was already eating lots of spinach and other leafy greens which are polyphenol rich. I made sure that his omega 3 supplements came from a website used by elite athletes and that they were batch tested.

Nitric Acid: From assessing Dan’s usual diet it was clear that it already had plenty of nitrate rich foods. This is brilliant as research has shown that nitric acid plays a key role in muscle and tendon fibre regeneration, reduces tissue scarring and increases blood flow through capillaries. Dan eats a huge salad every evening which contains beetroot, rocket and spinach – all great sources.

Taking into consideration all of the above I gave Dan a detailed dietary plan which contained a few different versions of daily meals with weighed food amounts. We kept in touch regularly to see if he was able to roughly stick to the guide and suggested alternatives if not.

It’s now four weeks since the event. Dan’s recovery is on track and he's running again, up to 20K a day 6 out of 7 days.

Dan says “I believe focusing on my nutrition helped massively with a quick recovery. It also helped mentally knowing that I was still somewhat in control of my injury and I could help it by the foods I was eating. Fran was superb not only with the meal plans but most importantly by backing everything up with evidence which, when you understand why you’re doing what you’re doing, motivates you to make more changes. She also understood that I’m an individual and looked at my current diet and eating habits and worked around that to make changes much more manageable.”  

Injuries happen and can be extremely frustrating. Combining both physiotherapy and nutrition is a positive step you can take, it will help you feel more in control and can help speed up the recovery time.

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Dan's super rehab salad

1/2 - 1 packet of mixed watercress, spinach and rocket 1 raw beetroot - grated 1 large carrot - grated 1/2 avocado sliced 1 large handful of shredded red cabbage 150- 200g of cooked quinoa, bulgar wheat or brown rice 3-4 large radishes 2 tomatoes diced 1/4 cucumber diced 2 tablespoons of sweetcorn 1 fresh tuna fillet grilled or small tin of tuna in olive oil or water lemon juice 1/4 packet mint/coriander

Mix the salad and grains together with a generous splash of olive oil and the juice of half a lemon (and some balsamic vinegar if desired) with salt, pepper and lots of fresh coriander and mint.

Place the tuna fillet on top and enjoy!