The Influence of Diet on Pain and Injury in Older Martial Artists

by on May 8, 2012

in Injuries

In this second part in his Series on Pain Craig Hart explores the relationship between diet and the effect of diet on pain, and on recovery from injury. And not just injury, but also the recovery caused by everyday living. And he somehow manages to bring “The Matrix” into the story as well!

First things first – the disclaimer.

I am not a doctor, nor am I a nutritionist, therapist or any medical practitioner – but I do consider myself a martial artist, I am human and I am over 40. My musings around this topic are not intended to be prescriptive but instead provocative.

Everything within this article is based on either on my own personal experience, or research done of other studies either through published materials or the internet. If you disagree, disbelieve or finish reading this and immediately head off to find your own answers – great – that’s the provocative response I hoped to achieve!

Any of you who have seen the movie “The Matrix” will be familiar with the scene where Neo first meets Morpheus and the discussion ends with, “you take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe…. You take the red pill, you stay in wonderland and I show you how far the rabbit hole goes. Remember, all I am offering is the truth”.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the movie, basically the plot is that the entire human race, but for a single community of “free” people, are enslaved and imprisoned in a virtual world where every experience, in fact your entire life is literally fed to you by a system known as the “matrix.”

If you escape from the matrix and become free from its grasp – you live in the “real” world and you know the truth. (Some great martial arts scenes in the movie by the way)

I seek the truth about diet, nutrition, food science and what is really good for you. If you haven’t ever put any time aside to investigate this stuff before, I would urge any middle-aged person to make the time. You may be fascinated and alarmed by some findings that may challenge your existing beliefs.

So, what has diet and nutrition got to do with pain and injury in the over-40 martial artist? In my opinion – Everything.

Our bodies are our vehicles for as long as we walk the earth. These vehicles need to be maintained and given the correct fuel to do what they need to do – i.e. Repair and regenerate. The strains of daily existence continuously subject us to damage at a cellular level. Luckily, our bodies are immensely powerful, intuitive and totally tuned in to exactly what needs to be done.

If you cut yourself, the band aid you put on doesn’t heal the wound, your body does. You break a bone and the cast you put on doesn’t heal the break – your body does. (In fact, before you even get near a doctors or hospital waiting room, your body has already started work on the healing process)

Doctors often play a vital, sometimes lifesaving, role in the body’s healing process. But, these experts basically help the body heal itself. Doctors provide optimal conditions for body repair and healing to take place. The rest is up to your cells.

My “red pill” experience came in 2004 when I was “moving between phases in my life” and decided I needed to start looking after myself a whole lot better than I had been.

I found a program online called the Spartan Health Regime. This is authored by a guy named Anthony Bova who continues to write and release stuff today. He has a very simple, no nonsense view of the world of diet, nutrition and training. I thoroughly encourage others to Google him and read some of his materials. It really revolves around eating “real” food – like our ancestors did and primitive tribesmen still do today.

Anyway, long story short. My father had 13 brothers and sisters in his family – a huge clan. They grew up in a pretty tough environment and sadly, only two of the 13 have survived past their 65th birthday. I watched my father die at age 60 of cancer.

Healthy diet is essential for injury prevention and recovery for martial artists
by B*2 under CC BY-ND
A healthy diet is essential for martial artists


Now, when you get into your 30’s and start looking at family statistics like that, the urge to look after yourself and treasure your body grows pretty strong. (Even stronger now in my 40’s!)

Hence my interest in health, nutrition and longevity.

Diet affects performance:

This is such a well-researched and documented fact that nothing more need be said on it here. In contrast, there has been relatively little research on whether diet can be a factor in the prevention of sports injuries. Nevertheless, in recent years there has been enough discussion of theoretical links between nutrition and potential injury causes, along with a few empirical studies, for every athlete and martial artist to realize that diet is as vital for injury prevention as it is for maximum competition and training results.

Carbohydrate and protein:

First of all, it’s important to recognise that the correct carbohydrate intake is essential for avoiding injury just as it is for energy. Theoretically, the level of carbohydrate intake could influence injury-risk status. If glycogen levels are low, then muscle-protein breakdown may increase to compensate for the lack of the preferred fuel supply. Chronic glycogen depletion may lead to decreases in strength and possible soft-tissue damage.

While glycogen is the main fuel for exercise, recent research has emphasised that muscle protein is definitely broken down in both strength and endurance training (Brukner, 1993). To compensate, protein synthesis is increased post-exercise. Thus the athlete’s diet must include an increased amount of protein to allow for this synthesis. As with a lack of glycogen, insufficient protein may lead to decreases in strength and possible muscle damage due to decreased muscle mass. Tarnopolsky et al (1988) measured the nitrogen balance of bodybuilders and endurance athletes who were training at a high level. Their findings led to recommendations of 1.2g of protein per kg of body weight per day for the bodybuilders and 1.6g/kg/day for the endurance athletes. Other research confirms these findings, recommending 1.4g/kg/day for regular training. This is significantly greater than the NZ and Australian RDI of 0.84g/kg/day.

The message here is that, with regular training and especially endurance training, you will be unable to support your muscle mass without sufficient carbohydrate and protein. This may lead to long-term strength loss, which is a potential injury cause.

Calcium and iron:

At the micronutrient level, the lack of certain vitamins and minerals has been linked with injuries. For instance, calcium intake is a factor contributing to bone density. Research with animals has shown that calcium deficiency can cause osteoporosis, which is reversed when calcium levels are restored. If calcium is essential for healthy bone density, then any deficiency may increase the risk of stress factors.

This theoretical link is supported by some empirical research by Myburgh and colleagues (1988). They analysed 25 athletes suffering from lower-leg stress fractures and compared them with control subjects who had no shin pain. The controls were matched for weight, height and performance levels. The researchers found that the stress-fracture group had significantly lower bone-mineral densities than the control group. They also had significantly lower calcium intakes and fewer dairy products in their diets. Although the research suggested that some biomechanical factors were also implicated in the injury rates, it clearly showed that the athletes’ diet, specifically their calcium status, was a potential cause of their stress fractures.

Iron deficiency can also be a potential cause of injury, Peter Brukner (1993) describes how low blood-iron levels will reduce the oxidative potential in the muscles. This will shift the energy production towards producing more lactate, which may contribute to muscle injuries. Frank Horwill, cites a study involving 164 cross-country female runners which found that a quarter of the athletes had low serum ferritin level (blood iron count) and that this low-iron group was three times more likely to be injured during the rest of the season than the other runners.

The message here is that athletes who want to train regularly must ensure that their diets contain sufficient calcium and iron. This will help promote healthy bones and muscles with full oxidative function. Thus the bones will withstand repetitive stresses and the muscles won’t fatigue too early.


I’ve summarized some of what’s been written on the nutrition-injury links which is supported by research using humans. While this is a new research area, and much more is needed, it should be clear that there are established relationships between nutrition and injury risks which athletes should be aware of. First, sufficient carbohydrate and protein is essential to maintain muscle strength with regular heavy exercise, especially endurance exercise. Second, sufficient calcium and iron are needed to ensure healthy bone density and full muscle oxidative function. Studies have shown that any calcium or iron depletion will increase injury risks significantly, since bones are weaker and muscles tire faster. Sufficient quantities of these minerals are especially important for women athletes.

The next article will discuss the addition of supplements and how to ensure that the foods and supplements we consume are playing their part in supporting our endeavours as older martial artists.

I took a look on the internet to see if I could find The Spartan Health Regime that Craig refers to in this article. I found a few links pointing to it, but every link led to a dead-end. It seems that he may no longer be promoting this particular regime.

If you are looking to improve your diet, then one very good source of information is at the Diet Solution Program. These guys are trying to sell a product of course, but on their main site they have a really informative video that you can watch without paying a dime. It’s well worth taking a look at for the information alone. You might be surprised by what you learn – I certainly was. Click here to see more.

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