Strategies to maintain skeletal muscle mass in the injured athlete: nutritional considerations and exercise mimetics

Eur J Sport Sci. 2015;15(1):53-62. doi: 10.1080/17461391.2014.936326. Epub 2014 Jul 16.


The recovery from many injuries sustained in athletic training or competition often requires an extensive period of limb immobilisation (muscle disuse). Such periods induce skeletal muscle loss and consequent declines in metabolic health and functional capacity, particularly during the early stages (1-2 weeks) of muscle disuse. The extent of muscle loss during injury strongly influences the level and duration of rehabilitation required. Currently, however, efforts to intervene and attenuate muscle loss during the initial two weeks of injury are minimal. Mechanistically, muscle disuse atrophy is primarily attributed to a decline in basal muscle protein synthesis rate and the development of anabolic resistance to food intake. Dietary protein consumption is of critical importance for stimulating muscle protein synthesis rates throughout the day. Given that the injured athlete greatly reduces physical activity levels, maintaining muscle mass whilst simultaneously avoiding gains in fat mass can become challenging. Nevertheless, evidence suggests that maintaining or increasing daily protein intake by focusing upon the amount, type and timing of dietary protein ingestion throughout the day can restrict the loss of muscle mass and strength during recovery from injury. Moreover, neuromuscular electrical stimulation may be applied to evoke involuntary muscle contractions and support muscle mass maintenance in the injured athlete. Although more applied work is required to translate laboratory findings directly to the injured athlete, current recommendations for practitioners aiming to limit the loss of muscle mass and/or strength following injury in their athletes are outlined herein.

Keywords: Skeletal muscle; immobilisation; injured athlete; muscle disuse atrophy; neuromuscular electrical stimulation; nutrition.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Athletes*
  • Athletic Injuries / physiopathology*
  • Electric Stimulation / methods*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Muscle, Skeletal / growth & development
  • Muscle, Skeletal / physiology*
  • Muscular Atrophy / physiopathology
  • Muscular Atrophy / prevention & control*
  • Muscular Atrophy / therapy
  • Sports Nutritional Physiological Phenomena / physiology*