Is Collagen a Miracle Supplement for Soft Tissue?
A closer look at how taking a collagen supplement can benefit endurance athletes with Registered Dietitian Alex Larson.
Collagen has become an increasingly popular supplement, and even better the evidence is encouraging in supporting athletes using it. Let’s take a closer look at how taking a collagen supplement can benefit endurance athletes.
What is collagen?
Collagen is a protein, in fact, it’s the most abundant protein in the body. It makes up one-third of total protein mass and its fiber-like structure is used to create connective tissue. Collagen is a major part of bone, skin, muscles, tendons and cartilage, it makes those soft tissues strong, resilient and flexible. While our body naturally can produce collagen, our production decreases as we age putting us at a higher risk of injury.
Collagen is made up of mainly three amino acids: glycine, proline and lysine. There are three main types of collagen in the body – Types I, II and III. Type II is present in joint cartilage, and Types I and III are mainly found in bones, skin, ligaments and tendons.
What benefits does it offer athletes?
Is collagen a miracle supplement? No, but the research is promising. Increasing collagen production in athletes has been shown to support injury prevention and repair. The evidence is fairly strong that exercise combined with consuming collagen has been shown to double the rate of collagen production.
Tendons and ligaments have very little blood flow to them and receive little nutrients, but when the muscles stretch and relax during exercise those connective tissues will receive fluids that provide nourishment. Consuming collagen 30-60 minutes before exercise has been shown to supply those tissues with those amino acids to support collagen production.
Collagen Sourcing and Supplementation
Collagen can be naturally found in food, mainly animal-based products. One of the most easily accessible and affordable options is gelatin, like what’s found in the baking aisle of the store.
Other options include bone broth and tougher cuts of meat such as brisket and roasts or the bones and skin of fresh and saltwater fish. It’s worth noting that the protein content of bone broth can vary greatly depending on the type of bones used and the length of cook time. Bone broth has been shown to be a low source of the amino acid glycine, which is a critical part of collagen production.
While the research is limited, hydrolyzed collagen, collagen peptides and gelatin will offer the needed amino acids to aid in strengthening and even repairing damaged tissues. Vitamin C has also been shown to work as a “helper” with building collagen and repairing damaged tissue, so either pair your collagen with a vitamin C-rich food or make sure it’s included in your supplement of choice.
There’s no shortage of collagen supplements on the market. Ideally, look for products that are third-party tested, such as NSF Certified for Sport or Informed Choice for Sport. As of right now, there are currently only animal-based collagen supplements on the market. There are no natural vegan sources of collagen. Likely in the near future, there will be a plant-based collagen supplement created.
Lastly, collagen shouldn’t be used as a replacement for a protein powder as collagen isn’t a high-quality protein to be used for building muscle.
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Alex Larson, MS, RDN, LD is a registered dietitian and age-group triathlete and runner. She works virtually with endurance athletes to improve performance and body composition through a flexible eating style. Alex lives near Duluth, Minnesota with her husband, two young boys and golden retrievers. You can find Alex at alexlarsonnutrition.com and on social channels @alexlarsonnutrition.