Collagen: The Protein Most Athletes Aren’t Consuming…But Should

The internet is full of information about different nutritional topics and it can be difficult at times to sift through all the information to find practical, research-backed strategies to improve health and performance. When talking about sports nutrition it is common to hear discussions of the benefits of whey protein, casein, fish oil, carbohydrates or other various topics for the health and performance of athletes and these topics deserve discussion. There is, however, one nutritional supplement that I have found to truly make a difference in my well-being and performance…collagen.

Collagen is a protein that is found throughout your body in your bones, skin, tendons, ligaments, hair, nails and more. In supplemental form, collagen is usually derived from cows and is also commonly used as gelatin in cooking. About 30% of the body’s protein consists of collagen. While much of the research on collagen supplementation is geared towards clinical populations, the implications of the findings from these studies shine a light on an area of sports nutrition that can potentially lead to fewer injuries, increased performance, and improved health and wellness.

Effects on the Prevention of Injuries

The number one goal of any good strength coach or athlete is to prevent injury. Some of the most common injuries in sports are related to connective tissues like tendons, ligaments, and bones with sprains, strains, tears and fractures as some of the predominant injuries. While these are incredibly strong tissues, they also take a greater amount of time to heal and adapt than other tissues. One study by Dr. Steffen Osser in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition [1] looked at Achilles’ tendons and ligaments treated with collagen peptides and found that the tissues when treated with collagen had:

  • A 1.2-2.4 fold increase in RNA expression indicative of the building of new proteins in the tendons and ligaments
  • There was a greater production of cells, known as proteoglycans, that are responsible for producing new fibers of tissue in the tendons
  • There was an increase in production of a protein known as elastin in the tissues that are responsible for storing energy in the lowering phase of a movement and reapplying it.  
  • There was a reduction in metalloproteinases, a type of cell that actually breaks down the tissue in the tendons and ligaments.  

Other studies have shown an increased thickness of cartilage in the knee[2] as well as the reversal of bone loss, improvement in the rate of bone mineral deposition and increased total body bone mineral density[3-5]. Several other studies have found similar findings for the improvement of bone, tendon and ligament health suggesting that collagen supplementation may be a complementary addition to a healthy diet for the improvement of joint health and recovery [6-8].

Effects on Performance

While there is still much research needed into the effects of collagen supplementation on performance, there are a few studies that show some promise for those concerned with athletic performance. In a study published in the British Journal of Nutrition, they found that healthy elderly men participating in 12 weeks of resistance training with 15g of daily collagen supplementation had significantly greater improvements in fat-free mass and muscular strength as well as a greater reduction in fat mass than the men participating in the same resistance training program and taking a placebo[9]. Furthermore, a large component of athletic performance is the ability to be able to quickly store and release mechanical energy. As discussed earlier, collagen has been shown to increase the synthesis of elastin, the component of the tendon largely responsible for its elastic qualities, by as much as 50%[1]. If we can increase the levels of elastin in tendons it may lead to improvements in the ability to store and transmit force throughout the body. Also, it has been found that the ingestion of 15g of an enriched collagen supplement prior to exercise had almost double the collagen-synthetic response to the mechanical loading from low level plyometric activity than a placebo[10] indicating a greater adaptive response to exercise with supplementation. Finally, collagen supplementation has been found to decrease pain during activity and at rest in athletes as well as other physically active adults suffering from knee pain[11-13] and has been considered as a potential in-season supplement to protect joints and improve recovery[14]. Pain is a common limiter to movement and if we can reduce joint pain in athletes we can empower them to reach greater levels of performance.

Other Benefits of Collagen Supplementation

While not as pertinent to athletic performance, collagen supplementation may provide benefits important to clients that coaches may work with. Common issues that many people face when looking to improve their health and appearance are cellulite, stretch marks, loose skin and other skin related issues. Collagen has been shown to improve the health of skin and even reduce the appearance of cellulite and wrinkles [15-17]. Also, with loose skin and stretch marks, these are usually issues related to the disturbance of the elastin in the skin from the quick gain or loss of weight. Collagen has been shown to aid in producing elastin which may help improve the rate of recovery for these issues. While it may seem like a cosmetic issue, addressing these aspects of skin health can help a client feel better about their appearance and the hard work they are putting in to better themselves.

Dosage and Practical Implications:

Effective doses of collagen supplementation in research have ranged from 2.5 – 15g per day, however, Heaton et al. recommended 15g/day during the in-season for athletes as a nutritional strategy to maintain joint health [14]. 15g is roughly equal to about 3 teaspoons per day. My wife and I mix a teaspoon in our morning cups of coffee and in our post-workout and before bed shakes. While hydrolyzed collagen can usually be bought in bulk for a relatively inexpensive price, if you are in a pinch, gelatin packets can work as well. They are very cheap and can be found in any grocery store’s baking aisle. The only downside to gelatin packets is that they are not hydrolyzed and therefore will not dissolve in drinks as easily and may not be as readily absorbed in the body.

Summary:

A proper, balanced diet full of nutrient dense foods is always going to be the best thing for optimizing performance and health, but if you are looking for a simple addition to your diet that might help you feel and perform better, collagen may be what you are looking for. The research on collagen supplements indicates an increase in the strength and health of tissues of such as bone, tendons, and ligaments which could provide a decreased risk of injury, reduced pain, improvement in performance and even better looking and feeling skin. Only about 15g or 3 teaspoons are needed per day to receive the joint protecting benefits making it a relatively inexpensive addition to a good diet.

 

Citations:

  1. Schunck, M. and S. Oesser, Specific collagen peptides benefit the biosynthesis of matrix molecules of tendons and ligaments. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 2013. 10(1): p. P23.
  2. McAlindon, T., et al., Change in knee osteoarthritis cartilage detected by delayed gadolinium enhanced magnetic resonance imaging following treatment with collagen hydrolysate: a pilot randomized controlled trial. Osteoarthritis and Cartilage, 2011. 19(4): p. 399-405.
  3. Johnson, S.A., et al., Calcium-Collagen Chelate Supplementation Reverses Bone Loss. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 2013. 113(9, Supplement): p. A63.
  4. Castelo-Branco, C., Calcium-collagen chelate supplementation reduces bone loss in osteopenic postmenopausal women. CLIMACTERIC, 2015. 18(1): p. 105-106.
  5. Cúneo, F., et al., Effect of dietary supplementation with collagen hydrolysates on bone metabolism of postmenopausal women with low mineral density. Maturitas, 2010. 65(3): p. 253-257.
  6. Porfírio, E. and G.B. Fanaro, Collagen supplementation as a complementary therapy for the prevention and treatment of osteoporosis and osteoarthritis: a systematic review. Revista Brasileira de Geriatria e Gerontologia, 2016. 19(1): p. 153-164.
  7. Schunck, M., C.H. Schulze, and S. Oesser, 261 COLLAGEN PEPTIDE SUPPLEMENTATION STIMULATES PROTEOGLYCAN BIOSYNTHESIS AND AGGRECAN EXPRESSION OF ARTICULAR CHONDROCYTES. Osteoarthritis and Cartilage, 2009. 17: p. S143-S143.
  8. Shimizu, M., et al., Collagen and glucosamine hydrate supplementation improve the joint markers in humans. Japanese Journal of Physical Fitness and Sports Medicine, 2004. 53(5): p. 559-566.
  9. Zdzieblik, D., et al., Collagen peptide supplementation in combination with resistance training improves body composition and increases muscle strength in elderly sarcopenic men: a randomised controlled trial. BRITISH JOURNAL OF NUTRITION, 2015. 114(8): p. 1237-1245.
  10. Shaw, G., et al., Vitamin C–enriched gelatin supplementation before intermittent activity augments collagen synthesis. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 2017. 105(1): p. 136-143.
  11. König, D., et al., Improvement of activity-related knee joint discomfort following supplementation of specific collagen peptides. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, 2017. 42(6): p. 588-595.
  12. Oesser, S., et al., Efficacy of specific bioactive collagen peptides in the treatment of joint pain. Osteoarthritis and Cartilage, 2016. 24(Supplement 1): p. S189.
  13. Clark, K.L., et al., 24-Week study on the use of collagen hydrolysate as a dietary supplement in athletes with activity-related joint pain. Current Medical Research and Opinion, 2008. 24(5): p. 1485-1496.
  14. Heaton, L.E., et al., Selected In-Season Nutritional Strategies to Enhance Recovery for Team Sport Athletes: A Practical Overview. Sports Medicine, 2017. 47(11): p. 2201-2218.

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A coach dedicated to helping others discover the joy of a high performance lifestyle.

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