Benefits of Collagen Supplementation for Sports Performance
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Time to read 8 min
Most people take collagen for their hair, skin, and nails, but did you know that the benefits of taking collagen extend to your joint, muscle, and bone health, too? There are many benefits of collagen, which is why athletes take it to prevent injuries, help build muscle, and recover faster.
Collagen is one of the most abundant proteins in the human body, making up much of your connective tissue, organs, blood vessels, and skin. Collagen typically exists as part of a support matrix along with elastin and other proteins. Its physical properties give the matrices in your body tensile strength, flexibility, and stability. Natural collagen production in your body already occurs but may be limited by nutrient deficiencies, low-protein diets, or conditions affecting connective tissue.
Just like Whey or Casein proteins, collagen is composed of non-essential and essential amino acids, which are used to remodel tissues as they break down from exercise or wear and tear. Many will ask the question: Can collagen powder replace whey? The answer is no, because they have different applications. Combined, collagen and a protein supplement are a powerhouse that supports your muscle growth, joint health, and athletic performance.
The most significant benefit of collagen supplementation is in injury prevention and recovery. Collagen makes up about 80% of the weight of tendons, with collagen establishing flexibility, support, and injury resistance to joints when experiencing a significant force. Supplementing with collagen daily expands the cross-sectional area of the connective tissue in the body, especially the tendons that traverse the joints and articular cartilage that cushions bone surfaces. Thicker tendons resist injury much better, not allowing the joint to be displaced outside of its normal range of motion, which is typically when injuries occur. Thicker articular cartilage can help with conditions like arthritis, where lost cartilage causes bone surfaces to rub directly against each other, causing pain and degradation of the bone.
Healthy joints rely on balanced forces for proper function, ensuring bones stay aligned during movements like squatting. Mobility limitations, such as inflexible knee tendons, can disrupt this equilibrium, forcing compensatory actions during exercise. These compensations, like lateral hip shifts or tipping forward in a squat, place additional stress on muscles and joints, such as the lower back and spine, increasing the risk of injury. However, when tendons possess increased collagen content, they become more flexible, facilitating improved mobility. This enhanced flexibility allows joints to utilize their full range of motion without restrictions or compensations, reducing the likelihood of injury.
In a study of subjects with Achilles tendinopathy, researchers tracked the injury recovery speed in two groups, one taking collagen and the other taking the equivalent amount of whey protein. Repair of the tendon was significantly faster on the collagen group compared to the whey group, allowing participants to return to regular activity within a shorter recovery period. In addition to the enhanced speed of recovery, when participants who took collagen were deemed “healed” from their injury, their Achilles tendon was measured and found to have a higher cross-sectional area than the other group. In performance tests, ankle joint stability and impact absorption capabilities were much higher in the collagen group, proving that collagen incites significant remodeling in the joint capsule.
Collagen may help regulate inflammation responses. Though research is still being conducted on this subject, initial experiments have indicated that consuming collagen daily may decrease the release of “pro-inflammatory cytokines,” the chemical messengers responsible for inciting and perpetuating inflammation responses like swelling, pain, and movement restriction.
When it comes to performance, many of the adaptations seen in athletes who take collagen are mediated by the structural changes within the joint that improve mobility, stability, and impact absorption. In basketball players, ankle problems are a leading cause of injury because the lower body needs to absorb impact forces when landing on the floor after a jump. Stronger tendons enable players to decelerate more quickly and land in optimal positions, significantly decreasing the risk of injury from landing too hard or out of proper alignment. In other sports, the improved strength of tendons also protects from injury from lateral forces such as a tackle, which often produces injury in the LCL or MCL tendon.
Collagen supplementation enhances the power-production capabilities of those who take it. This improvement comes from the tendon's increased "stiffness" due to its collagen and elastin content increase. Just like a spring, thicker tendons have a higher potential to store energy and produce more recoil force. This enables better loading for power production, almost as if your tendon’s stored energy slingshots you up from the squat needed to prepare you for a jump. Since more energy is created through loading the tendon, some of the muscular energy required to propel you is conserved, leading to higher muscular endurance, lower fatigue, and quicker recovery.
The improvement in muscular endurance also translates to other activities, not just jumping. It was found that collagen supplementation improves muscular endurance in a similar way to that of power production. Higher collagen content in tendons leads to better recoil forces in activities like running, decreasing the load that needs to be produced by your muscle and subsequently increasing endurance. The elastic forces in your tendons aren’t the only way collagen improves endurance; experts have found that another reason why collagen helps endurance is because it improves cardiovascular endurance. The mechanism is unknown, but several experiments have shown that the use of collagen, accompanied by endurance training, produces superior adaptations in resting heart rate and perceived exertion, allowing distance runners to run farther without an increase in exertion.
When you think about putting on a lot of muscle, protein powder may come to mind first. Whey protein provides amino acids that are directly used to rebuild that tissue, resulting in muscle growth. Supplementing with whey protein helps decrease Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness – that pain you feel a few days after working out – by facilitating tissue repair.
Collagen works differently. Though the amino acids found in collagen can be used in muscle fiber remodeling, their unique amino acid profile is more suited to building connective tissue and improving matrix continuity.
In studies of subjects who consume collagen alongside a resistance training routine, participants saw an increase in lean body mass and a decrease in fat mass. Muscle fiber cross-sections taken before and after the study reveal a higher cross-sectional area and density but do not reach the hypertrophy (muscle growth) levels achieved with whey. Researchers were initially stumped because participants experienced significant strength gains without the corresponding increase in muscle size. As it turns out, the improvement in strength comes from an increase in the proteins that create muscle contractions, like troponin, myosin, actin, and desmin. When muscles contract, proteins bind together, building cross bridges that pull muscle fibers together. Higher concentrations of these proteins cause a shift in the density of the muscle’s matrix that allows for stronger force-couple reactions, which is essentially just a stronger contraction. The higher contraction strength is owed to the formation of more cross-bridges between proteins. So, though this will not directly create huge gains in muscle mass, it gives rise to higher strength and better contractions, enabling you to put on more muscle long-term as you continue to increase your training weights and supplement with protein.
Collagen is abundant in animal connective tissue, like in bone broth, skin-on chicken, or organ meats. Most people don’t consume these regularly, so taking a collagen supplement is typically the best way to ensure you reach threshold therapeutic levels. In these foods, the collagen is whole (not hydrolyzed) and may be more difficult for your body to use.
Experts recommend taking between 2.5-15g of collagen daily. Some athletes should consume closer to 20g if they have a high training load or need to consistently produce power in their movements, like jumping or sprinting.
Natural collagen production slows as we age, so it's also beneficial for non-active adults to take a supplement to increase the collagen levels in connective tissue, which will help your body with collagen synthesis and maintenance. In addition to supplementation, intermittent activity augments collagen synthesis, so getting up and moving your body is another great way to protect the joints and reap the potential benefits of strengthened joints.
Some of the commercially available collagen supplements can be difficult for your body to use, so there are some things you can look for to ensure it is a biologically active, high-quality collagen supplement.
Look for products with the keywords “Hydrolyzed Collagen” or “Collagen Peptides” that indicate that the collagen has been broken down into smaller pieces, which are much easier for your body to incorporate into your tissues than the whole collagen molecule.
There are 29 different types of collagen, but you will most often see that supplements only have types 1-5.
Types I - III collagen are the most useful in sports performance because they are used in bones, connective tissue, and muscle, respectively.
Tripeptides are great for the skin because they are so small that they can pass through the dermal barrier to enact changes in the dermis’ structural matrix, but they are not very helpful for sports performance or joint health.
To reap the benefits of consuming collagen, supplements containing vitamin C can help ensure your body has all the necessary ingredients to incorporate the collagen you take into your connective tissues and muscles.
Collagen improves mobility, speeds recovery, improves endurance, and reinforces the joints against injury.
Collagen can be obtained from bone broth, animal skin/connective tissue, and cashews. It can be difficult to reach the threshold of collagen for therapeutic effects with just food, so supplementing with collagen peptides will ensure you consume enough.
Collagen has been shown to decrease post-workout soreness, increase recovery speed, and improve strength.
Collagen is a great protective measure to ensure the health of your muscles, bones, and joints. Taken with whey protein, it will result in positive adaptations to muscle size and strength, while protecting them from injury and increasing power production. Athletes are recommended to take 10-20g of collagen, and recreationally active adults should take 2.5-15g.
Side effects from collagen supplementation are virtually nonexistent. Collagen has the potential to cause rashes and diarrhea in some, if you have problems with your digestive tract or don’t consume enough fiber. Be mindful of the source of your collagen if you have allergies to shellfish, animal proteins, or if you follow a vegetarian diet.
Madeleine is a Medical Copywriter who was born in Upstate New York. She graduated from Temple University with a Bachelor of Science in Human Biology in 2019. She is a digital nomad who travels full-time.
Felipe is a hardworking and self-motivated dermatologist with a great passion for skin diseases and therapeutics. He has experience in specialised clinical care, researching scientific literature, and writing scientific articles.