Nutrition brands are touting the benefits of ingesting collagen, but does it make sense for athletes?
For nearly a decade, restaurants in Japan have peddled meals containing collagen as the fountain of youth, improving the skin, hair and nails of those who eat it. Now health-food companies are hopping on the collagen train, turning the protein into a hot topic at the most recent Natural Products Expo West, the leading tradeshow in the natural, organic and healthy products industry. But can products containing collagen sourced from animals such as cows and fish really help endurance athletes?
First, a little science. “Simply put, collagen forms the backbone of connective tissue of the tendons and ligaments within our bodies,” says Jennifer O’Donnell-Giles, R.D., a board-certified sports dietitian, exercise physiologist and the owner of Connecticut-based Active Nutrition. It’s the most abundant protein in human connective tissue.
So far, “there’s been some preliminary research that has proposed a possible link between [ingesting collagen and] decreased recovery time from connective tissue injuries,” O’Donnell-Giles says. But that link is tenuous at this point. One 2016 study found that vitamin C-enriched gelatin supplementation led to increased collagen synthesis, but it was done on a small sample size of just eight cyclists.
The fact is collagen isn’t the best source of protein for muscle protein synthesis because it doesn’t have an ideal amino acid profile to build protein, O’Donnell-Giles says. Certain amino acids found in chicken, beef and pork, including proline, lysine, hydroxylysine and hydroxyproline, improve natural collagen synthesis within our bodies while collagen itself doesn’t have the same effect. Because of that, O’Donnell-Giles recommends taking in those amino acids if you want to decrease healing time of a connective tissue injury like a strain or sprain.
However, consuming collagen—either in the form of gelatin enriched with those four amino acids and combined with vitamin C, as was used in the study, or in sports bars, drinks and bone broths (like the products below)—will do no harm. “The question still remains if it is a benefit to healing time and/or performance,” she says. “More studies on humans—and athletes in particular—need to be conducted in order to make conclusions and recommendations.”
Three ways to refuel post-workout
EPIC Provisions Homestyle Savory Chicken Bone Broth
This bone broth contains collagen and is also rich in minerals and sodium for an electrolyte boost. The “sipping broth” comes ready to heat and drink. The chicken flavor (also available in a Turkey Cranberry Sage and Beef Jalapeno Sea Salt) contains turmeric, which has been shown to help fight inflammation. $6.99 for two-serving bottle, Epicprovisions.com
Primal Kitchen Coconut Cashew Bars
Made with collagen from grass-fed cows, these seed- and nut-heavy bars are a tasty, sticky way to refuel after workouts. The man behind the brand, Mark Sisson, is a former elite distance runner and Ironman triathlete. Rich in protein (15 grams), they have 130 calories per bar, 15 grams of carbs plus potassium and sodium.
Vital Proteins Collagen Whey Vanilla and Coconut Water
This drink provides 25 grams of protein per serving from both grass-fed cow collagen and whey protein, in addition to 6 grams of carbs plus sodium, and potassium for a total of 130 calories. It’s also rich in the four amino acids shown to improve natural collagen synthesis. The vanilla coconut flavor is tasty but only mildly sweet—it’s best mixed with milk or a smoothie.
$59 for 16-serving container, Vitalproteins.com