How collagen can supercharge your training and recovery
When you’re hiking the tops of rolling hills, scaling dramatic cliff faces, training for your passion or giving it your all at the gym; the last thing you want is to be stopped in your tracks by painful joints or injury, which may need weeks or months of recovery.
Optimal nutrition plays a huge role in the natural repair and renewal process with a big emphasis on ensuring the body has access to a wide range of nutrients. Fuelling the work performed by the body while also strengthening the immune system and bone health is critical in ensuring great performance, but also long-term wellness. This involves including good quality proteins to rebuild tissues, carbohydrates to energise the system, healthy fats to bring anti-inflammatory properties and focus the mind, not to mention the 40+ micronutrients, vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients (and more) which all play their part too.
Those who are interested in reaching optimum performance levels often dedicate time to eating well too, and luckily thriving in a modern world means we also have access to tools beyond what we find on our plates. Supplements and performance supportive nutraceuticals have been changing the game in active lifestyles for many years now and collagen has positioned itself as being a key nutrient to support in both prehab and rehab programmes - giving you the edge.
Recovering well to prevent the occurrence of injury is taken more seriously than ever - forget skipping the cooldown anymore, people have a deeper understanding that the body needs time to repair and rejuvenate. Soft-tissue injuries in particular, such as those affecting muscles, tendons and ligaments are extremely common across all levels of sport and fitness. From athletes in the English Premier League whose incidence of soft-tissue injuries reaches 60% and high rates of tendon injuries observed in elite athletes (30-45%) and distance runners (55%), enhancing how robust these tissues and joints are is where collagen can come into action.
You may know that collagen is the most abundant protein in the human body and whilst it’s skin supportive benefits usually take all the limelight, collagens' tough yet flexible structure also comprises 90% of our connective tissues; building and maintaining ligaments, bones and tendons. Up to 10% of muscle mass is made of collagen and even your spine and vertebrae require collagen for mobility.
The strength and durability of our connective tissues, tendons, bones and fascia is largely down to the collagen content in the body. However, our ability to synthesise collagen reduces as we age and as collagen levels decrease, ligaments and tendons may start to become stiffer, increasing risk for injuries. This may well be one of the key reasons why people who are over 30 years of age are more inclined towards knee injuries, shoulder issues, aches, pains and even herniated discs.
When the body creates collagen it requires a good supply of certain amino acids including proline, glycine, hydroxyproline and lysine. Your body breaks down dietary protein into these amino acids, then repackages them with some help from vitamin C, copper, and zinc to create new collagen. These specific amino acids, necessary to synthesise new collagen, can be found in animal protein sources as well as edible collagen from meat on the bone eating the skin of fish. These cuts of meat and fish are not as popular in today's world, with more people opting for leaner cuts or avoiding eating skin. Moreover, as we age, our ability to digest proteins lessens as our digestive juices and enzymes slowly decrease. All of these factors may result in lower collagen levels and lower quality of collagen in the body too. Finding collagen in a highly digestible, bioavailable form such as hydrolysed collagen peptides can be an efficacious alternative and a potentially more supportive way of ensuring collagen production stays optimal.
Providing the body with the amino acids it needs is only part of the picture when it comes to collagen supplementation, however. A question often asked is how can the collagen in your drink reach your joints? Whilst most collagen will be broken into the separate amino acids, emerging research is pointing to the idea that some collagen peptides, after being absorbed through the intestines, can reach areas where collagen is found.
Let's break this down - once you eat or drink your collagen it can be digested in the gut, cross the intestinal barrier, enter your bloodstream and become available for metabolic processes in the target tissues. Specifically, some collagen peptides travel to sites where we find cells called fibroblasts, osteoblasts and chondrocytes, which all produce collagen for the skin, bones, joints and more.
Peptides are short chains of specific amino acids, which can also act as signalling molecules. Put simply, they communicate with cells, telling them what to do; whether that’s repairing tissues, producing certain hormones, or promoting anti-inflammatory healing - in this case it would be; ‘make more collagen!’ They stimulate the cells into action, strengthening, repairing and reinforcing tissues. On top of all of this action, it is believed that these peptides may also send a signal to ‘stop breaking existing collagen and bone down’. A 2-4-1 if you will - like telling the construction workers to stop the demolition process and focus on the build instead, whilst also providing them with all the materials they need.
So what does this mean in terms of an active lifestyle and what are the studies saying?
Whilst studies remain small for now, early data looks very promising suggesting that supplementation of collagen is of benefit in supporting connective tissue function and other key areas important for maintaining an active lifestyle.
Active lifestyles and high intensity exercise can have many benefits, but can also put strain on hard-working joints.When it comes to joint pain, damage to cartilage - the shock absorbing cushion found in joints - is often the cause. Unsurprisingly, collagen makes up two-thirds of the weight of cartilage in many joints and whilst supplementing collagen won’t ‘grow back’ lost cartilage, studies have shown some improvements. In a 2021 systematic review it was concluded that around 5–15g collagen peptides per day appears to be beneficial in improving joint functionality and reducing joint pain (1).
A separate 24-week study in the USA found that joint discomfort in athletes was improved after hydrolysed collagen supplementation. (2)
Another 2019 study found that combining calf strengthening exercises with collagen peptides reduced Achilles tendon pain, a challenging issue for those who experience it (3). This is an encouraging starting point to establish future research in the area.
Furthermore, collagen has been shown to be successful in reducing knee pain (8) across a number of different athletes (4).
It’s easy to forget that bones aren’t dry and fossil like, but in fact they are living tissues that repair themselves. As the main ingredient in bones, type I collagen is what gives them strength. So it’s not surprising that researchers have started to look at how collagen supplementation can also improve bone health.
Bones lose density and get weaker as we age, which makes us more susceptible to fractures. This is particularly the case for post-menopausal women. Alongside good vitamin D, calcium and magnesium status, recent research also shows that collagen supplementation may increase bone mineral density (BMD) and other markers of bone health (5).
As well as improving BMD, collagen also appears to improve the structure of bones, binding to bone minerals in a cross-link formation, creating a super strong structure.
Collagen protein has a beautifully complex amino acid profile, however does not contain leucine known for activating muscle protein synthesis for muscle building. Collagen does however contain amino acids like glycine and arginine, which are important blocks for creatine. There are many studies that show how creatine can help improve muscle mass, build strength, and improve athletic performance (6).
Collagen has been shown to reduce muscle soreness after exercise and accelerate recovery, however. A small study found that active individuals taking collagen peptides for 7 days before and for 2 days after strenuous muscle damaging exercise, had reduced feelings of muscle soreness, more so than a placebo control.
For years fascia, the sheath of stringy connective tissue that surrounds every part of your body, was shown little interest. However this incredibly important structure provides support to your muscles, tendons, ligaments, tissues, organs, nerves, joints and bones. A healthy fascia is flexible but when it tightens up, it can restrict movement and cause painful health conditions.
Researchers and trainers in-the-know now understand that taking care of the fascia helps the body to perform better and experience less pain as it connects every system together. Fascia is also a collagen rich tissue so this will be an important area for research to see what potential effect collagen supplementation can have.
Get the benefits
Taking between 8 and 12 grams per day seems to be a good range for improving soft tissue health and reducing muscle soreness (7). Research also suggests that taking collagen around 30-60 minutes before your workout or rehab session is the ideal time to ensure that those key amino acids and peptide chains are present during the session and enhance the delivery to the target tissues.
Both True + Wild Collagen provide high quality bioavilable hydrolysed collagen peptides (also in sachet form) perfect for active lifestyles.
Studies show that vitamin C can double collagen production in joints. Vitamin C plays an important role in switching on key enzymes allowing the formation of collagen. The Vegan Collagen range provides vitamin C for this reason. The Naked Collagyn also contains other bone and joint supporting compounds such as glucosamine, MSM and Vitamin D. It is also likely that exercise and supportive movement would also further aid the benefits of collagen supplementation, a great cycle of benefits.