Some runners believe they can help boost muscle repair and recovery, but what does the science say?
By ASHLEY MATEO | April 29, 2019
You’re probably most familiar with collagen in terms of skin—in the sense that losing it as you age is what causes your skin to get saggy or wrinkly.
But collagen is about so much more than aesthetics. It’s the most abundant protein in the body, and it’s not just in your skin but also your blood, bones, muscles, cartilage, and ligaments. “Collagen acts as a structural scaffold for the majority of the soft tissues of our body,” explains Natasha Trentacosta, M.D., a sports medicine specialist and orthopedic surgeon at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles. “When collagen breaks down or is defective, that scaffolding is weakened and structures such as skin and ligaments weaken and stretch out.”
So collagen be helpful both in protecting your soft tissues and joints while running, and enhancing your recovery—and it’s especially important for runners in terms of flexibility, mobility, and cushioning. “When you can’t stretch your body as far or move your joints in the same range of motion as you once did, you can be susceptible to decreased performance, pain, and even injury,” says Ryan Turner, sports nutritionist at Tone Housein New York City.
The good news: You should be getting enough collagen from your diet—if you’re eating healthy, well-balanced meals—because our bodies produce collagen from the proteins we eat. One of the best sources? Bone broth. “By slowly boiling animal [bones] over an extended period of time (sometimes days!), the collagen leaches out of the bones and ligaments into the simmering water,” says Turner.
Your body can also synthesize collagen, but requires amino acids in order to do so, says Trentacosta. “The 20 amino acids are the building blocks of collagen in the body,” she explains, and four—glycine, proline, hydroxyproline, and arginine—are directly involved in collagen production. “Foods that are rich in proteins, such as beef, chicken, fish and beans, provide amino acids; vitamin C, which is found in citrus fruits, as well as zinc and copper, are also required for your body to synthesize collagen.”
There’s no denying that the impact of running can be tough on your body, so some runners are turning to collagen powders and supplements for a performance boost. “The theory behind taking collagen supplements for runners is for the benefit of muscle repair and recovery after exercise, just as other protein intake can aid in recovery post-workout,” says Trentacosta. “This could then improve performance over time.”
So what’s in those supplements? “Collagen powders and pills are made from chicken cartilage (type II) or animal bones (mainly beef), animal hides, and fish scales (types I and III),” says Turner. “You may find ‘hydrolyzed’ collagen or peptides, which basically means the collagen has been broken down further and may be absorbed easier when consumed.”
But what does the science say? Collagen peptide supplementation plus resistance training was shown to increase muscle mass and muscle strength in men, according to one study published in the British Journal of Nutrition. And animal studies have linked supplementation with hydrolyzed collagen to increased bone mass, which could help with injury reduction, better form, and better recovery, but more research needs to be done on human subjects. Because of the benefits it offers your joints, collagen supplementation may also reduce pain, according to research published in the journal Current Medical Research and Opinion.
Still, “these aren’t long-term, large-scale studies,” says Turner, and “there really is no strong evidence that collagen supplementation decreases joint injury or increases recovery for runners.”
If you eat adequate protein—the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (or you can use this calculator)—and enough fiber (38 grams for men and 25 grams for women), and you should have the necessary components to make the collagen your body needs.
The bottom line: There is still more research needed around collagen supplements and whether or not they can improve your performance or recovery. It likely won’t hurt much more than your wallet to try them, but there’s (unfortunately) no real shortcut for building muscle—and that includes supplementing with collagen. “Muscle-building is a process that will require resistance being put on the muscle, a calorie surplus to maximize gains, and adequate protein,” says Turner. “Because collagen is a protein, it’s part of that process, but by itself it won’t do more than support maintenance of the muscle.”
Ashley Mateo is a writer and editor, marathoner, Ironwoman, and yogi who has contributed to Health, Runner’s World, Shape, Self, and more.