Collagen: What it is, what it does and why athletes should consider taking it

Is it worth taking a collagen supplement? James Witts investigates

what is collagen and why athletes should take it

Collagen makes up 30% of total protein mass and is integral for performance-enhancers like joint mobility, strong bones and healthy muscles. It’s why former Olympian and sports scientist Greg Whyte OBE has just launched U-Perform with collagen at the heart of the range, whether consumed by mixing up a sachet or by sucking up a gel.

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Ironman and nutritionist Peter Res, who’s worked with the Ajax football team, is also a fan, yet he delivers it in its gelatin form; in other words, extracted from animal hides. “We’ve improved recovery rates of our athletes by supplementing with gelatin,” says the Dutchman. “It’s a powder and you dissolve it in hot water. Normal gelatin forms a jelly but we use a hydrolysed version so it’s less pudding-like.’

The theory goes that collagen within the gelatin is essentially the same ‘material’ as that found in tendons, ligaments and bones. When you break a bone or tear a ligament, the first bridges over the injury are comprised of collagen. “The ingested collagen contains the same amino acids as the collagen in our body, so provides all the building blocks,” says Res. “Specifically, the amino-acid proline is a signal to enhance collagen production.” The protocol for an injured athlete is to take a gelatin supplement three times a day, adds Res.

The evidence behind supplementing with collagen is pretty strong as exercise itself increases collagen production. Hence, combining exercise with gelatin supplementation has a particularly positive effect on collagen levels. A 2017 study led by Keith Baar, professor of molecular exercise physiology at the University of California, found that short periods of exercise with at least six hours of rest in between increased collagen production. When participants took 15g of gelatin an hour before the exercise activity – six minutes of skipping – the effect was to double the rate of collagen synthesis. This means triathletes could take a gelatin or collagen supplement before a short session in the morning to boost their collagen levels and so increase their resilience to a lengthier afternoon training session.

Arguably, collagen’s even more important for the older triathlete as evidence suggests we lose around 1.5% of collagen each year. That means by the time we’re 40, our collagen levels have potentially dropped by around 30%.

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Top image by Getty Images