From powders to pills to gums, collagen products are obvious everywhere, everywhere these days, s a global market valued at a whopping $9.12 billion 2022 For athletes looking to up their exercise game, collagen’s health claims can sound seriously enticing: reduced bread! faster recovery! Improved performance!
But since there isn’t a lot of regulation in the supplement industry, it can be hard to know what’s actually legitimate—and what’s just advertising BS.
We’ve tapped three nutrition experts for an introduction to all things collagen, including what it is, proven benefits, drawbacks, and how to decide if a collagen supplement is worth your dollars. Here’s what you need to know.
More than cycling
What is collagen?
Collagen is a structural protein that provides support and elasticity to our skin, bones, ligaments and tendons. Megan Meyer, Ph.D., expert in nutritional immunology and consultant for scientific communications, talks Cycling. Collagen comprises about 30 percent of your body proteinmaking it the most widely used source, according to Meyer.
As you age, your body naturally produces less collagen, Keith R. MartinPh.D., research assistant at the University of Memphis School of Health Sciences Food and Supplement Research Center, speaks Cycling.
This is where collagen supplements come into play. Most supplements are made of collagen types I, II, and III, says Meyer. (There are a total of 28 different types of collagen.) Type I collagen is the type that makes up more than 90 percent of the collagen in the human body and gives structure to skin, bones, ligaments and tendons, she explains. Type II forms the main component of articular cartilage. And type III collagen, found in muscles, arteries and organs, is involved in tissue healing and repair, she explains.
What are the benefits of collagen supplements for athletes?
If you’ve already boarded the collagen train, good news: “There’s scientific evidence that collagen can support joint healthespecially among athletes,” says Meyer.
However, the research is still relatively new, and there isn’t enough data right now to say that collagen is “absolutely” or “with high confidence” a beneficial supplement, Martin cautions. “The caveat is always: more research is needed.”
However, the data we have is promising. For example, ua A 2008 randomized controlled trial of about 100 college or club athletes, those given 10 grams of collagen found that the supplement reduced factors that can negatively affect athletic performance, such as pain.
HAVE 2021 studieswhich included 180 active men and women aged 18 to 30 who experienced exercise-related knee pain but did not have joint disease concluded that taking collagen peptides reduced, to a statistically significant degree, this knee pain after 12 weeks of taking 5 grams of the supplement every day.
Finally, a Study from 2023 of 75 active middle-aged adults found that taking 10 to 20 grams of collagen supplements daily for six to nine months could improve daily functioning, pain, and physical and mental outcomes in this population.
Compared to the relatively robust research on joint pain, there is more limited evidence that collagen can increase lean body mass and muscle strength, as some proponents of the supplement might argue. For example, a A study from 2015 found that collagen supplementation, in combination with endurance trainingimproved body composition and strengthened muscle strengthbut for a specific population: elderly men with sarcopenia of which there were only 53 in the study.
As for dosage, the optimal amount of collagen, according to Martin’s personal review of research, is 15 grams per day combined with 50 milligrams vitamin C. (More on why vitamin C is recommended with collagen in a minute.) Pairing collagen supplementation with exercise appears to enhance the known benefits of collagen supplementation, Martin adds.
Are there any downsides to collagen supplements?
Like all dietary supplements, collagen is not a magic elixir. To begin with, collagen is not “complete protein”, says Langer. This means that it lacks some amount of the nine essential amino acids that your body needs. For this reason, collagen is “a slightly lower quality protein supplement,” says Langer. “If athletes are looking for really high-quality protein, collagen wouldn’t be first on my list.” Instead, she recommends soy or whey as whole protein powders.
Also keep in mind: when you consume collagen, you can’t control how or where your body will use it. “Collagen, just like any other protein, is broken down into its individual parts and then reconfigured into different chains of amino acids,” explains Langer. From there, the body sends those chains to where they’re needed most — which, for example, might be your liver instead of your wrinkles.
On the other hand, there doesn’t seem to be much health at stake from trying collagen if you’re curious to see what it’s all about. Indeed, the risk of toxicity from taking too much collagen is probably “very low” to nonexistent, Martin says.
The only thing that could take a hit: Your bank account. A 20-ounce container of popular brand Vital Proteins collagen powder provides just 28 servings and will satisfy you $42 on Amazon.
Should You Take a Collagen Supplement?
Here’s what it’s about: “Additions are also intended food suplements“, says Martin, which means you should first try to meet all your nutritional needs through food before turning to pills, powders or gum.
If you get enough protein— Recommended Daily Intake (RDA) because 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight is enough fiber (38 grams for men and 25 grams for women), your body should be able to produce all the collagen it needs.
Also important: To make collagen, your body needs adequate amounts of specific micronutrients, including vitamin C, copper, zinc, prolene and glycine, says Martin. Vitamin C intake is especially critical because deficiency is common—about 7 percent of the US population is deficient in vitamin C, according to the National Library of Medicine.
So before you consider a collagen supplement, make sure you are deficient in anything important vitamins gold minerals; otherwise, you may be taking collagen for nothing. A balanced, well-rounded diet—which generally consists of three to five meals a day fruits and vegetableslimited consumption of red meat, abundant complex carbohydrates, and reduced intake of simple sugars—will often provide all the micronutrients you need, Martin says. But if you still suspect you have a deficiency, you can always check your levels with a doctor.
Now, if you’re still curious about collagen supplementation, it might be a worthwhile option if you’re an athlete with less joint pain, says Meyer. Just make sure the product is NSF-certified by Sport (meaning it doesn’t contain ingredients banned by the sports organization) and tested by a third-party company like NSF or USP to make sure it the product is what it says it is. “Don’t just buy something random on Amazon,” cautions Langer. “Buy a reliable product.”
Bottom line on collagen
Some of the hype surrounding collagen appears to be well-founded: there is evidence that collagen supplements can improve joint pain and function, and less evidence of its benefits for body composition and force. But more research is needed.
If you’re curious about collagen, there’s probably not too much risk in trying supplementation to see if it works for you. Just be sure to eat a a well-balanced diet so your body gets all the micronutrients it needs to support collagen production.
Jenny is a health and fitness reporter from Boulder, Colorado. She was a freelancer for World of runners since 2015 and especially enjoys writing human interest profiles, in-depth feature articles, and stories that explore the intersection of exercise and mental health. Her work has also been published YOURSELF, Men’s magazineand Condé Nast Traveler, among other outlets. When not running or writing, Jenny enjoys coaching young people in swimming, reading Harry Potterand buying too many houseplants.