Should runners take a collagen supplement?

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Collagen supplements have gained significant popularity in recent years for their potential benefits, which range from stronger skin, hair and nails to improved joint health and even relief from arthritis. Runners who are looking to prevent injuries or gain a performance edge might be considering adding collagen to their current supplement routine, but is it necessary? We spoke with registered dietitian Megan Kuikman (who writes the “Fuel Station” column in canadian running magazine) to find out.

What is collagen?

Collagen is the most abundant protein in our bodies and plays a role in maintaining the health and integrity of various tissues, including tendons, ligaments, cartilage and skin. You can consume collagen through animal foods in the diet, or through foods that contain added collagen, like Jell-O or candies.

pair of runners on road
Photo: Unsplash/chanan-greenblatt

What are the potential benefits of collagen supplements?

Kuikman says that research in this area is still new, so it’s difficult to say definitively whether collagen supplements are beneficial. Still, she says supplements may increase collagen production, which can thicken your cartilage and decrease joint pain associated with osteoarthritis. It is possible this could be beneficial for runners, whose daily mileage places a lot of repetitive stress on their knees and other joints, but more research is needed to fully understand the effects of collagen on joint health, especially in athletes.

“It may be beneficial for an injured runner who’s recovering from a tendon or ligament injury or for a runner who is prone to these sorts of injuries,” says Kuikman, “however, as per above, research in this area is still needed.”

Physiotherapy for runners

It’s also important to note that collagen is a complex protein, and oral supplementation may not guarantee that it will reach the specific target tissues in significant quantities. The body’s natural collagen production is regulated by various factors, including diet, exercise and genetics, so if you’re trying to target a specific area (for example, an injured knee), supplementing with collagen may not necessarily lead to increased collagen synthesis in that specific tissue.

It’s worth mentioning that a well-rounded diet that includes protein-rich foods will provide the necessary amino acids for collagen synthesis in the body. Consuming a variety of protein sources, such as lean meats, fish, poultry, dairy, vegetables, and plant-based proteins, can support overall tissue health, including the production of collagen.

woman running by Jeremy Stewart
Photo: Unsplash/Jeremy Stewart

Are collagen supplements safe?

“Collagen is a low-risk supplement, but there is not much data available to support its use in athletes,” says Kuikman. “Like all supplements, you can definitely take too much, and there is the risk that supplements may be contaminated with banned substances. This is a concern, as it could potentially lead to a if it were to contain a banned substance.”

How to choose the right supplement

If you are interested in adding a collagen supplement to your diet, you may want to consider consulting first with a dietitian or sports medicine provider, who can evaluate your individual needs, assess any potential deficiencies and provide personalized recommendations based on your goals and health status .

Collagen supplements are usually taken in the form of hydrolyzed collagen or gelatin (collagen extracted from animals), which means they are not suitable for vegan athletes. There are some vegan products available that claim to mimic animal-sourced collagen, but more work is needed to determine their effectiveness.

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Kuikman adds that since vitamin C is important for collagen synthesis, the diet needs to be sufficient in vitamin C to get the most out of your supplement. You can also find some supplements that include vitamin C along with collagen.

The bottom line

Collagen supplements may be beneficial for runners who tend to suffer from joint pain and injuries, but we still don’t have very much research to support this. It is a relatively safe supplement, so if you do choose to add it to your daily regimen, consider speaking with a dietitian or sports medicine practitioner who can help you make an informed choice.

No supplement can replace a well-balanced, healthy diet, so before you add any vitamins or supplements to your daily routine, make sure you’re doing your best to get all of your essential vitamins and minerals through natural food sources first.

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