From powders to pills to gummies, collagen products are seemingly everywhere these days, with the global market valued at a whopping $9.12 billion in 2022. For athletes looking to up their exercise game, the health claims surrounding collagen can sound seriously enticing: Decreased pain! Quicker recovery! Boosted performance!
But because there’s little regulation in the supplement industry, it can be tough to know what’s actually legit—and what’s just marketing BS.
We tapped three nutrition experts for a primer on all things collagen, including what it is, the proven benefits, drawbacks, and how to decide if a collagen supplement is worth your dollars. Here’s what you need to know.
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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 science communications consultant, tells Bicycling. Collagen comprises about 30 percent of your body’s protein, making it the most prevalent source, according to Meyer.
As you age, your body naturally produces less collagen, Keith R. Martin, Ph.D., research assistant professor in the College of Health Sciences at the University of Memphis’ Center for Nutraceutical & Dietary Supplement Research, tells Bicycling.
Without collagen, “our flexibility and integrity of our ligaments and tendons and even skin are reduced,” Abby Langer, RD, owner of Abby Langer Nutrition in Toronto, Canada tells Bicycling.
That’s where collagen supplements come in. Most supplements are made from 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 comprises more than 90 percent of the collagen in the human body and provides structure to skin, bones, ligaments, and tendons, she explains. Type II forms the main component of joint cartilage. And type III collagen, which is found in muscles, arteries, and organs, is involved in healing and repairing tissue, she explains.
What are the benefits of collagen supplements for athletes?
If you’ve already boarded the collagen train, good news: “There is some scientific evidence that collagen can support joint health, especially among athletes,” says Meyer.
However, research is still relatively new, and right now, there’s not enough data to say that collagen “absolutely” or “with extreme confidence” is a beneficial supplement, Martin cautions. “The caveat is always: Further research is needed.”
The data we do have, though, is promising. For example, in a 2008 randomized controlled trial of about 100 collegiate or club sport athletes, those who were given 10 grams of collagen found the supplement reduced factors that can negatively affect athletic performance, like pain.
A 2021 study, which involved 180 active men and women between ages 18 and 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 joint pain after 12 weeks of taking 5 grams of the supplement every day.
Finally, a 2023 study of 75 middle-aged active adults found that taking 10 to 20 grams of collagen supplements per day for six to nine months may improve daily functioning, pain, and physical and mental outcomes in that population.
These benefits may be especially important for cyclists, as research suggests up to a third of distance cyclists experience knee pain and injury.
Compared to the relatively strong research on joint pain, there’s more limited evidence that collagen can increase lean body mass and muscle strength, as some proponents of the supplement might claim. For example, a 2015 study found that collagen supplementation, combined with resistance training, improved body composition and boosted muscle strength, but for a specific population: elderly sarcopenic men of which there were only 53 in the study.
In terms of dosing, the optimal amount of collagen, according to Martin’s personal review of the research, is 15 grams per day paired with 50 milligrams of vitamin C. (More in a minute on why vitamin C is recommended alongside collagen.) Pairing collagen supplementation with exercise seems to enhance the known benefits of collagen supplementation, Martin adds.
Are there drawbacks of collagen supplements?
Like all supplements, collagen is not a magic elixir. For starters, collagen is not a “complete protein,” says Langer. That means it’s missing some amount of the nine essential amino acids your body needs. For that reason, collagen is “a bit of a lower-quality protein supplement,” says Langer. “If athletes are looking for a really high-quality protein, collagen wouldn’t be first on my list.” Instead, she recommends soy or whey as complete protein powders.
Also keep in mind: When you consume collagen, you can’t dictate how or where your body ends up using it. “Collagen, just like any other protein, gets broken down into its individual parts and then re-configured into different chains of amino acids,” explains Langer. From there, the body sends those chains to where they are most needed—which, for example, may be your liver instead of your wrinkles.
On the flip side, it doesn’t seem like there’s much at stake health-wise from trying collagen if you’re curious to see what all the hype is about. Indeed, the risk of toxicity from taking too much collagen is likely “very low” to non-existent, says Martin.
The one thing that may take a hit: Your bank account. A 20-ounce container of collagen powder from popular brand Vital Proteins provides just 28 servings and will run you $42 on Amazon.
Should you take a collagen supplement?
Here’s the thing: “Supplements themselves are meant to be supplements,” says Martin, meaning you should first and foremost try to get all your dietary needs through foods before turning to pills, powders, or chews.
If you get enough protein—the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight—and enough fiber (38 grams for men and 25 grams for women), your body should be able to make 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 U.S. population lacks enough vitamin C, according to the National Library of Medicine.
So before considering a collagen supplement, make sure you’re not deficient in any important vitamins or minerals; otherwise, you may be taking collagen in vain. Eating a balanced, well-rounded diet—which generally consists of three to five daily servings of fruits and veggies, limited consumption of red meat, ample complex carbs, and reduced intake of simple sugars—will often provide all the micronutrients you need, says Martin. But if you suspect you’re deficient anyway, you can always get your levels checked at the doctor.
Now, if you’re still curious about collagen supplementation, it may be a worthwhile option if you’re an athlete with minor joint pains, says Meyer. Just make sure the product is NSF Certified by Sport (which means it does not contain any ingredients banned by sports organization) and that it’s third-party tested, by a company like NSF or USP, to ensure the product is what it says it is. “Do not just buy something random on Amazon,” warns Langer. “Buy a trusted product.”
The bottom line on collagen
Some of the hoopla around collagen seems founded: There’s evidence that collagen supplements can improve joint pain and functioning, and more limited evidence of its benefits for body composition and strength. But more research is needed.
If you’re curious about collagen, there’s probably not much risk in trying supplementation to see if it works for you. Just be sure to eat a well-balanced diet so that your body is getting all the micronutrients it needs to support collagen production.
Jenny is a Boulder, Colorado-based health and fitness journalist. She’s been freelancing for Runner’s World since 2015 and especially loves to write human interest profiles, in-depth service pieces and stories that explore the intersection of exercise and mental health. Her work has also been published by SELF, Men’s Journal, and Condé Nast Traveler, among other outlets. When she’s not running or writing, Jenny enjoys coaching youth swimming, rereading Harry Potter, and buying too many houseplants.