If you’re asking this, then you probably have a reason, and hopefully it’s not so your child’s skin will look better. Collagen is plentiful in the body when you’re young, but production of collagen decreases as you age — so you might be wondering if the above question should be a question at all? Why would young athletes NEED collagen?
The answer isn’t so simple and to shoot straight and to the point, there is not a lot of research done on collagen and the pediatric athlete population, but the current research does suggest that collagen is safe for teen athletes in season for injury prevention and recovery from injury (1).
Collagen is extremely abundant in the body — it is the main structural protein. I often describe it as the scaffolding that holds everything together. It is the main protein in our skin, tendons and ligaments (2).
Collagen is vital to maintain tendon and ligament strength and to keep them healthy, especially with the force put on the body from sports.
So, what is collagen made of?
Collagen is an incomplete protein, to put it best. All proteins are made of amino acids and when we eat protein, it is broken down into those individual amino acids to support various functions in the body. The amino acids enter an amino acid pool (yes, it’s really called that) and the body directs them where to go. If you have an injury, your body will direct some for healing.
When I say that collagen is an incomplete protein, that means it does not contain all of the essential amino acids that we need everyday – so you can’t treat it like a protein supplement.
Collagen, however, is made up of some very specific amino acids. Those main amino acids are glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline (and others, but these are the main ones). It is the high concentration of these amino acids in collagen that give the benefit.
There has been a good amount of research done on the role of collagen in tendon injury prevention and repair. Recent studies have shown that supplementation with specific amino acids prior to exercise strengthens the tendons, making them less susceptible to injury (3).
A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (by leading collagen researchers) found that supplementation with 15g of gelatin 1 hour prior to performing a sport specific loading exercise increased collagen formation when it was done 6 hours prior to the actual activity. Meaning, if your athlete has practice after school, this could be done in the morning before school.
This is significant, because repetitive sports like running, pitching in baseball, tennis, and even swimming can break down collagen in specific areas of the body. Targeting those areas with sport specific exercises gives those amino acids a guide on where to go, so they are not just haphazardly bumping around in your body – the exercise gives them direction.
Why gelatin? Nutritionally, collagen and gelatin are quite similar, so some research studies actually use gelatin over hydrolyzed collagen that you buy at the supplement store.
Why Teen Girls May Be At Higher Risk for Musculoskeletal Injury
Did you know that females have 4 to 6 times more ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) injuries than males (3). Even more interesting is that those tears may be linked to increased estrogen that happens at the time of ovulation each month.
It is thought that during the time of increased estrogen, the ligaments become weaker (completely independent of collagen) and this could put females at an increased risk of injury (4). There is currently no way to prevent this, other than to strengthen the ligaments through training and nutrition.
Is Collagen Necessary?
The answer to this for most athletes is probably no. One might assume that just any run of the mill protein could be broken down and produce the same results that studies are seeing with collagen. Only more research will be able to answer that question.
I am a food first dietitian, but I also realize that supplements are just that — to supplement the diet with something that we don’t get enough of. You get collagen from eating the undesirable parts of meat – the tendons and skin. I don’t know a lot of athletes munching on a carnivorous diet of tendons and skin.
Supplements should never be used to make up for a poor diet. There is no substitute for the nutrition from real food.
If you have an injured athlete, this is worth a conversation with your child’s physical therapist or orthopedist to see if adding a collagen supplement in combination with their PT or at home exercises will help.
The good news is that there is no harm in taking it, if you take a reputable brand. More good news in that you can use gelatin, if the dietary supplement aisle is not for you.
The science indicates that 15 grams of collagen or gelatin 1 hour before exercise will provide the most benefit.
Vitamin C is necessary for your body to make collagen, so having a source of vitamin C will help your body respond to the amino acids. Choose something like an orange (or juice), strawberries, or kiwi to eat at the same time.
What to Look for If You Choose A Supplement
Don’t even think about buying a supplement that isn’t third party tested. That means you will see a seal on the packaging with either USP, NSF, or NSF for Sport. This ensures it was tested to only contain what it says on the label.
Also important for collagen, is that it is tested for heavy metals. Heavy metals accumulate in the bones and tissues of animals, so that third party testing seal is extremely important.
If you think that collagen or gelatin might be something to add to your teen athlete’s diet, make a quick phone call to your child’s pediatrician or dietitian to get a quick look of the entire diet, ensure that it is appropriate for your child’s sport, and to get a recommendation for type and dose.