The Little Known Protein Middle Aged People and Athletes Should Consume More Of

Pete Ross

Photo by Frans Van Heerden from Pexels

I started strength training 10 years ago now, and it amazes me just how much the public consciousness has shifted in favour of protein. I remember not so long ago, most people didn’t give it a second thought, or assumed thanks to the media that eating more protein than usual would damage your kidneys.

Now, even in the lifestyle sections of the newspaper, you’ll find articles on the importance of protein, the different types and how much you should be consuming. Most average people (ie not athletes) even know what whey protein is now, and have probably asked themselves if they need to be supplementing with it.

There is one type of protein though that most people, even athletes at the top of their game, don’t know about and have no idea of its function: collagen. Collagen is actually the most abundant protein in your body, making up your skin, hair, ligaments, tendons and even some of your muscles. It makes sense that you should eat it, as your body can’t synthesize it without the appropriate components. Unfortunately, dietary habits have changed significantly from even fifty years ago, which means most people aren’t getting enough — and that goes doubly for athletes.

That’s because nose to tail eating isn’t a thing anymore. We eat muscle meat now, because the other cuts make people squeamish. Muscle meat doesn’t provide much collagen though, and that’s where we get to the reason that athletes should be eating more collagen rich sources of protein. Your ligaments and tendons don’t heal well without that collagen. After all, if they’re made up of it and you aren’t getting any through your diet, how are they going to heal?

A dietary solution to injury?

I experienced this problem as a strongman competitor and after that as a rock climber. The extreme weights I’d have to carry were really hard on the tendons in my wrist, but because my muscles were improving in their ability to carry the weight, I kept going heavier. Unfortunately, tendons and ligaments take time to catch up, and if you aren’t feeding them the collagen they need, they don’t. Cue wrist injuries that just never healed, that I’d have to rest for weeks at a time just to stop the pain.

When I moved to climbing, it got worse. I got a couple of finger injuries and my wrist injuries increased in severity, to the point that I had to spend weeks at a time just climbing easy routes. I tried all kinds of methods to get blood flow through the area, increased my fish oil intake to fight the inflammation, put pressure on it, even tried that Chinese scraping method. None of it worked. I’d feel like the injuries were getting better and then I’d inevitably grab another hold and feel the pain shooting again. I thought I was doomed to never climb at my limit again. Then, I stumbled across this article at TNation. It sounded too good to be true. Being ever the experimenter, I gave it a go.

My personal experiment

I was fairly blase about my intake. I wasn’t counting grams or anything, I just ensured I was eating it in my food regularly and if I wasn’t eating it after a climbing session, I’d throw down a glass of water with jelly (gelatin = collagen) dissolved in it and a tablet of vitamin C. The results were nothing short of astonishing. Sure, my results are my results and I can’t speak for the statistical validity, but after trying a tonne of different things over the years, I know when something works. My injuries healed up in a matter of weeks. Injuries that I’d dealt with for over a year, gone. I can’t really say much more than that — when something works so completely, it speaks for itself.

How do you get more collagen protein in your diet? You don’t need to go and buy collagen protein powder (although you certainly can), there are heaps of foods with it. Here’s a quick list:

  • Animal skin (fish, chicken, pork rinds/crackling/bacon skin)
  • Any kind of bone broth — if it turns to jelly when it’s cold, it’s chock full of collagen
  • Tripe
  • Tendon (like you’d find in pho soup)
  • Bone marrow
  • Jelly

As the article from TNation says, when you add vitamin C you increase your body’s uptake of collagen, so if you’re trying to heal an injury, it pays to keep some tablets handy or consume an orange with the meal.

What does the research say?

It’s early days in collagen research. Indications so far are that the older you are, the better the body’s uptake of it and the more effective it will be. That's a pretty big deal considering how many middle aged and older people complain of joint pain and lack of mobility. When you consider that it becomes more and more difficult as you age for the body to hold onto what it's already got, greater intake of collagen is essentially a no brainer.

It’s also little surprise in our youth obsessed culture that the question most associated with collagen is will it increase skin elasticity? The answer is essentially no, there is no evidence to suggest anything like that. You'll have to keep relying on your overpriced skin care for that. Quite frankly, I couldn’t care less, all I care about is my body’s performance.

I think it’s going to be a while until we have really concrete evidence regarding injuries, because strongman and climbing are very niche sports, so no one cares enough to start investigating how to improve recovery from tendon injury. I’m confident in my experience, however, regardless of whether there’s evidence for it yet or not. The rapidity with which long term injuries began to heal where the only differing factor was collagen intake tells me that I’m onto something.

If you’re trying to shake off tendon and ligament injuries, it’s certainly worth your while to give it a shot.


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I write about career, performance, psychology, self development and business humour. I'm an author, former national competitor in judo and strongman and a former military instructor.


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