You’re looking back and forth. You’ve been standing in the supplement aisle in the grocery store for at least 15 minutes now trying to decide between collagen and protein powder. Which one should you take? Should you take 1? Or both? What is the difference?
Collagen powders have been all the hype these days. You see your teammates putting them in juice shots, smoothies, and even coffee! But what exactly is collagen? And how is collagen powder different from traditional protein powder? Before you decide collagen may benefit you, it’s important to understand the role of collagen in the body and how it differs from your traditional protein powder.
What is Protein Powder?
Whey Protein Powder
Let’s start with traditional protein powder! Protein powder is a powdered form of protein that can be derived from multiple sources. Most traditional protein powders are in the form of whey or casein. These two proteins are naturally occurring in dairy and are concentrated out of milk to make a powder.
Whey protein is a fast-absorbing complete protein that is shown to help with strength, power, and muscle recovery after training. This is what you most commonly see in post-workout protein shakes and smoothies!
Casein Protein Powder
Casein is whey’s counterpart and is a slow-absorbing protein. It is also a complete protein and is great for athletes looking to gain/maintain muscle mass. If you are looking to maximize your nighttime recovery, I recommend taking it before bed.
Plant Protein Powder
If you are a vegan or vegetarian athlete, don’t worry there are plant-based protein powders too! Plant-based protein powder sources range from more common forms, like soy and pea proteins, to hemp and rice proteins. Soy is the only plant-based protein that is a complete protein, meaning it contains all of the essential amino acids that are needed by the body. While it does contain all essential amino acids, it contains them at a lower amount than whey or casein.
The majority of other plant proteins are not complete proteins and therefore may not optimize your recovery as they do not contain all of the essential amino acids/building blocks to optimize muscle recovery (even if your protein has “20g of protein”). This is something to be aware of when you are picking your protein. If you are looking for a plant-based protein powder that is not soy, I recommend looking into a plant-based protein powder that will be a combination of different plant sources (rice, pea, quinoa) to ensure you are getting all of the essential amino acids you need.
These supplements can increase your protein intake, which is important in building and maintaining lean muscle mass. If you want to find out more about the differences between animal/plant-based protein and which protein powder will best fit you, I recommend my “The difference between Whey and Plant-Based Protein Blog“
What is Collagen?
Collagen is one of the most abundant proteins in your body! It is a key structure in your bones, skin, tendons, and ligaments while also improving skin structure. It is usually derived from bovine (cattle) hide while protein powders can be obtained from a variety of sources. This means that there are no plant-based collagen supplements on the market, only bovine and marine!
Although collagen is a protein, it is an incomplete protein. As mentioned above, this means it does not have all the amino acids needed by the body. This means there will not be optimal muscle growth and recovery since all of the building blocks are not present.
Additionally, collagen has a different amino acid makeup than a typical whey protein powder and might be utilized slightly differently by the body. To help you decide what you should be using to boost your performance, let’s go over some of their key functions.
How Can These Supplements Help?
Like traditional plant-based protein powder, collagen isn’t a complete protein. Complete proteins are protein sources that contain all 9 essential amino acids. Collagen only contains 8 out of the 9 essential amino acids (it misses the amino acid tryptophan) and is low in two other essential amino acids (cysteine and methionine)
Well, what is so important about consuming complete proteins?
Since complete proteins contain all of the amino acids your body needs, they are used more effectively to build muscle after a workout. They will be more effective than collagen and I recommend utilizing a whey protein after training to maximize your power and strength.
So does this mean that you shouldn’t incorporate collagen if you are looking to increase your strength? Nope! Although protein powder is more effective in increasing muscle mass, collagen improves the number of force muscles can take. Collagen is rich in amino acids that benefit your tendons and ligaments.
Tendon and Ligament Health
In the sports performance world, collagen is most well known for its role in tendon and ligament health. Your body’s tendons and ligaments (think Achilles tendon, ACL, MCL, PCL) are made up of collagen that is naturally produced by the body. The ratio of amino acids in collagen has been shown to help with their strength and composition. This happens together with vitamin C.
To maximize your tendon and ligament health, I recommend pairing 15g of collagen with 50mg of vitamin C approximately 1 hour before your training or practice.
Fractures are a common injury seen in players that are overtraining and/or under-fueling. It’s important to maintain your bone health – bone-related injuries are painful and also will prevent you from getting back out on the field.
Bone density increases until your late 20’s so maximizing your bone-building and growth during this time is critical. Past your 30s, bone mass begins to decline so it’s important to take care of your bone health early on and “invest” in building strong bones.
Since collagen is one of the main structural proteins in bones, some research has suggested that collagen supplementation can decrease the rate of bone loss and prevent bone degradation. Although protein powder does not have any adverse effects on bone health, it has not been shown to improve it either. To ensure good bone health, make sure you’re fueling properly and consider supplementing collagen into your diet!
Intense training sessions and overtraining can increase inflammation and leave you feeling sore and increase your risk of injury. Fortunately, studies have shown that collagen supplementation has anti-inflammatory effects.
On account of its high glycine content, collagen has been found to reduce pain and inflammation. Additionally, collagen supplementation can speed up the recovery process of some common injuries in sports, such as torn tendons, broken bones, and wounds. This can help you recover from injuries and get back on the field to train more quickly!
How to Include Collagen and Protein Powder in Your Diet
Both collagen and protein powder supplementation have important roles in improving your performance and preventing injuries. So how can you include them in your fueling plan? Here are a few of my suggestions:
Add a scoop of protein powder and/or collagen to your oatmeal or overnight oats. It is a perfect way to incorporate collagen and protein into your diet. Additionally, it is an easy way to ensure you are getting in your vitamin C to maximize your tendon and ligament health. I recommend adding strawberries or kiwi on top! Check out my recipe for apple pie overnight oats or overnight protein oats for some inspiration!
A smoothie is a great way to sneak in protein powder and collagen into your fueling plan. Especially if you are an athlete that struggles to eat before and after training! If you want some delicious smoothie recipes, check out my creamy banana & peanut butter green smoothie and my blueberry almond milk smoothie bowl.
3. Energy Balls
If you need a fun snack on the go, try my cookie dough protein bites! You can easily add collagen and protein powder to your snacks with energy balls! Collagen and protein powder both go great in my healthy cookie dough protein bites!
Now that you know the differences between protein powder and collagen, you can decide which one to use based on your needs and goals. If your goal is primarily muscle growth, protein powder is the better option. If your goals are mainly focused on joint and bone health, collagen is likely more effective to use. In either case, make sure you choose one that is 3rd party tested to ensure you’re getting a safe and quality supplement!
Supplements are one of the things that I discuss with my athletes in the Performance Fueling Club (PFC). PFC is an online sports nutrition coaching program that helps athletes with flexible on-demand content and live nutrition coaching with a sports dietitian.
If you are looking for guidance on recovery fueling, I encourage you to sign up today. We currently have open enrollment, and I would love to help support you in getting to your goals!