How to Fuel for Optimal Tendon and Ligament Health

Picture this: you’ve been killing it in weight and field training, and you make sure to stretch afterwards! You head home after your nighttime practice to make a delicious post-practice meal, then get a restful 8 hours of sleep at night. However, your joints still feel achy even after having a seemingly perfect recovery routine. What more can you do? Believe it or not, a solid fueling plan will help you support your tendon and ligament health!

What are Tendons and Ligaments?

What makes up a joint? A joint is a place where two or more bones meet. Ligaments are a type of thick, dense, and relatively stiff connective tissue. Ligaments, like your ACL and ankle ligaments, stabilize your joints and ensure that your bones stay in place.

Tendons are another type of connective tissue that connect muscle to bone. Tendons are more elastic than ligaments. During muscle contraction, tendons help muscles pull on the bones they attach to in order to create movement. 

What are tendons and ligaments made of?

Ligaments and tendons are both composed of specialized proteins called collagen. Collagen also provides structure to skin, bones, and muscle. It’s also found in your eyes, teeth and gums, and blood vessels. 

Amino Acids in Collagen

Amino acids are the building blocks of all proteins. There are 20 amino acids in the human body. Collagen contains different amino acids compared to other proteins such as whey or casein, which is why it has specialized functions. However, unlike whey or casein, collagen is not a complete protein. As a result, collagen won’t be useful in muscle building. This is why these three protein types aren’t truly interchangeable.

The four amino acids that are especially important to collagen are glycine, proline, hydroxyproline, and hydroxylysine. These amino acids provide collagen fibers with maximal strength. The collagen “rope” may not be as strong if any of these amino acids are lacking, and this may result in reduced ligament and tendon strength. 

How to Strengthen Your Tendons and Ligaments

In order to strengthen your ligaments and tendons, it is important to fuel and exercise in a way that supports collagen formation! Exercise stimulates collagen formation, so you’re likely already training in a way that supports strong tendons and ligaments! As a female athlete, though, taking care of your joints is even more critical. Some research has found reduced collagen formation and ligament function due to estrogen, so it is especially important for you to fuel in a way that supports healthy joints. 

You know how intense a training session can be! Soccer is a high-impact sport that puts a lot of physical stress on your joints. Improved ligament and tendon strength will enable you to withstand impact during sprints, jumps, and even falls. This will help prevent injuries like strains, dislocations, and even the dreaded ACL tear!

Collagen in Foods

Now it’s time for the big question: where can I get these nutrients to support my ligaments and tendons? Well, I’m glad you asked! Natural collagen is only found in animals, so there are no natural sources of vegan collagen. Food sources of collagen include fish, chicken, egg whites, and red meat. 

If you’re a plant-based athlete, don’t fret! There are many plant-based foods that contain certain amino acids that may help build strong collagen fibers. Asparagus, mushroom, and cabbage contain proline. Alfalfa sprouts contain hydroxyproline. Finally, beans, nuts, and seeds contain glycine. 

Can I just eat collagen by itself?

Collagen is about more than just the individual amino acids! A variety of nutrients support the creation of strong collagen fibers, and one of the most important vitamins is vitamin C. Remember hydroxyproline? This amino acid is made from proline, which was another important collagen-forming amino acid. The conversion of proline to hydroxyproline requires vitamin C. In fact, eating gelatin, a collagen-containing food, with a vitamin C supplement was shown to enhance collagen synthesis even more than just eating gelatin alone! Iron is a mineral that has a similar effect on the formation of hydroxyproline, while the mineral copper helps in the formation of hydroxylysine from lysine. Other important nutrients in the formation of collagen include sulfur, chlorophyll, and zinc. 

What food sources have these nutrients? Vitamin C-containing foods include citrus fruits, berries, tropical fruits, green vegetables, tomatoes, and bell peppers. Meat, fish, poultry, nuts, tofu, and legumes contain iron. Beans, cashews, and shellfish contain copper, while red meat, seafood, dairy, and cashews have zinc. Green leafy vegetables are a great source of chlorophyll, while garlic and eggs contain high amounts of sulfur. 

Vitamin C, Iron, Copper, Sulfur, Chlorophyll, and Zinc support collagen formation in your body!

What about a collagen supplement?

There are many collagen supplements out there, and they have shown to be beneficial in reducing joint pain among college-aged athletes. However, it’s important to have a solid fueling foundation before integrating collagen supplements into your routine! Under-fueling forces your body to work harder to support vital processes in your body such as your heartbeat and breathing. We can see this in female athletes who lose their period: under-fueling makes our body shift resources away from reproduction since it isn’t considered a “vital function.” Tendon and ligament repair is also not considered a “vital function.” The amino acids in the supplement may be shuttled away from collagen synthesis, so you may not reap the benefits you wish to see if taking a collagen supplement while under-fueling.

If you’re fueling enough, training well, and just want an extra boost to your tendon and ligament health, check out my Collagen Supplements for Athletes blog to learn more about these supplements! Otherwise, there are foods you can eat to support your tendon and ligament health, too!

Can Collagen Formation be Prevented?

Your training plus a fueling plan containing the above nutrients is a great way to support your ligament and tendon health. However, there are some things that may reduce collagen formation. Foods high in sugar or refined carbohydrates and UV exposure may interfere with collagen structure. The chemicals from smoking or breathing in secondhand smoke may also interfere with collagen formation. 

Meals that Support Tendon and Ligament Health

Here are some meals you can include throughout the week to support your ligament and tendon health!

Pasta with Homemade Bone Broth Tomato Sauce

Bone broth is somewhat similar to vegetable stock. It is made by simmering animal bones and cartilage with vegetables and spices in water. The collagen leaches into the water, making the water a nutritious source of collagen! You can drink bone broth on its own or add it to soup and rice dishes. Instead of buying a pre-made marinara sauce, try out this bone broth tomato sauce! The bone broth adds a rich flavor to the sauce.

Try making tomato sauce using bone broth for a rich, tasty, collagen-packed meal!

Stir-Fry

Stir-fry meals are versatile and colorful! You can add a variety of vegetables and proteins to your liking for a nutrient-dense meal. 

A flavorful stir fry sauce can have a mixture of soy sauce, ginger, garlic, honey, and sesame oil. Beef, chicken, or salmon pairs well with bell peppers and broccoli! My vegetarian and vegan athletes can try a tofu, mushroom, bell pepper, and broccoli stir fry, too!

Gelatin Gummies

Collagen is extracted from cow or pig bones/hides to form gelatin, making gelatin a rich source of this protein. It often comes in a colorless and flavorless powder that you can use to make your own gelatin snack!

Pre-Training Collagen “Shot” or PB&J Smoothie

When it comes to taking a collagen supplement, the research has shown it to be most beneficial when consumed before training and most effective when paired with vitamin C. Add this simple collagen “shot” to your pre-training fuel, or try out this PB&J Smoothie before practice to support healthy joints!

Conclusion

Ligaments and tendons stabilize and support joints during high-impact activities. It’s important that you train and fuel properly in order to prevent injury and improve recovery. Increasing collagen, which is the protein that forms ligaments and tendons, will make your joints much more durable and stable during training. Collagen is primarily an animal protein, but you can still find the components of collagen in foods such as mushrooms, alfalfa sprouts, and beans. In order for our bodies to use collagen efficiently, other nutrients must be present, such as vitamin C from citrus fruits, iron from meat and legumes, and other minerals from nuts. While collagen supplements are a quick and easy way to support your tendon and ligament health, it’s important that the rest of your fueling plan and lifestyle supports optimal joint recovery, too!

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