The Best Protein for Exercise Recovery

Protein for Exercise Recovery

You can walk down the health aisle, scroll through social media or visit your gym, and everyone’s discussing protein. Yet, which is the best type? Animal protein? Plant protein? Whey? Casein? Many personal trainers may disagree with me, but as someone with an advanced degree in exercise science, I can confidently say that collagen is the best protein for exercise recovery. 

For one, collagen is the most abundant protein in your body. It’s in your hair, skin, gut, nails, joints, and muscles. 

Getting enough protein is crucial to repair muscles, promote lean muscle growth, and optimal recovery if you’re active. Collagen is often overlooked because whey and casein have been touted for decades as superior proteins. However, collagen provides many more benefits necessary for exercise recovery. 

Let me tell you why collagen is the best protein for exercise recovery and why virtually everyone over 30 should supplement collagen. 

Table of Contents

What is Collagen?

Collagen makes up 30% of your body’s protein. It’s the glue that keeps your body together. Collagen provides structure, support, or strength to your muscles, skin, bones, and connective tissues.[1] While there are 16 strains of collagen proteins, most collagen comes from five types– type I, II, III, V, and X.[2]

Collagen is naturally produced in your body, but production decreases as you age. In fact, the collagen found in your body begins to deplete faster than it’s made by age 40. By age 60, nearly half of your body’s collagen stores have been depleted.[3]

Nineteen essential and nonessential amino acids are in collagen molecules. An essential amino acid can only be obtained by eating foods containing them, such as tryptophan, lysine, and histidine. Nonessential amino acids, such as glutamine, glycine, proline, and arginine, are produced in your body. 

In some cases, such as stress and illness, nonessential amino acids are classified as conditional, which means they become essential under certain situations. Conditional amino acids include glycine, proline, glutamine, cysteine, arginine, tyrosine, serine, and ornithine.

The three vital amino acids needed for collagen production are glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline. Hydroxyproline is not found in other proteins and gets synthesized from proline.

Since exercise is physical stress on your body, you may need to supplement to get the conditional amino acids required to make collagen for your joints and muscles. The only way to do that is with a good collagen protein supplement. Yet, that’s not the only reason collagen is the best protein for exercise recovery. 

Why Collagen Protein is Best for Recovery

Collagen is not just a vital protein; it’s crucial for exercise recovery. Here are five ways collagen protein is the superior protein for exercise recovery. 

1. The Amino Acid Profile

Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. While collagen isn’t a complete protein, it has a robust amino acid profile, including eight of nine essential amino acids. Here are the eight amino acids found in collagen protein:[4]

  • Leucine: Promotes the production of human growth hormone, one of the hormones produced during exercise. It also regulates energy levels. 
  • Lysine: Promotes hormone production while supporting muscle building and bone strength.
  • Isoleucine: Helps heal wounds and regulates energy levels.
  • Threonine: Needed to create glycine and serine for collagen production
  • Phenylalanine: Facilitates the release of feel-good hormones during exercise, including endorphins and dopamine. 
  • Histidine: Helps the repair and growth of muscle tissues.
  • Methionine: Supports healthy hair, skin, and nails.
  • Valine: Promotes muscle growth and tissue repair. 

Considering the amino acid profile of collagen, you can see why it is the best protein for exercise recovery.  

2. Collagen Facilitates Creatine Production

I bet you didn’t know that collagen supports creatine production in your muscles. Creatine is an amino acid found primarily in your muscles and brain. Glycine and arginine are needed to create creatine in your muscles, where it is stored for energy to get you through your workouts. Creatine promotes recovery during exercise and increases lean muscle mass. 

Several studies indicate that those who supplement collagen had more available creatine than those who used other forms of protein after workouts.[5] One study in men with muscle loss due to age found that those who used collagen supplements within 60 minutes of their training experienced increased lean muscle mass and strength.[6]

3. Collagen Supports Bone and Joint Health

Exercise can be strenuous on your joints, especially if you continuously jump, ride a bike, or run. One of the better-known benefits of collagen is that it protects and lubricates your joints. Collagen also has been shown to reduce inflammation in the joints and protect them from injury. 

4. Collagen Promotes Lean Muscle Mass

Whey protein is the gold standard for muscle growth. However, some people have a difficult time digesting whey protein. If you are a bodybuilder or underweight, whey protein is a better choice if you can tolerate it. However, if you aren’t a bodybuilder or underweight, collagen protein is a better option because it builds lean muscle mass and promotes weight loss.[7]

5. Collagen Supports Growth of Connective Tissue

Collagen is part of every connective tissue in your body. Types of connective tissue include bones, cartilage, fat, blood, and lymphatic tissue.[8] These connective tissues can become damaged from too much exercise. Collagen can provide more building blocks to promote damaged connective tissues to rebuild and resynthesize. Studies show that collagen helps your body recover faster from injuries because of this benefit.[9]

Because of these five reasons, I believe collagen protein is the best protein for exercise recovery. Yet, the truth is collagen is the best protein for optimal health. Collagen can help repair a leaky gut, supports heart health, and improve the look and feel of your hair, skin, and nails. 

While some argue that whey protein is superior, there’s one small factor people fail to consider about whey protein.

The Problem with Whey Protein

Whey protein is one of the two proteins found in cow milk. The other protein is casein. Whey protein powders usually go by one of three names– whey protein concentrate, isolate, and hydrolysate. The whey protein is separated from the casein protein and lactose during manufacturing. However, this process is never 100% successful. 

Whey protein concentrate and isolate products still contain significant amounts of casein and lactose. Casein has a similar molecular structure to gluten, and 68% of the world’s population is lactose intolerant.[10] If you are sensitive to gluten or lactose, whey protein could cause digestive problems. 

The other issue is the source. Many whey protein powders are not sourced from cows that were grass-fed and grass-finished, meaning they ate grass from pasture to slaughter. Even if the whey protein powder says it is sourced from grass-fed cows, the cow the protein came from received supplemental grains at some point. Why does this matter?

If a cow was fed grains, those grains contained genetically modified organisms (GMOs), growth hormones, and antibiotics. All those toxins make their way into your whey protein powder and your body when you use them, which adds to your body’s toxic burden. 

I don’t want anyone to feel like I’m anti-whey protein. If you use whey protein and it works for you, and you don’t have any digestive problems, do what’s best for you. As with whey protein, the source and type of collagen matter. 

Types and Sources of Collagen

The bones of cows and chickens, the skin of chickens, fatty fish, and the membrane of eggs all contain collagen. As with whey protein, the source of the cow, chicken, fish, and eggs is essential to ensure it’s free of hormones, GMOs, and antibiotics. Each source provides different types of collagen, and each type offers various benefits. 

Type I

Type I collagen accounts for 90% of your body’s total collagen. It is found in the dermis layer of your skin, which makes your skin flexible and elastic. This type of collagen provides structure to your hair, skin, bones, joints, teeth, and cartilage. It helps keep your bones strong and promotes a youthful appearance in your skin. This collagen type is found in beef, bone broth, and eggshells. 

Type II

Type II collagen is more packed together than type I collagen. This type of collagen promotes joint health and helps support digestive and immune system function. Type II collagen has also been shown to reduce inflammation in your joints. Chicken skin and chicken bone broth are excellent sources of type II collagen. 

Type III

Type III collagen gives your organs, muscles, and blood vessels structure. It also promotes lean muscle growth and aids in wound healing. The best sources of type III collagen are beef, bone broth, and wild-caught fatty fish. 

Type V

Type V collagen is vital for expecting mothers because it supports neonatal development and is found in a pregnant mother’s placenta. It also supports eye health and regulates the growth of collagen fibers. You can only find this collagen type in eggshell membranes or multi-collagen supplements. 

Type X

Type X doesn’t get the popularity or hype that Type II receives, but it’s still important. This type of collagen plays a vital role in the health of your joints and bones. It’s primarily found in the membranes of egg shells and the skin of chickens.

Collagen is essential to whole body health, not just for exercise recovery. A disturbing statistic is that only 14% of the Standard American Diet (SAD) is protein, and virtually none of that is collagen protein. 

If you’re saying, “I don’t eat meat. Is plant protein a good substitute?” I have bad news for you. 

Is Plant-Based Protein a Good Substitute?

Protein from animals is vastly superior to plant protein. Animal protein has a significantly higher amount of protein than plant protein, and you cannot get collagen from plants. Another issue is the source of plant protein. 

Soy is the most common source of plant protein and is well-touted as a complete source of protein. Moreover, one cup of soy contains a whopping 68 grams of protein. So what’s the problem?

Soy is derived from processed soybeans, and almost every soybean in the United States is genetically modified and sprayed with pesticides. GMOs are linked to thyroid disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and kidney disease.[11] Furthermore, soy is a legume and can be inflammatory food for some people. 

Pea protein is also a popular plant-based protein. However, pea protein has a relatively low protein content and does not contain several essential amino acids.  

Plant-based proteins are typically poorly absorbed and slowly digested due to their high fiber content. Because of this, the amino acids may not be bioavailable to build the proteins. 

Considerations When Buying Collagen

We’ve all seen products labeled collagen peptides. This means the proteins have been hydrolyzed or broken down into tiny, easy-to-digest particles to make them more absorbable. Collagen is notoriously known for its poor absorption and inability to make it through the digestive process. Getting collagen powder in peptide form is easily absorbed in the gut. 

I’ve touched on this, but pay attention to the labels. Does it say “organic,” “grass-fed,” or “grass-finished?” If it’s not from organic sources, there’s a chance it contains pesticides, antibiotics, growth hormones, or GMOs through cross-contamination. Look for collagen sourced from grass-fed, pasture-raised, or certified organic.

Also, packaged collagen water and collagen capsules aren’t going to contain enough collagen, if any at all, to get any benefits of collagen supplementation. 

Final Thoughts on Collagen

If you want to add protein to your daily routine, collagen is the best protein for exercise recovery. Most collagen powders contain up to 20g of collagen protein per serving! Collagen provides many benefits for optimal health, and you don’t have to worry about dairy found in whey and casein. 

If you want to learn more about adding collagen to your diet or the benefits of collagen, schedule a free discovery call, and let me help you get on the path of Living Very Well™.

About Michael

Michael is a functional health coach and sports nutritionist based in Austin, Texas. He has a master’s degree in kinesiology from the University of Texas and advanced certification in sports nutrition from the International Society of Sports Nutrition.