There’s a lot of hype out there. And, despite all the hype over specific amino acids, vitamins, minerals, or other nutrients that will truly impact your ride or performance in a way that is actually worth the cost and effort of it, there are really very few that will deliver on the promise. In addition to the tried and true foundation of adequate fluids, carbs, and sodium, there’s caffeine, l-glutamine, branch chain amino acids, probiotics (especially for those with sensitive stomachs during training), and beetroot juice or powder. I’ve seen these deliver time and time again, and yes, they are all in my mad-scientist-sports-nutrition-pantry.
And, today, I’ve got another to add to the list: beta alanine. There’s a lot of research to back up this amino acid as a true game-changer for performance. When used with a 4 week loading phase and 8 week maintenance phase, studies are showing significant results that continue to last 8 more weeks (total effects of about 18 weeks). Here’s how it works and why you should care.
In a nutshell, here’s why I care: In Golden, CO, most of the rides I like are straight up. Very little warm-up, and climbing tends to be about 2000 feet elevation per 10 miles or so. Most of these trails also get a lot of use, so they are rocky and technical. This means anaerobic effort throughout my rides. I have to breath and perform through the difficult parts to not burn myself up, and then recover from it for the next climb. If this sounds familiar to you, or if your rides contain anaerobic bursts for any reason, you’ll want to care, too. It all starts with carnosine and its ability to provide a little muscular buffer.
Recipe of the Week: The Great Beta-Alanine Buffer
Beta-Alanine Pills or Powder (Here’s a good one at a good price: NOW Foods Beta Alanine Powder 500G
You can also use supplements with beta-alanine as one of the ingredients, like First Endurance Optygen. My pick from Now Nutrition has NO other ingredients).
Take 40 mg beta-alanine per kg body weight, 2 times per day (with breakfast, dinner, pre-bed shake, or pre-training snack) for 4 weeks (80 mg/kg weight total daily). Regardless of weight, do not exceed 3 grams per dose, or 6 grams per day.
Then, reduce dose to just 1 daily dose of 40 mg/kg per day. Again, take it with breakfast, dinner, pre-bed shake or pre-training snack). Take this dose for an additional 8 weeks (40 mg/kg weight total daily). Effects should continue once dose is stopped for additional 6-8 weeks. You may see the best results for performance when using your does in pre-training nutrition.
Important stuff – You’re basically going to be taking doses of 2-3 grams, depending on weight. DO NOT combine the 2 daily doses into 1, and never exceed a single dose of 6 grams. If you’re unaccustomed to supplemental beta-alanine, you will likely feel skin-tingling that lasts 15-30 minutes after taking your dose. Most report feeling it in their hands. I report feeling it in hands, feet, and ears (geesh). It’s harmless.
For example, my protocol, at 50 kg body weight, is 2000 mg or 2 gm twice per day for 4 weeks, and then one 2-gm dose for 8 weeks.
As I said, it starts (and ends) with Carnosine. Carnosine is a dipeptide, or combination of two amino acids, composed of histidine and beta-alanine. By the way, you can always tell an amino acid by its name – either ends in –ine or –ic acid…for example, glutamine or glutamic acid – just a little amino acid trivia for you.
Anyway, carnosine occurs naturally in the brain, cardiac muscle, kidney, and stomach, as well as in relatively large amounts in skeletal muscles, specifically the fast-twitch muscle fiber responsible for explosive movements. Of course, those athletes who have trained their muscles for explosive movements, tend to store more canosine (but wait, it can help us endurance athletes as well).
As you exercise, pH levels in your muscles drop during anaerobic metabolism due to extra hydrogen ions. It’s this natural drop that reduces your ability to maintain a “sprint” pace or explosive movement for long periods of time. Carnosine contributes to the buffering of hydrogen ions, thus slowing this pH drop. In fact, carnosine is very effective at buffering the hydrogen ions responsible for producing the ill effects of lactic acid. Carnosine is believed to be one of the primary muscle buffering substances available in skeletal muscle.
So, why not just eat some extra carnosine? Unfortunately, carnosine is rapidly degraded into beta-alanine and histidine as soon as it enters the blood through the activity of the enzyme carnosinase. Your body can put it back together, but it’s an inefficient reaction. However, your body will more efficiently use dietary beta-alanine, which is the rate-limiting substance in this reaction, with existing histidine. These two compounds are transported into the skeletal muscle and to be resynthesized into carnosine.
In fact, multiple studies have demonstrated that 28 days of beta-alanine supplementation at a dosage of 3 to 6 g/day resulted in an increase of intramuscular levels of carnosine by approximately 45-60% (Harris et al. 2005; Zoeller et al. 2007).
Of course, the research hasn’t always been perfect, consistent, of conclusive. Much of it has been done in relatively small groups of different types of athletes. Some have shown great results, while others have shown lesser results with “trends” towards performance improvements. These have been statistically insignificant, but still positive. Others have shown no change.
As far as negative results, there have been some instances of a skin tingling sensation that can last for up to an hour. While shorter skin tingling can be common, this drastic result has occurred with very large single dose of over 8 grams beta-alanine.
In terms of endurance athletes, we all know that effects of lactic acid build-up slows us as well. Although our sports are comprised of more moderate-intensity pacing at times, we certainly have to “explode” or “kick” from time to time to pass, get up a hill, etc (or maybe that’s just your style all the time). During these times, beta-alanine can have positive effects by buffering hydrogen ions, leaving us feeling better and performing better during the anaerobic pushes and subsequent aerobic ones. What’s more, interval and explosive training workouts will benefit from supplementation, which means your body will better adapt to your new levels of performance, and this will result in lasting physiological changes that impact longer rides and races.
If you’d like to read more of the actual research, check out these studies:
1) Harris R. C. Muscle Carnosine elevation with supplementation and training, and the effects of elevation on exercise performance. (ISSN conference, 2005).
2) Harris RC, et al; The absorption of orally supplied beta-alanine and its effect on muscle carnosine sythesis in human vastus lateralis. Amino Acids; 2006 May; 30 (3): 279-289.
3) Hill CA, Harris RC, Kim HJ, Harris BD, Sale C, Boobis LH, Kim CK, Wise JA; Influence of beta-alanine supplementation on skeletal muscle carnosine concentrations and high intensity cycling capacity. Amino Acids. 2007 Feb: 32(2) 225-33
4) Pottier, A, Ozdemir M, Reyngoudt H, Koppo K, Hrris R, Wise J, Achten E, Derave W. Beta-Alanine supplementation augments muscle carnosine contenct and attenuates fatigue in trained sprinters. Medicine and Health Sciences, Belgium; ECSS July 2007.
5) 2015 Review: Blancquaert L1, Everaert I, Derave W. Beta-alanine supplementation, muscle carnosine and exercise performance. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. 2015 Jan;18(1):63-70.
6) Van Theinen’s 2009 study done on trained cyclists showed beta-alanine can improve sprint performance at the end of an exhaustive endurance exercise by 11.4%.
7) The Smith 2009 double-blind study done on recreationally active college men supplementing with beta-alanine for six weeks while undergoing high-intensity interval training (HIIT) showed significant improvements in VO2peak, VO2 time to fatigue versus a group using a placebo.
8) The Stout 2007 double-blind study done on 22 trained women supplementing with beta-alanine for 28 days performing on cycle ergometers showed a significant improvement in ventilatory threshold, physical working capacity at fatigue threshold and time to exhaustion.
9) The Suzuki 2002 study looked at untrained men and trained them two days per week on cycle ergometers for 8 weeks. This double-blind study showed significant increase in sustainability of high power during 30-second maximal cycle ergometer sprinting.
This week, you can decide if this one’s for you or not. You can join me in seeing if this simple, natural amino acid can really make a difference in your anaerobic performance and recovery. If you’re going to push your body, it’s important to realize it can easily become deficient in specific nutrients, even on a good diet. Give it the nutrients it needs to continue to improve and be your best…and don’t mind that silly skin-tingling.
Fuel Your Adventure. Nourish Your Body.
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