Beta Alanine, how it works and who should take it.
By Sean Burke:
I’ve written before about how I’m not a big fan of most supplements. I don’t take many myself, and I’m reluctant to suggest them to my athletes. Last year, I wrote about what I do take and I recommended two supplements; quercetin, and beta-alanine. This time, I’d like to explain how beta-alanine works and who should take it.
How does it work?
Most athletes understand that over a certain level, hard work creates an acidic environment in the muscle tissue, and that an increasingly acidic environment necessitates a reduction in neuromuscular output. At some point, no matter how robust the signals are from your brain to your legs, the low ph (increasing acidit) means that the physiological and biochemical reactions required for a that muscle contraction are can no longer occur. Basically you can only pedal so hard until you have acid buildup in your legs, and then you can’t pedal anymore. Anything that can keep the pH of the muscle closer to homeostasis ( buffer the acid) can help you pedal longer and harder before you have that acid buildup and reduced muscular contractions. The majority of the buffering that occurs in skeletal muscle is done b y immobile muscle proteins, but ~40% of the buffering capacity of muscle tissue is by two di-peptides*: carnosine and anserine. Theoretically if you can increase the levels of carnosine or anserine, you can increase the buffering capacity in the muscle and therefore do more work. In fact higher carnosine levels are found in sprint athletes where the athlete creates a low pH environment, and the ability to buffer the acid contributes to athletic success. We’ve established that a robust buffering system helps improve performance, and carnosine is an excellent buffer in the skeletal muscle. So how do we increase carnosine levels and therefore buffering capacity?
Carnosine is synthesized in the muscle using two amino acids: beta -alanine and L-histidine. While both of these amino acids are essential for the production of carnosine, the levels of beta-alanine are what limit the rate that your body can synthesize carnosine. So if we can increase beta-alanine levels, we can increase carnosine levels and improve the buffering capacity of our muscles. Luckily, we can increase beta-alanine levels through supplementation.
So who should take beta-alanine?
Beta- alanine is found in the skeletal muscles of mammals, so most omnivores are going to have adequate dietary beta-alanine, but vegetarians and vegans may not. While the majority of meat eaters will have enough beta-alanine in their system, they probably don’t have enough beta-alanine for maximal performance. The evidence strongly supports the hypothesis that beta-alanine helps with sprint performance so I recommend it to almost everyone that is going to have to sprint in their event. One of my favorite studies showing this is a Belgian study** that had the participants ride for 2 hours, with a 30 second sprint at the end. That is about as close as you can get to a race simulation in the lab, and the researchers found increase of 11% and 5% in both maximal and mean 30seconds sprint power respectively. There are many other studies showing improved performance in efforts between 30 and 120 seconds, and since most mass start bike races end in some sort of sprint from either a break or a large bunch, a mass start racer would probably benefit from a beta-alanine supplement. The studies on events longer than around 2 minutes are not yet conclusive, as some researchers have found a difference and some have not, but there seems to be increasing evidence that beta-alanine improves performance in these longer events. I should note that a recent review of the literature*** noted that caution should be used as there was not much research into the safety of beta-alanine supplementation, but most studies report no side effects by participants taking the supplement, and I see no logical physiological reason to expect an adverse reaction.
How much to take and where to get it:
In the majority of the studies, participants took between 3 and 6 grams a day of the supplement for 4 weeks or longer before the testing. It is important to note that effects tend to be chronic, not acute. So the supplement must be taken for several weeks before competition and can’t just be taken the day of. I see no reason to take it during the offseason, but you should probably start about a month before your race. I’ve written before about how I take PowerBar brand beta-alanine. The PowerBar beta-alanine is NSF certified and therefore indecently tested to make ensure it contains what is says it does, nothing less, nothing more. ( Full disclaimer: I am sponsored by PowerBar, but I would recommend it even if I weren’t sponsored by them.)
Of course wiith this or any supplement, it never hurts to talk to your doctor about before you begin use.
Questions or comments? Speak your mind below, or shoot me an email: Sean@crankcycling.com
Sean Burke is the head coach and owner of Crank Cycling in San Diego CA
*A dipedtide is essentially a molecule that consists of two amino acids.
**Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2009 Apr;41(4):898-903. Beta-alanine improves sprint performance in endurance cycling. Van Thienen R, Van Proeyen K, Vanden Eynde B, Puype J, Lefere T, Hespel P. Source: Department of Biomedical Kinesiology, Research Centre for Exercise and Health, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Leuven, Belgium.
***Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2013 Aug 5. The Effects of Beta Alanine Supplementation on Performance: A Systematic Review of the Literature. Quesnele JJ, Laframboise MA, Wong JJ, Kim P, Wells GD. Source Division of Graduate Studies, Clinical Sciences, Canadian Memorial Chiropractic College, Toronto, ON, Canada.