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Beta Alanine is a very popular supplement in the world of fitness and athletic performance, and as such is found in many pre workout, intra workout and other products which promise to improve performance, recovery, time to exhaustion and endurance.

It’s also one of the main ingredients in Awesome Performance Blend and Awesome Pre Workout – but why? What’s the deal?

Beta Alanine (B.A) is a modified version of the amino acid alanine. Upon digestion and processing, your body converts it into a substance known as carnosine, and it is in fact this carnosine which we are looking for. Carnosine is naturally produced in a certain amount by your muscles, but under normal circumstances we don’t have a great deal of BA to use, meaning that BA is considered the ‘rate limiting factor’ of carnosine production. Adding more BA will reliably increase carnosine storage levels in muscle tissue.

Supplementing with straight up carnosine would make a lot of logical sense but this is less effective at raising your serum carnosine levels, owing to the fact that it doesn’t survive digestion very well, so the precursor version is the sports supplement of choice.

Though many pre workouts have it in doses ranging from 500mg (for reasons I’ll go in to later in this article), the generally accepted daily dose of B.A is around 3-4g per day.

Carnosine levels in your muscles (where it is stored) improve incrementally over a few weeks upon starting to supplement, and top out after a month or so. It is these stored levels which you ‘use’ during a training session, and not the B.A that you take on that specific day, meaning that specific timing isn’t beneficial, and that constant use (rather than only taking on training days) is heavily advised. As such, those who take BA only in their preworkout products will not get the benefits which they are after, unless they train every single day.

B.A promises a lot, but does it deliver? Let’s take each claim in turn.

Muscle Endurance

To clarify, here we aren’t talking about endurance racing, we are talking about muscle endurance, the kind of thing which encompasses activity between 1 and 4 minutes, so a high rep set in the gym, the kind of running involved in team sports, or a round of a combat sport like MMA. That kind of thing.

There is a lot of data backing up the efficacy of beta alanine for this purpose, with a strong trend for improving time to exhaustion (1). The reason this is likely due to the way that carnosine ‘works’ in the muscle cells.

During intense exercise lasting around 1-5 minutes, you experience a build up of lactic acid, which quickly breaks down into lactate and positively charged Hydrogen ions. The lactate is actually a good thing, and it’s fed back into your cells to be used as a secondary energy source – a reaction which is necessary for your body to squeeze as much fuel out of your food as possible.

The H+ ions, however, are a different ball game. What they do is decrease the local environment’s pH and make it acidic. This is why you feel ‘the burn’ during a high rep set of lateral raises, or one reason your shoulders burn when throwing punches for a long time. Carnosine is able to ‘buffer’ these ions to some degree, meaning that you increase your time to exhaustion and decrease subjective feelings of fatigue(2). This is the primary mechanism by which BA can help an athlete.

Anerobic Running Capacity

In much the same way as the above, Beta Alanine shows promise at improving anaerobic performance. This is likely due to the above mentioned improvements in muscle endurance, though, rather than by any action directly on the cardiovascular system. This seems to be the case as while an improvement is seen in time to exhaustion (3), there doesn’t appear to be an improvements in VO2 max (4) which would have indicated otherwise.

Improving body composition

BA shows some potential at improving body composition, in that supplementing it appears to increase muscle mass (5) while decreasing fat mass (6) but we must be careful here. As we have already seen, BA can allow you to train with higher volume, which can lead to these kinds of improvements all by itself. Though Beta Alanine supplementation may have been the catalyst, these body comp changes are almost certainly down to the subjects being able to train harder, rather than because of any inherent effect of the supplement itself.

B.A promises a lot, but does it deliver? Let’s take each claim in turn.


Limitations

So far it all seems rosy, but the fact is that a lot of people will not get much or any benefit from BA supplementation. If your sport/training never involves anything over a minute (powerlifters and Olympic lifters come to mind, as do golfers, cricket players and throwers/jumpers, then you have no need to worry about lactic acid buildup.

These athletes should focus their attention on creatine monohydrate instead.

Another thing to consider is that BA has one side effect which is harmless, but it’s still somewhat annoying: Parasthesia.

When you ingest beta alanine in a high dose, there is an innervation of histamine receptors under your skin. These are the things which detect allergic reactions and make you itch, and this is why sometimes beta alanine can make it feel like you have bees on your face and ants in your hair. The effect is completely harmless and will go away in time, as well as happening to a much smaller degree with continued BA use over a few weeks, but it’s still annoying enough to want to mediate.

To do this, take BA in 3-4 doses during the day and have it with food (This could be splitting your Performance Blend over 4 sittings and drinking it alongside a meal). If you are using Awesome Pre Workout, consider drinking half of the bottle around 90 minutes before training and the other half, 30 minutes before training – the effects of the product will still happen, but you might be a bit more comfortable.

This, incidentally, is why a lot of supplement manufacturers but small doses of BA in pre workout drinks. It makes your face itch and makes you think the product is ‘working’, when really you’re just getting the side effect. You don’t have to get the tingles to benefit from the supplement!

(that said, some weirdo’s such as myself quite like the feeling. Go figure)

Final Thoughts

So there you have it. Beta Alanine shows great promise in improving performance over 1-6 minutes or so which should be of massive benefit for fighters looking to improve their training capacity, sportsmen performing on the pitch, bodybuilders using high repetition work, 800+ metre runners, rowers, crossfitters and swimmers. It probably won’t help you during low rep resistance training sessions, nor during long duration exercise which isn’t intense enough to cause lactic acid accumulation, but it will certainly help if that endurance race includes hill climbs or overtaking!

References

  1. Hobson RM et al. “Effects of β-alanine supplementation on exercise performance: a meta-analysis.” Amino Acids. 2012 Jul;43(1):25-37. doi: 10.1007/s00726-011-1200-z.
  2. Hoffman JR et al. “Short-duration Beta-alanine Supplementation Increases Training Volume And Reduces Subjective Feelings Of Fatigue In College Football Players” Nutr Res. 2008 Jan;28(1):31-5. doi: 10.1016/j.nutres.2007.11.004.
  3. Sweeney KM et al. “The effect of beta-alanine supplementation on power performance during repeated sprint activity.” J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Jan;24(1):79-87. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181c63bd5.
  4. Stout JR et al. “Effects of b-alanine supplementation on the onset of neuromuscular fatigue and ventilatory threshold in women” Amino Acids (2006) DOI 10.1007/s00726-006-0474-z
  5. Kern BD et al. “Effects of β-alanine supplementation on performance and body composition in collegiate wrestlers and football players.” J Strength Cond Res. 2011 Jul;25(7):1804-15. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181e741cf.
  6. Walter AA et al. “Six weeks of high-intensity interval training with and without beta-alanine supplementation for improving cardiovascular fitness in women.” J Strength Cond Res. 2010 May;24(5):1199-207. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181d82f8b.

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