Alpha Beta

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In the gym or on the field of play, for many of us, second place is not an option. Humans by nature are hard-wired for the pursuit of victory. Indeed, this need has shaped the course of history, from the waging of war to the conquest of new lands to the founding of the Olympic Games in 776 B.C.

This interminable quest continues on today, and not just for those on a grand stage. It’s happening in makeshift basement weight rooms, on muddy backwood trails, around the slightly askew chain-link hoop at the local park. We all drive to lift just a little more than last time, to lop two more seconds off our personal best, to hit a three over the outstretched hands of a defender — and when we accomplish those things, we’re never satisfied and soon back to do it again, but just a little bit better.

For those of you who relate, we have a supplement to tell you about. In study after study, it has proved its mettle on many fronts. Research has revealed that, when paired with a regular exercise regimen, it can help increase lean body mass, reduce fatigue, enhance endurance levels and improve performance. What is this supplement with such a winning edge? None other than the amino acid beta-alanine. Here we delve deeper into three of its top attributes.

No. 1: Fatigue Fighter

The bonk. Running on empty. Hitting the wall. All phrases to describe a very frustrating end to an otherwise scintillating training session. However, beta-alanine, a nonessential amino that helps improve levels of carnosine in the body, can delay the onset of exhaustion, as shown in the November 2006 Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.

In that study, untrained men who took beta-alanine (1.6 grams four times per day for six days, then twice per day for 22 days) exhibited delays in the onset of neuromuscular fatigue compared to men who took a placebo or creatine monohydrate. One reason beta-alanine may be useful for staving off fatigue is its ability to act as a hydrogen ion buffer, according to a study in the February 2009 Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. “Hydrogen ion accumulation is an attribute of muscle fatigue,” explains Abbie E. Smith, MS, CSCS, CISSN, a Ph.D. candidate at the Metabolic and Body Composition Laboratory, Department of Health and Exercise Science, University of Oklahoma, and lead author of the study. “When these ions build up and the body can no longer buffer them, it causes a drop in pH.”

Smith and her colleagues demonstrated that men who combined high-intensity interval training with beta-alanine (1.6 grams four times daily for three weeks, then twice daily for another three weeks) experienced an increase in endurance performance.

It’s the “loading phase” that is key with beta-alanine, Smith says. Taking 6.4 grams of beta-alanine total per day for three to four weeks — rather than taking more acute doses — is a better strategy to reap results.

No. 2: Muscle Builder

Smith and her colleagues also showed that beta-alanine can affect body composition when combined with exercise. Specifically, the men in their study gained lean body mass compared to the men who used weight training alone.

In other research, focusing on college football players and reported in the August 2006 International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, the muscle-building effects of beta-alanine were demonstrated further. Players who took a combination of beta-alanine and creatine for 10 weeks during a resistance-training program showed significant results in terms of lean tissue and body-fat composition. In addition, the players taking the supplement combo also demonstrated improved strength compared to men taking a placebo.

It is that kind of finding that has brought nutrition experts onboard with beta-alanine supplementation. “I’d recommend [beta-alanine] for someone who wants to increase muscle mass because it has been shown to increase the ability to lift weight and therefore build muscle,” says Hana Feeney, MS, RD, CSSD, an Arizona-based nutritionist who’s board certified in sports dietetics.

No. 3: Endurance Enhancer

In the realm of performance, beta-alanine may help athletes train with more intensity for an increased period. “[Beta-alanine is] particularly effective for endurance athletes,” Feeney says. “[In studies], it has been shown to improve endurance. It works as a buffer, which allows you to work at a higher intensity level for a longer time before reaching exhaustion.”

Many studies focus on cyclists but not all. Research presented in the January 2008 issue of Nutrition Research showed that college football players who took 4.5 grams per day of beta-alanine starting three weeks before preseason training camp, and for nine days during, were able to complete significantly more activity than those who took a placebo. Specifically, the players were able to do more bench-press and other resistance exercises than the guys who didn’t take the supplement. The football players who took beta-alanine also experienced less fatigue during the Wingate Anaerobic Power Test, which measures peak mechanical output.

Beta-alanine also seems to boost muscular endurance during resistance training. According to a study in the December 2008 International Journal of Sports Medicine, men who took 4.8 grams per day of beta-alanine for 30 days exhibited significant improvements in muscular endurance during resistance training compared to those given a placebo.

Furthermore, beta-alanine can significantly improve sprint performance at the end of endurance exercise, as noted in an April 2009 study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. Trained cyclists took 2.4 grams per day of beta-alanine or placebo for eight weeks, and those taking the supplement had 11.4 percent more peak power and 5 percent more power on average during the final sprint of a 110-minute simulated race than those taking a placebo.

Beta Basics A side effect you may experience with beta-alanine supplements is a tingling sensation. Called paresthesia, the tingling is not dangerous but tends to make some people nervous. Rest assured, Feeney says, it is normal. The feeling diminishes over time in some people. Take beta-alanine with food, or at least not on an empty stomach, to help minimize tingling.

On supplement shelves, you can find beta-alanine on its own or as part of a preworkout or energy formula. The typical dosage recommendations range from 3 grams to 6.5 grams per day, often split into four doses, according to Feeney. “I would recommend starting at the lower end, maybe 800 milligrams twice a day and build up to four times per day to see how it affects performance,” she says. “Ideally, you’ll see improvements in the amount of weight you can lift, the reps you can complete, or if you are an endurance athlete, you’re able to go harder, longer.” Just the thing you need when nothing less than first place will do.

The Carnosine Connection

Taking supplemental beta-alanine can boost the body’s carnosine production, which can be helpful during training, according to a study in the November 2007 Journal of Applied Physiology. Specifically, the study showed that male athletes who took beta-alanine had significant increases in carnosine concentrations in their lower leg muscles. The athletes also experienced less fatigue during dynamic and repeated maximal leg-extension exercises.

Beta-alanine is what’s known as a “rate-limiting precursor” of carnosine — it combines with another amino acid, histidine, in the body to form carnosine, but it is the beta-alanine that limits this reaction, according to the lead author of the study, Wim Derave, Ph.D., Department of Movement and Sports Sciences, Ghent University, Ghent, Belgium.

The reason a boost in muscle carnosine helps athletes is “still a matter of debate,” Derave says. “Some researchers believe that the main effect is the pH-buffering. Carnosine can probably make your muscle less acidic. Because acidosis is believed to contribute to fatigue, high carnosine concentrations can protect the muscle from extreme acidity and allow [the athlete] to exercise longer at high intensity,” he says.

Another theory is that carnosine interferes with calcium and acts as an antioxidant, Derave adds. “In my view, it is probably a bit of both, but we need more research to find out,” he concludes.