Beta alanine is fast becoming one of the most popular and widely used natural supplements on the market- its potential benefits for exercise performance perhaps only second to creatine. Now that ought to spark your interest!
Beta alanine supplements have mainly been shown to enhance performance in high intensity anaerobic exercise lasting between 1 and 4 minutes. Modest benefits, however, have also been suggested for activities, which rely more heavily on the aerobic energy system. More details on all of that a bit later.
Right now, all you need to know is that whether you’re looking to make serious gains in your HIIT workouts, or you’re trying to maximize your physical performance on the sports field, then beta alanine supplements should absolutely be part of your nutritional plan!
What is Beta alanine?
Beta alanine is a naturally occurring non-essential beta amino acid found primarily in meat, fish and poultry (2 g per cup of roast chicken). Unlike most amino acids in the body, it is not used for protein synthesis but instead, together with L-histidine, helps to produce carnosine. Carnosine is a naturally occurring dipeptide stored in your skeletal muscle with numerous physiological functions. More on the potential benefits of these a little later.
The average person has around 20-30 mmol/ kg (9-14 mmol/lb) of dry weight. There is currently no knowledge of an upper limit of carnosine within skeletal muscle and it is thought that beta alanine supplements can increase these baseline levels quite significantly. For instance, a daily intake of 4-6g of beta alanine for 4 weeks has been shown to increase muscle carnosine concentrations by 64%, with levels raising by 80% after 10 weeks.
Now you’re probably wondering why the concentration of carnosine in your muscles is so important. Well here it is! Carnosine helps to reduce lactic acid accumulation in your muscles during short duration anaerobic activity.
When you exercise at a high intensity, the main source of energy for your body comes from glucose, which is broken down by a process called glycolysis. One of the byproducts of this process is lactic acid, which produces hydrogen ions and causes a lowering in the pH within the cells of your muscles. This muscle acidity blocks the further breakdown of glucose leading to a reduction in the contractility of the muscles, which you experience as fatigue.
Fortunately for you, carnosine serves as a buffer against this lactic acid, helping to increase pH and allowing your muscles to contract for longer during intense exercise. What’s the best way of increasing carnosine levels in our skeletal muscle? You guessed it, beta alanine supplements!
Why not just supplement directly with carnosine to increase your carnosine muscle concentrations? A logical question. Unfortunately, ingested carnosine is metabolised before ever reaching your skeletal muscle, which means it is pretty useless when it comes to boosting your levels!
Why should you use beta alanine supplements?
Beta alanine availability is THE limiting factor in carnosine synthesis, which means if you want the physiological benefits of increased carnosine we’ve already discussed, then you need beta alanine in your life.
Outlining the science behind what beta alanine does for carnosine synthesis and what carnosine does to fight fatigue is all well and good. But what does all this actually mean for your physical performance during high intensity exercise?
There are a multitude of scientific studies to demonstrate the improvements in exercise capacity in tasks lasting between 60-240 seconds brought about using beta alanine supplements.
Four weeks of beta alanine supplementation in a group of cyclists revealed a 13% increase in total work completed, raising by a further 3.2% after 10 weeks of supplementation.
Whilst most research determines that beta alanine has most ergogenic impact on shorter duration anaerobic activity, there is also some evidence to suggest modest benefits for aerobic performance. 6 weeks of consuming beta alanine supplements demonstrated an increase in time to exhaustion from 1168 seconds to 1387 seconds for participants in HIIT sessions. As you can see, this activity lasted far in excess of the 240 second anaerobic window.
Studies investigating the effects of beta alanine on strength training have found mixed results. Supplementation has been shown to increase training volume and reduce subjective perceptions of fatigue during five sets of 30 maximal dynamic knee extensions. Thus, whilst the mechanisms behind the impact of beta alanine on lactic acid buffering may not be relevant to strength training, there does appear to be some potential benefit. More research, however, is required before any conclusive ergogenic impact can be determined.
When should you use beta alanine supplements?
For anyone engaging in any kind of high intensity, anaerobic training, whether just for fun, or as part of preparation for sports such as soccer, hockey and rugby, boosting the levels of carnosine within your muscles could be of huge benefit. The best way of increasing muscle carnosine concentrations? Beta alanine supplements of course!
Vegetarians, especially those taking their training seriously, could benefit even more from beta alanine supplementation. Why? The major dietary sources of beta alanine come from animals. Vegetarians have been shown to have 50% less carnosine in their muscles compared to omnivores. So, whatever your reasons for avoiding meat, it doesn’t mean you can’t make the physical gains you want to!
How much? Dosage and loading
Most scientific research agrees that a daily intake of 4-6g for at least 2 weeks is a good place to start when it comes to loading your muscles with carnosine via beta alanine supplements. This kind of dosage will see your muscle carnosine concentrations increase by 20-30% in 2 weeks and by 40-60% after 1 month.
The importance of this loading phase means that you are unlikely to receive any benefits from taking beta alanine immediately before training. There is no optimal window I’m afraid. Just take it every day for at least 2 weeks and you will start to see the effect.
It is best to spread this dosage across the day rather than consuming it all at once. If not, rapid changes in pH, increased excretion rates and an inability to effectively load the muscles can all reduce the performance outcomes of supplementation. Consuming beta alanine supplements with food can help to further increase carnosine levels. A great way of achieving this on the go is just to add a few grams to your protein shake. Easy!
The most common side effect of consuming beta alanine supplements is something called paraesthesia. Basically a tingling sensation, normally in your face, hands and feet. The intensity of this increases with dosage, starting at around 800 mg or higher. The good news is, this sensation is completely harmless and disappears around 60-90 minutes after consumption.
At least you know you’re taking beta alanine I guess!