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Beta-alanine: a boost for anaerobic power… and finishing sprint?

November 26th, 2010

In general, I’m not a big fan of performance-boosting supplements, in part because of some vague notions of “the spirit of sport” and in part because the vast majority of them are expensive placebos. But one of the sessions at the sports nutrition conference in Canberra earlier this week made a strong case that beta-alanine now has enough evidence to join the very, very short list of supplements with solid performance-enhancing science behind them (e.g. caffeine, creatine). The first important study of beta-alanine was only in 2006, but there have been 27 more studies since them, according to Trent Stellingwerff, a researcher at the Nestle Research Centre in Switzerland who also works with Canadian Olympic teams.

(Sorry for the delay in reporting on the sports nutrition conference — really busy week! There’s lots more to come, which I’ll post over the next few weeks.)

Basically, beta-alanine works just like baking soda to buffer pH, but does it from inside the muscle rather than outside (and, happily, doesn’t cause diarrhea). The actual buffering agent is something called carnosine, which is present in meat. When you eat meat, the carnosine is split into its two constituent amino acids (beta-alanine and histidine), which are absorbed into your muscles and recombine to form carnosine again. The rate-limiting step is the absorption of beta-alanine into your muscles, so if you take some extra beta-alanine you end up with more carnosine.

So when does this work? The sweet spot is thought to be exercise lasting between 60 seconds and 10 minutes. Studies dating way back to the 80s showed that sprinters have twice as much carnosine in their muscles as marathoners do. More recently, a Belgian study measured baseline carnosine levels in a group of rowers (i.e. without supplementation) and found that higher carnosine levels correlated to higher performance. Supplementing with beta-alanine then led to a 4.3-second improvement over ~6 minutes for the rowers.

The dosing details: unlike baking soda, it’s not a one-shot deal. Trent suggests that taking 3-6 g/day for four to eight weeks will increase muscle carnosine content by 40-50%. It then stays high for quite a while, so you can expect to continue seeing a performance boost up to a month after stopping supplementation.

For endurance athletes, there are a couple of potentially interesting wrinkles. A 2009 study in the Journal of Applied Physiology (Van Thienen et al.) found that cyclists on beta-alanine performed better in a 30-second all-out sprint at the end of a 110-minute time trial. So the buffering might help with the anaerobic demands of a finishing sprint even during a very long race, though this is just one study so far.

The other thing to consider is whether beta-alanine could help endurance athletes sustain higher levels of intense training — after all, interval sessions often include intense running within that 60s-10min sweet spot. Stellingwerff, who coaches a bunch of athletes including his wife, a 4:05 1,500m runner, gave one piece of practical advice. He said for a workout like 10x400m, athletes on beta-alanine tend to feel really good in intervals 1, 2, 3 and 4 — in fact, they sometimes feel too good and wreck the rest of the workout, so that intervals 7, 8, 9 and 10 get really ugly.

Anyway, food for thought. But as Trent pointed out, there’s no point even thinking about these kinds of supplements if you haven’t already taken care of the far more important basics of good diet and recovery and so on.