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- Alex Hutchinson (@sweatscience)
As promised, we’ll look at a few athletic supplements that didn’t fit into the two-part Jockology series, starting with beta-alanine:
The supplement: Beta-alanine.
Used for: Short-duration maximal exercise.
The claim: The mechanisms responsible for muscle fatigue are still highly controversial, but one factor is thought to be increasing levels of acidity in the muscles. This is particularly relevant for short (one to two minutes) bursts of intense effort. Beta-alanine is taken orally to increase levels of a substance called carnosine in your muscles. Carnosine’s primary function is to buffer the acidity in muscle cells, delaying fatigue and enhancing power. (Another way of buffering the acid is to take baking soda, which has also proven to be effective but can cause diarrhea.)
The evidence: It’s clear from many studies that beta-alanine does help buffer muscle acidity. What’s less clear is how this translates to performance benefits. The short, high-intensity bursts of effort are most relevant to elite athletes in events like the 800-metre run, which lasts just under two minutes, and are less relevant to most recreational athletes. However, an interesting study in the upcoming April issue of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise shows that beta-alanine can also help sprint performance at the end of a long endurance race. The double-blind study had cyclists take part in a 110-minute simulated race, then do a 10-minute time trial and a 30-second sprint. Those who had received eight weeks of beta-alanine improved their final sprint by 11.4 percent.
The verdict: This supplement fills a specialized niche: only fairly serious competitive athletes are likely to have interest in it. But there’s no denying the appeal of having a little extra gas in the tank for a finishing kick — or the significant mental edge that is gained by believing you have some extra gas left in the tank. Clearly, there’s still more research to be done on things like dosage (the cycling study, for the record, started at 2 grams per day and gradually ramped up to 4 grams per day), but there appears to be a real effect here.