The (Almost) Death of Beta Alanine

The (Almost) Death of Beta Alanine

Beta Alanine May Help You Get One More Rep.  Or It Might Just Do Fuck All.

First off, this isn’t a “What is Beta Alanine and How Can It Help Me” post.  If you have no idea what it is, well, get your spinning-propeller research hat on and go figure it out.  What I actually want to talk about is why you might NOT want to waste your money on this (supposedly) proven ergogenic supplement.

Really Quick Background:Beta alanine is a modified form of the amino acid alanine that combined with histidine to form carnosine.  Carnosine is used as an intra-cellular buffer of H+ (hydrogen ions, aka acid).  Increased muscle carnosine stores = greater ability to buffer drops in pH.  Acidosis is *one* component of fatigue, or reduced performance.  There’s been a fuck-ton of studies done on BA, and it appears to have a very proven efficacy as an ergogenic supplement in the realm of performance time frames of 60-240s. Looking at carnosine levels of track athletes (400m, 800m), it was found that they have much higher levels than the average person; the rate-limiting precursor to carnosine is beta alanine.  Therefore, if one was to supplement with beta alanine, carnosine levels would rise—and theoretically, so would performance. The studies showing this are plentiful, and for the most part, well-controlled.  See here, here, and here. Based on that, it’s stands to reason:  Mixed modal sport is intense.  It often involves short duration, highly acid-producing (glycolytic and lactate pathways) movements by nature of the sport.  Beta Alanine seems to make perfect sense. Empirical Experience:  Over the course of my years as a performance nutrition coach, I’ve never seen BA do much of anything.  This was terribly vexing to me.  By all accounts, the studies PROVED beta alanine should improve performance.  I pondered on this for a long time, but at the same time, still kept recommending BA to performance based athletes.   Some issues I considered as to the non-efficacy:
  • Compliance.  Some athlete “say” they take it, when in fact, they randomly take it “if they remember”.  There’s no doubt many folks fall into this category, but I also know many INSANELY driven athletes that would never miss a dose.
  • Longer time to saturation:  BA works similarly to creatine in the fact it works under saturation, NOT acute dosing (more on that later, that’s relevant, and something I want to soap-box on for a bit).  Creatine at 5g/day for 30 days will get the average sized male to full muscle saturation; based on this study, we can assume that time-to-saturation may be longer, perhaps 8-10 weeks.  That said, I’ve had athletes on BA continually for a complete year.
  • Training-induced Adaptations:  Training itself causes adaptation (Uh, no kidding…); folks often lose sight of this as the main factor in performance improvements.  Supplements actually have little effect here.  That said, training adaptations to increase muscle carnosine stores (training that produces H+, therefore requiring increased pH buffering) may override any benefit from BA.
Based on what I was seeing in my athletes, I started to DE-emphasize the use of BA.  From a cost-perspective, it’s relatively cheap, so IMO it was still prudent to Rx it at the beginning of the year, if we consider the season of CF. But I seriously had my doubts it was doing anything from a performance point of view. Vindication of my observations came recently in the form of this study:

Beta-Alanine Supplementation Does Not Augment the Skeletal Muscle Adaptive Response to Six Weeks of Sprint Interval Training

Section: Original Research

Authors: Andrew J.R. Cochran1, Michael E. Percival1, Sara Thompson1, Jenna B. Gillen1, Martin J. MacInnis1, Murray A. Potter2, Mark A. Tarnopolsky3, and Martin J. Gibala1 Affiliations: 1Exercise Metabolism Research Group, Department of Kinesiology, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada; 2Department of Pathology and Molecular Medicine, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada; 3Department of Pediatrics and Medicine, Division of Neuromuscular and Neurometabolic Disorders, McMaster University, McMaster University Medical Centre, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. Acceptance Date: March 20, 2015 DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1123/ijsnem.2015-0046 Abstract Sprint interval training (SIT), repeated bouts of high-intensity exercise, improves skeletal muscle oxidative capacity and exercise performance. β-alanine (β-ALA) supplementation has been shown to enhance exercise performance, which led us to hypothesize that chronic β-ALA supplementation would augment work capacity during SIT and augment training-induced adaptations in skeletal muscle and performance. Twenty-four active but untrained men (23±2 y; VO2peak = 50±6 mL·kg-1·min-1) ingested 3.2 g/d of β-ALA or a placebo (PLA) for a total of 10 wk (n=12 per group). Following 4 wk of baseline supplementation, subjects completed a 6-wk SIT intervention. Each of three weekly sessions consisted of 4-6 Wingate tests, i.e., 30-s bouts of maximal cycling, interspersed with 4 min of recovery. Before and after the 6-wk SIT program, subjects completed a 250-kJ time-trial and a repeated sprint test. Biopsies (v. lateralis) revealed that skeletal muscle carnosine content increased by 33 and 52%, respectively, after 4 and 10 wk of β-ALA supplementation, but was unchanged in PLA. Total work performed during each training session was similar across treatments. SIT increased markers of mitochondrial content, including cytochome c oxidase (40%) and β-hydroxyacyl-CoA dehydrogenase maximal activities (19%), as well as VO2peak (9%), repeated-sprint capacity (5%), and 250-kJ time trial performance (13%), but there were no differences between treatments for any measure (p < 0.01, main effects for time; p > 0.05 interaction effects). The training stimulus may have overwhelmed any potential influence of β-ALA, or the supplementation protocol was insufficient to alter the variables to a detectable extent. What I’ve highlighted in blue is interesting—after TEN weeks, muscle carnosine is elevated 52%.  While that’s a lot, is it ENOUGH to see a performance increase?  Maybe not. Red Highlight:  Training stimulus.  “Classic” CF is often performed at max effort; this may completely override ANY buffering effect from BA supplementation (or, for that matter, endogenous carnosine).

Moving Forward/Recommendations

Beta alanine isn’t completely useless.  We just need to recognize where it will actually do anything useful.
  • Sub-max rep schemes of 10-15.  Wait, what?  Do you mean this actually happens for folks in mixed modal sport???  That’s not for me to answer, ask your coach that does your programming.
  • Anti-aging.  Yes, I’m not kidding.  Much like creatine, research is now being focused on how it can improve quality of life.  While we may never know the  actual long-term impact, carnosine appears to be more than just a buffering agent.  Check out some initial (non-human) research here and here.  Anti-glycation and reduced shortening of telomeres = the longevity win.
At this point, I’m of the opinion that if you want to supplement with it, go ahead.  It’s cheap enough, it’s almost completely benign (inducing taurine deficiency is completely overblown. And besides, your BCAAs have added taurine, right?  Right.), and having topped up carnosine just goes along with optimizing health.  if you are going to do it, add it PWO with your creatine.

SoapBox Rant:  One Last Word

One thing I’d like to point out that I find completely infuriating is the addition of beta alanine in PRE workout formulas.  It’s a GIMMICK.  And here’s why:
  1. It’s almost always either in an extremely low dose (500-800mg) or an unknown dose from a “proprietary” blend.
  2. PWO uptake is always better than preWO.
  3. It works under saturation, NOT acute dosing.  If you take it once, twice, three time, it won’t do fuck all.
  4. Manufacturers put it in preWO formulas due to the parathesia effects of beta alanine.  Parathesia  = “pins and needles” sensation.  This is benign, harmless, and confers ZERO indication of efficacy; in fact, it’s MrgprD receptors in sensory neurons being activated.
Based on this, I 100% guarantee you won’t be finding beta alanine in our preWO formula.

About the author:

Mike Kesthley

Founder

Mike Kesthely has been involved in athletics his entire life, ranging from years playing box lacrosse, martial arts, rock climbing, mountain biking and Crossfit®️.  He has worked as a Firefighter/Paramedic for the Lethbridge Fire Dept since 2000, and is the past Health & Fitness Coordinator for the department. His passion now lies with nutrition & functional lab analysis, and improving client performance, health, and longevity through dietary augmentation.
Current Certifications/Education Includes:
  • Former lead instructor for the OPT CCP Nutrition Level 1 in Scottsdale, AZ, at the International Center for Fitness, 2011-2014
  • Former trainer with Crossfit®️ Lethbridge
  • Optimum Performance Training Certified Coaching Program Nutrition, Level-1, under James Fitzgerald and Mat Lalonde, PhD
  • Functional Diagnostic Nutrition Practitioner
  • Precision Nutrition certified (Sport & Exercise Nutrition) through Dr. John Berardi
  • Crossfit®️ Nutrition certified under Robb Wolf
  • Crossfit®️ Trainer, Level-1 certified
  • Functional Movement Screen under Tim Takahashi, M.Kin., CAT(C), CEP, CK, CSS

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