Training for maximal performance in nearly every situation comes down to preventing fatigue and promoting the highest quality workouts you can complete. If you are a bodybuilder and want to get bigger and stronger this means knocking out a higher number of sets and repetitions during any given workout. For strength and power athletes, maximal overload may mean completing a few more rounds of explosive drills and doing so with less rest. And even endurance athletes have to be able to train harder and longer to get the most benefit from their performance. Because of the diversity seen within many different athletes, training programs should be different and needs related to nutrition and recovery are also different. This is where beta alanine is unique and exciting because it has the potential to help any of these types of athletes.
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What is beta alanine? Well, it's an amino acid that research has been shown in the last five to ten years to exert favorable outcomes related to various types of exercise performance (Artioli 2010). Athletes supplement with beta alanine to increase intramuscular levels of carnosine found inside our muscles (Harris 2006); carnosine operates as a powerful buffer of metabolic fatigue. As a result, higher levels of carnosine allow our muscles to contract and operate more efficiently during intense physical efforts such as intense exercise (Suzuki 2002). Take note, however, that the human body lacks a necessary enzyme to produce carnosine, which means if you decide to supplement with carnosine you are going to be disappointed (it won't do anything).
Proper Beta Alanine Dosing
Much has been learned about the most effective ways to dose with beta alanine. For starters, one of the most pronounced side effects of taking too much beta alanine are paresthesia symptoms or feelings of prickling or pins and needles. Some avid beta alanine users like the feeling, others find it discomforting. On the other hand, an excellent review article published by Stellingwerff in 2012 highlighted that chronic supplementation with beta alanine in dosages ranging from 3 to 6 grams for as little as four weeks can result in significant improvements in muscle carnosine levels. In fact, a recent dose-response study indicated that progressively higher levels of muscle carnosine were found with beta alanine doses up to 6.4 grams per day (Stellingwerff 2012).
Recent formulations have resulted in the development of time-released formulations of beta alanine which offer the added benefit of being able to deliver a higher single dose without experiencing any of the negative side effects. Regardless of how you go about dosing, be aware of the pins and needles and know that higher daily doses up to 6.4 grams per day have yielded higher levels of intramuscular carnosine. Once the muscle is loaded, carnosine is lost from the muscle at a rate of about 2% per week (Stellingwerff 2012).
Beta Alanine and Enhanced Athletic Performance
From a performance perspective, several studies provide support for beta alanine and every few months there seem to be a few more that are published (Tobias 2013, de Salles Painelli 2014, Hoffman 2014). In 2012, a research group led by Hobson completed a meta-analysis of the available studies that had used beta alanine and what resulted was a summary paper that reflected the performance outcomes of over 350 research subjects! Upon the completion of their analysis, these researchers concluded that beta alanine was responsible for significant increases in exercise performance, in particular maximal effort exercise that lasted anywhere between 1 to 4 minutes whereby athletes who competed for less than 60 seconds experienced no change in performance (Hobson 2012).
A very interesting aspect of beta alanine research is that a wide variety of athletic activities have been studied. For example, a recent study had 39 young students consume 5 x 400 mg doses of beta alanine or placebo for a total of 2,000 mg/day over a 6 week period. At the beginning and end of the supplementation period, the participants were required to complete a maximal oxygen consumption test. When beta alanine was consumed, maximal oxygen consumption was significantly increased while reduced levels of lactate were indicated (Ghiasvand 2012). Another study required sixteen boxers to supplement with beta alanine to determine if supplementation would increase performance in a simulated boxing match as well as boxing performance. Three simulated rounds of boxing were completed and it was found that when beta alanine was provided, significantly greater punching force resulted along with a greater number of punches being thrown (Donovan 2012).
In addition to increased punching force, resistance training volume and intense cycling, Tobias and colleagues recently reported that supplementation with beta alanine for four weeks significantly increased the mean power achieved during the 2nd and 3rd bouts of 30-second upper-body workout while the 4th bout tended to experience an improvement (Tobias 2013). Another study published in 2013 in the journal Amino Acids recruited already trained and untrained individuals to complete repeated sprints on a cycle ergometer after supplementing with beta alanine or a placebo at a dosage of 6.4 grams/day for 4 weeks.
In response to beta alanine use and irrespective of whether an athlete was trained or not, significant improvements in total work were found. In addition, beta alanine supplementation was also found to improve mean power output after just the fourth bout in non-trained individuals, but individuals who were already well trained experienced significant improvements in mean power after bouts 1, 2 and 4 (de Salles Painelli 2014).
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One key point must still be made. Research has also told us that beneficial outcomes associated with beta alanine use are very much dependent on the intensity and duration of the exercise bout being completed. In other words, to see improvements in performance from beta alanine use, most studies have involved maximal bouts of exercise that last anywhere from 30s to two full minutes. For this reason, you'd better be ready to push yourself if you hope to see performance gains from beta alanine, but the rewards are a higher amount of training volume than you otherwise could complete. In the end, you'll have more resistance to fatigue and be able to work out harder and longer (Artioli 2010).