The availability of supplements to help support the body during physical exercise, maintaining a healthy system and potentially improving performance, are numerous and many athletes take a wide range of supplements every day. However, how much do we actually know about the supplements used on a daily basis?
One popular supplement used across many sports including cycling and athletics is Beta-Alanine. This non-essential amino acid has been at the forefront of much research surrounding the improvement in physical performance during high intensity exercise and strength training, delaying muscle lactic production and increasing free fat mass (see reference 1). These potential benefits are accompanied by research showing conflicting results of little or no effect on performance leaving athletes, coaches and researchers unsure of the exact physiological effects.
Briefly, Beta-alanine has a parent compound called Carnosine which consists of amino acids histidine and beta alanine. Carnosine occurs naturally in large amounts within Type 2 muscles fibres in the skeletal muscle, which are fibres used for explosive movements in sprinting, for example. Carnosine works as a buffer for the hydrogen ions, which are responsible for producing the nasty effects of lactic acid, and can allow an individual to exercise at high intensities for longer, in theory. However, Carnosine is degraded as soon as it enters the blood and thus creates no advantage from the ingestion of such a supplement. Fortunately, ingesting beta-alanine and histidine independently allows the transportation of these supplements into the muscle so that they are re-synthesised as Carnosine. Beta-alanine supplementation of 4-6 grams a day for 28 days has shown to increase the intramuscular levels of Carnosine by 60% (Zoeller et al., 2005), showing the great benefit of ingesting beta-alanine.
The intake of beta alanine as a supplement has been shown to increase intracellular buffering capactity during exercise, enabling athletes to perform high intensity exercise for longer periods of time (Sale, Saunders & Harris, 2010). Supplementation of beta alanine in combination with creatine monohydrate has been explored in untrained young male adults (Stout et al., 2006) and has showed that ingestion of 1.6g of beta alanine or 5.25g of creatine twice a day for 22 days significantly delayed the onset of neuromuscular fatigue compared to participants taking placebo supplement. The combined intake of 10.5g/day of creatine and 3.2g/day of beta alanine has been shown to enhance the strength performance of American football players and also enhanced the lean tissue mass whilst decreasing body fat composition (Hoffman et al., 2006). Further to this, Hoffman et al., 2008a, produced research to show that supplementation of 4.8g/day of beta alanine alone for 30 days significantly increased the strength of experienced resistance-trained males.
A meta-analysis conducted using information from 15 studies shows the most effective dosages and time of exercise to benefit most from the supplement (Hobson et al., 2012). Beta alanine supplementation has been shown to be most effective during exercise lasting between 60 and 240 seconds, which could be compared to that of a 400m or an 800m event (Hobson et al., 2012). In comparison, exercise lasting less than 60 seconds showed no significant improvements on performance with beta alanine supplementation just like exercise lasting over 240 seconds (Hobson et al., 2012). From this study, research shows that a daily supplementation of 5.12g of beta alanine would result in a 2.85% improvement in performance, which equates to a 6 second improvement over 1500m. These studies provide evidence of the beneficial effects from beta alanine, increasing the intramuscular buffering of hydrogen ions which accumulate during high intensity exercise lasting up to 4 minutes and can be detrimental to overall performance.
Whilst there is research to show performance improvements from the ingestion of beta alanine, it is important to note that there is research that shows no significant effects on performance with beta alanine supplementation over as long as 10 weeks (Hoffman et al., 2008b; Kendrick et al., 2008). Research is confounded by the dispute over daily doses and the untrained subjects used; any findings should be taken with caution. It is therefore important for future research to assess the effects of beta alanine supplementation across athletes training and competing the shorter, anaerobically based distances.
Due to beta alanine playing a major beneficial role in the delay of fatigue during high intensity exercise, it has become a popular ergogenic aid to enhance sport performance. The potential benefits of such a supplementation could have a huge impact on improving the performance of many athletes, especially athletes competing over distances between 400m and 1500m.