Beta-Alanine for Runners: Performance & Recovery Benefits
Runners, like many other athletes, are constantly looking for safe ways to improve their running performance. Whether it be training in certain environmental conditions like in the heat or at altitude, or changing their fueling methods, there are many strategies one can use to get faster and last longer when running. The key to seriously improve performance is to understand where you are lacking in the first place. Is it too little muscular strength that is holding you back from running with good form? Or maybe you are actually pretty strong but endurance is what is weak. In many cases, performance is hindered by poor nutrition, especially before and during exercise. For some runs, it may be just fine to go out on an empty stomach but if you want to run hard and for a long period of time fueling the body efficiently is important.
It is common for athletes to supplement their diets with nutrients they may be missing out on in their regular meals. Runners supplement with electrolytes and other vitamins that are important for proper organ function and recovery from training. Protein powders are probably the most common supplement athletes include, as it is essential for muscle repair and growth. The building blocks of protein, amino acids, are significant in the diets of athletes since during hard exercise muscle fibers go through microscopic tears and require these essential amino acids for the repairing process.
One amino acid that is actually considered a non-essential amino acid, called beta-alanine, is widely used in athletes. The reason it is considered a non-essential amino acid is because it is not involved in protein synthesis, as are the others. Beta-alanine produces carnosine, a substance that is stored in the muscles. This substance reduces lactic acid accumulation. This lactic acid buildup is produced in the muscles during exercise and is the reason why our bodies require recovery time in order to be ready for another session. If less lactic acid is building up in the first place than recovery time will be shortened. This is the main reason why beta-alanine is being used to improve performance by shortening recovery time.
During the lactic acid accumulation, excess hydrogen ions are produced in the muscles, causing a drop in pH levels—meaning they are now in a more acidic state. This acidity blocks glucose breakdown, which is normally what fuels our muscles, causing less muscle contraction, and eventually fatigue. The carnosine produced by beta-alanine is what maintains a normal pH level in the muscles during this process, therefore lowering the risk of fatigue. This benefit of increased time to exhaustion helps runners and other endurance athletes last longer.
Studies have shown that these benefits are more evident in shorts bouts of high-intensity exercise lasting between one and several minutes. This means speed sessions consisting of 400 meters to mile repeats can be greatly improved with the use of beta-alanine supplementation. Although marathon running is commonly looked at as a low to moderate intensity exercise, the fact that you have run at a fast goal pace for several hours requires specific training at a significantly high intensity. This is where those short bouts of intervals come into pay for marathon runners. Strengthening those fast twitch muscle fibers through speed sessions that can benefit from beta-alanine supplementation, will lead to maintaining that goal pace you desire on race day.
Most people who regularly eat animal protein get a sufficient amount of beta-alanine. Beef, pork, chicken, and fish are the main food sources of this amino acid. Regular servings of these proteins will contain between 50 to 250mg of beta-alanine. Most research advises having between 2 and 5 grams per day to reap the benefits of carnosine production. Over the course of 4 weeks, carnosine concentration can increase by up to 40-60%. Combining the supplement with a meal has been shown to enhance the production further. After one month of supplementing with this amount, the dosage is then lowered to half. Beta-alanine does not have to be taken at a certain time in order to gain the benefit. Some athletes combine it with their pre or post-workout drinks, but it can be included with any meal.
Supplementing with beta-alanine has been shown to be safe and effective at improving endurance and decreasing muscle fatigue during exercise. One common side effect that may be experienced is paraesthesia, which is a tingling sensation usually noticed in the face, hands, and neck. This effect is usually mild, short-lived and occurs during the first few times of taking the supplement. Carnosine production decreases by 15-20% from youth to adulthood, which suggests that beta-alanine supplementation may be even more beneficial for older athletes. As with any other supplement, it is advised to talk with your medical doctor before including any new substance in your diet. Although beta-alanine is safe and shown to be effective, studies have not concluded its effects on athletes with any specific medical condition.