Beta-Alanine has been a staple of endurance and strength athletes for over a decade. We first introduced this naturally occurring amino acid in 2007 with OptygenHP. Since that time, study after study has proved this nutrient to be highly beneficial for endurance and power sports. A newly published 2017 meta-analysis reviewed 40 individual studies employing 65 different exercise protocols and totaling 70 exercise measures in 1461 participants. This meta-analysis published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine concluded that “Beta-Alanine had a significant overall effect. With the greatest benefit being total exercise capacity.”
What is Beta-Alanine? Beta-Alanine is an amino acid combining carnosine and vitamin B5, known as pantothenic acid. Though it is the carnosine in the body that allows for the enhancement of improved lactate synthesis, it is Beta-Alanine that is the rate limiting nutrient in this process. In other words, to increase carnosine content one must supplement with Beta-Alanine. When ingested, carnosine breaks down into Beta-Alanine and histidine. The more effective method to improve carnosine is therefore by ingesting Beta-Alanine instead of carnosine. Beta-alanine has become widely accepted as a highly effective nutrient for endurance training and racing. Studies have clearly shown it to be an effective tool to boost endurance training and racing through its improvement on working capacity, VO2 and lactate threshold. (Pottier 2007, Stout 2007, Suzuki 2002, Van Thienen 2009, Zoeller 2006, and Smith 2009, Saunders 2017, Bellinger 2016).
Beta-Alanine had a significant overall effect. With the greatest benefit being total exercise capacity.
Based on current research, Beta-Alanine’s primary role appears to be its effect on lactate threshold, which in endurance training is defined as the rate at which there is equilibrium in lactic acid production and lactic acid elimination. During exercise, hydrogen ions (H+) are produced in the body and cause the pH levels in the muscles to drop. When pH levels in the muscles are low, it means muscle tissue is acidic or producing lactic acid. At this lower pH, muscles cannot balance lactic acid production with lactic acid elimination, resulting in an overall slowing of movement, decreased physical strength, and intensity. When pH levels are balanced, training can continue for longer periods at increased intensity.
Exerting effort above lactate threshold prevents endurance athletes from sustaining that effort for more than a few minutes. It’s long been understood that the amino acid carnosine plays a key role in the homeostasis of pH and lactate threshold and that carnosine levels are regulated by Beta-Alanine.
To understand how Beta-Alanine works, you must first understand how carnosine works.
Carnosine enters the digestive system and is hydrolyzed into histidine and Beta-Alanine, which is then synthesized back into carnosine by skeletal muscle. Intra-muscular carnosine buffers hydrogen ions, this in turn leads to an increase in pH which is necessary for the balance between production and elimination of lactic acid.
Carnosine works by soaking up hydrogen ions (H+) to prevent low pH levels, as confirmed in recent studies. Increased carnosine concentration in muscles leads to increased buffering capacity of intra-muscular hydrogen ion (H+) (Dunnet 1999 & 2002, Hill 2007), as well as regulation of intra-cellular pH of both oxidative and glycolytic muscle fibers (Damon 2003). Increased carnosine accounts for up to 30% of the pH buffering capacity of the body.
With intense training, athletes have an opportunity to improve their intra-muscular carnosine content by up to 87% (Harris, 2005), which in turn provides an increase in lactate threshold. However, though endurance training increases intra-muscular carnosine levels, oral supplementation of carnosine does not have the same result. So, even though carnosine is widely available as a supplement, it is only through the availability of beta-alanine that intra-muscular carnosine can increase.
A related study shows carnosine levels significantly drop with age, which may be a key reason older athletes tend to have a lesser ability to eliminate lactate. (Dunnett, 2002)
So where does Beta-Alanine come in?
Since Beta-Alanine is the precursor to the production of intra-muscular carnosine, it must be present in order for intra-muscular carnosine levels to increase when intense training takes place. Ingestion of Beta-Alanine for 4 to 8 weeks has been shown to elevate muscle carnosine content by 42%, 47%, 64% and 65% respectively (Pottier 2007, Harris 2006, Hill 2007). Increasing intra-muscular carnosine means the body is capable of buffering more hydrogen and eliminating more lactic acid. The end result for an athlete is an improved lactate threshold. A slew of research studies on the mechanism of improved lactate threshold through the supplementation of beta-alanine have shown significant improvements in power, strength, endurance performance, and aerobic metabolism (Smith 2009, Van Thienen 2009, Stout 2007, Suzuki 2002, Pottier et al 2007). These double-blind, placebo-controlled studies were conducted in 4 and 8 week periods.
What does this all mean to your performance?
The ability to sustain efforts above lactate threshold is the primary benefit associated with Beta-Alanine supplementation. Beta-Alanine supplements should be consumed daily during heavy training blocks and based on today’s research, a minimum of 4 weeks is required before experiencing any significant increases in intra-muscular carnosine levels. Studies have proven the effect to be dose dependent, with an increased dosage pattern throughout the supplementation period. The buffering effects can be expected to slowly increase from the beginning of training and sustained throughout the entire training block. Using this supplementation strategy to improve interval workouts or threshold training workouts is the best method to achieve a lasting physiological change that can be carried over into races.
A 2016 study on trained cyclists in a 4000m TT showed significant improvement in performance. Supplementation increased time to exhaustion concomitant with improved anaerobic capacity during supramaximal intensity cycling and an increase in power output during a 4000m cycling TT, resulting in an enhanced overall performance.
A 2017 study by Saunders et. al, performed on active cyclists showed that supplementation for 24 weeks improved carnosine content and exercise capacity each week. The study concluded that the maximal carnosine content achievable is therefore not known.
The third significant study proved that total Beta-Alanine consumption, not a specific dose was the primary determinant of carnosine content. Athletes consuming 1.6g Beta-Alanine per day over a long period improved carnosine content to a similar degree as those consuming an equivalent amount in a shorter time period. This study along with the 2017 Saunders study prove that consuming Beta-Alanine long term in maintenance dose can be beneficial to endurance trained athletes.
1) Van Theinen’s 2009 study done on trained cyclists showed beta-alanine can improve sprint performance at the end of an exhaustive endurance exercise by 11.4%.
2) The Smith 2009 double-blind study done on recreationally active college men supplementing with beta-alanine for six weeks while undergoing high-intensity interval training (HIIT) showed significant improvements in VO2peak, VO2 time to fatigue versus a group using a placebo.
3) The Stout 2007 double-blind study done on 22 trained women supplementing with beta-alanine for 28 days performing on cycle ergometers showed a significant improvement in ventilatory threshold, physical working capacity at fatigue threshold and time to exhaustion.
4) The Suzuki 2002 study looked at untrained men and trained them two days per week on cycle ergometers for 8 weeks. This double-blind study showed significant increase in sustainability of high power during 30-second maximal cycle ergometer sprinting.
5) Pottier et al. 2007 investigated supplementation of beta-alanine on fifteen trained men in a 400m sprint and knee extension to exhaustion. Beta-alanine supplementation increased carnosine levels by 47% and attenuated fatigue in repeated bouts of exhaustive exercise.
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