Beta-alanine is a fairly new supplement that has become popular in pre-workouts to aid performance. But how does it actually help? This brief article will go into some of the chemical and physiological changes that can occur from taking this supplement.
Firstly, when you are supplementing with beta-alanine, the body will convert it into something called carnosine. So the product gets converted in the muscles once it has been released into the system. The reason you wouldn’t take carnosine its-self as a supplement is that the gut would break this down into its chemical components: beta-alanine and histidine, which would then get transported to the muscle. It is far more efficient and cost effective to take beta-alanine itself. Now to fully understand the effect beta-alanine has and be able to use it effectively, we need to understand the energy system it would effect and what sort of training this would include.
The anaerobic glycolytic system is dominant during high-intensity exercise over a certain threshold, also known as the lactic threshold. This system is utilised when the aerobic system cannot cope with the demands of the exercise you are doing and more energy needs to be synthesised to maintain the work force of the muscles for a longer duration than your immediate muscle stores. As the body begins to transfer its demand for energy over to glycolysis, glucose (sugar) is used to resynthesize ATP (the body’s energy source).
A by-product of this is called pyruvate, pyruvate combines with a substance called lactate dehydrogenase to form lactate and regenerate NAD+, which is used earlier on in the glycolysis process. Lactate is then used by the body and turned back into pyruvate by oxygen for use later on. The result of the chemical processes detailed above is that hydrogen ions (H+) are released into the muscle leading to a fall in the pH of the muscle causing acidosis (the burning sensation of the muscles during intense exercise). The drop in pH is one reason there is a reduction in the ability to produce force, creating a stop to your set, or the need to slow down during your exercise. The increase in H+ in the blood is also thought to directly influence the perception of exercise, causing your body to reduce work rate centrally.
The body has certain buffers against these hydrogen ions to help reduce the effects. Carnosine is one of these buffers, which binds with the H+ to neutralise the pH concentration. Research has been conducted and it was found that muscles with higher levels of carnosine also suffered less with acidosis leading to the assumption of its effect. By increasing the concentration of carnosine in the muscle, there may be a drastic delay in the onset of fatigue. When examined, it was found that supplementing with beta-alanine resulted in an increase in carnosine concentration in both types I and type II fibres. A meta-analysis of beta-alanine found that an effect of as high as 10% can be seen from using it daily with amounts between 2.4-6.4 g/day. The greatest effects were seen in exercise capacity studies lasting 240 seconds, so resistance training, circuit training and HIIT training could benefit from it where you are able to work at a set intensity for longer.
Taking the science out of this and looking at the boldest statements, in a best case scenario you might be able to get an extra rep on your 10 RM, an extra interval into your sprint training, start your sprint finish a little earlier or improve your sports performance. All of this can overload the muscles and lead to a training effect where your muscles will adapt to the new stimulus. I would recommend beta-alanine to anyone undergoing an intense training routine, increasing training volume like starting a new phase of training, and multiple sprint sports like hockey, football, netball and rugby.