Beta-Alanine: An Amino Acid of Interest to Veteran Athletes

Beta-Alanine: Might it be a Supplement of Choice for Masters Athletes?

Introduction

The use of dietary supplements in sports is widespread as athletes young and old are continuously searching for strategies to increase performance at the highest level. Beta-alanine is a supplement that is becoming increasingly popular over recent years. This review examines the available evidence regarding the use of beta-alanine supplementation and the link between beta-alanine and exercise performance in young and older people.

The Research

Beta-alanine supplementation is well-known to increase muscle carnosine levels. Carnosine is known to lower fatigue levelsand improve high-intensity exercise performance through buffering muscle acidity levels. It has been repeatedly demonstrated that chronic beta-alanine supplementation can increase intramuscular carnosine content. On the basis of its biochemical properties, several functions are ascribed to carnosine, of which intramuscular pH buffer and increasing the release of calcium in muscle to increase the force of muscle contraction are the most cited ones. In addition, carnosine has antioxidant properties, suggesting it could have a therapeutic potential in older athletes.

The suggested protocol for taking beta-alanine to increase muscle carnosine levels is taking up to approximately 4-6 gm per day over 4-10 weeks but in smaller regular doses in the day or using a slow-release tablet form. This is because taking more than 800 mg/day (approximately 10 mg/kg of body weight) has been shown to lead to parasthesia or a burning, tingling sensation in the skin. It appears that being an athlete in regular training increases the efficiency of the beta-alainine in increasing carnosine levels in muscles. Stopping ingestion  of the btea-alanine sees the carnosine levels return to pre-supplementing levels after 6-20 weeks. Maintenance of muscle carnosine levels appears to be maintained by beta-alanine intakes of about 1.2 gm/day.

What about the effect of beta-alanine supplementation on sports performance. Research suggest chronic beta-alanine supplementation increases muscle carnosine concentration leading to improved exercise performance in high-intensity exercise lasting 1-4 minutes after loading for 4 plus weeks. Some small but positive effect has been noticed in 2000m rowing performance (6-7 minutes all-out) but the effect drops off dramatically in longer endurance events. For example, in 2014, a study by Chung and others examined the effect of doubling muscle carnosine by supplementing with oral beta-alanine. Based on previous research that showed that muscle carnosine loading through chronic oral beta-alanine supplementation has been shown to be effective for improving short-duration, high-intensity exercise, the researchers wanted to see what effect it might have on one-hour cycling performance in athletes. 27 well-trained cyclists/triathletes were supplemented with either beta-alanine or a placebo (6.4 g/day) for 6 weeks. Time to completion and physiological variables for a 1-hr cycling time-trial were compared between pre-and post-supplementation. In conclusion, chronic beta-alanine supplementation in well-trained cyclists had a very pronounced effect on muscle carnosine concentration and a moderate buffering effect on the acidosis associated with lactate accumulation, yet without affecting 1-h cycling time-trial performance under laboratory conditions. Similarly, research has also shown that beta-alanine supplementation has no positive effect on repeat sprint performance such as that in road cycling or team sports.

In older non-athletes there is some evidence to suggest beta-alanine may have benefits on performance. Del Favero and others (2012) found that 3.2 gm/day of beta-alanine over 12 weeks improved time to exhaustion on the treadmill in 60-80 year old non-athletes compared to a control group. More recently, McCormack and others (2013) study examined the effects of an oral nutritional supplement fortified with two different doses of beta-alanine on body composition, muscle function and physical capacity in older adults. 60 men and women (age 70.7 ± 6.2 yrs) were randomly assigned to one of three treatment groups: 1) oral nutritional supplement (ONS; n = 20) (8 oz; 230 kcal; 12 g PRO; 31 g CHO; 6 g FAT), 2) ONS plus 800 mg beta-alanine (ONS800; n = 19), and 3) ONS plus 1200 mg beta-alanine (ONS1200; n = 21). Treatments were consumed twice per day for 12 weeks. At pre- and post-supplementation period, participants performed a submaximal cycle ergometry test to determine physical working capacity at fatigue threshold. Fat mass, total body and arm lean soft tissue mass were measured while muscle strength was assessed with handgrip dynamometry and 30-s sit-to-stand was used to measure lower body functionality. They showed that beta-alanine may improve physical working capacity, muscle quality and function in both older men and women. Previous research has also shown that carnosine levels in muscle decrease about 15-20% from youth to  middle-age with no decrease into older age. This might suggest that beta-alanine may have an even greater effect on performance than in younger people. However, no research to date has examined the effect of beta-alanine supplementation on performance in older male or female athletes.

Conclusions

On the basis of the high concentration of carnosine in human muscles, research supports it’s critical role in skeletal muscle physiology. Recent studies show that increasing carnosine levels through beta-alanine supplementation may improve muscle contraction forces and reduce muscle acidity levels in events lasting between 1-4 minutes.

While results from studies differ depending on the sample (e.g. young vs old; trained vs untrained), the most recent review of the research (Blancquaert and others, 2015), suggest the following:

  1. Chronic beta-alanine supplementation increases muscle carnosine concentration leading to improved exercise performance in high-intensity exercise lasting 1-4 minutes after loading for 4 plus weeks.
  2. Exercise training and co-ingestion of beta-alanine with meals can improve the efficiency of beta-alanine in increasing carnosine levels
  3. The exercise performance benefits of beta-alanine supplementing are equally effective in both trained and untrained individuals
  4. The increased muscle carnosine levels increase calcium release that excites muscle contraction. The increased carnosine also encourages a reduction in muscle acidity.

Sources: 1. Blancquaert, L and others (2015). Beta-alanine supplementation, muscle carnosine and exercise performance. Current Opinions in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care, 18(1): 63-70. 2. Chung, W. and others (2014). Doubling of muscle carnosine concentration does not improve laboratory 1-hr cycling time-trial performance. International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 24(3): 315-324. 3. McCormack and others (2013). Oral nutritional supplement fortified with beta-alanine improves physical working capacity in older adults: a randomized, placebo-controlled study. Experimental Gerontology, 48(9): 933-939. 4. Del Favero and others (2012). Beta-alanine (Carnosyn™) supplementation in elderly subjects (60-80 years): effects on muscle carnosine content and physical capacity. Amino Acids, 43(1): 49-56.

Masters Athletes NOT Using Recovery Methods but Should!!

Introduction 

Using recovery strategies after training and racing means we bounce back quicker for the next training session. Young high performance athletes eat and drink straight after races and training, they get massages and use the methods science has shown work, such as compression garments or ice baths. My masters athlete research team at CQUniversity have just completed an online survey of Queensland veteran cyclists because we wanted to learn about their current training and recovery practices. The results relating to recovery practices shocked us. Very few vet cyclists use recovery strategies!

The Research

We surveyed 212 male and female veteran cyclists aged 35-82 years. To our surprise, 47% of both male and female veteran cyclists do not using any form of recovery strategy after racing or training.  The percentage of users did not differ between male and female.  In order of use, the following recovery methods were used by the veteran cyclists as a group:

  1. Stretching (40% of riders)
  2. Carbohydrate-protein mix (38%)
  3. Active recovery (35%)
  4. High glycemic index foods within 30 minutes of exercise (29%)
  5. Massage (25%)
  6. Compression garments (25%)
  7. Hot-cold showers (19%)
  8. Ice baths (7%)
  9. Pool running (6%)
  10. Spa baths (5%)

Other strategies were used including ‘beers’, hot baths and one response that we can all relate to at times –  3 double-shot lattes, a lay down on the couch and hoping not to cramp-up!!

The So What?

Our research strongly suggests that both male and female veteran cyclists are poor users of recovery strategies following both training and competition. Using these scientifically-proven methods of recovery is critical to enable us to bounce back between training days or between races on the same or subsequent days.

A few years ago, the chief recovery scientist at at the Australian Institute of Sport, Dr Shona Halson, undertook a research project examining the common recovery strategies used by the world’s leading athletes, coaches and sport scientists. She rated the majority of the strategies into categories based on the then research evidence and what these coaches, athletes and sport scientists practiced. The table below shows the ratings of the strategies that work.

Table 1: Ratings (High and Medium-High) of commonly used recovery strategies.

High

Medium-High
Contrast water treatment Active recovery
Compression garments Water therapy (e.g. spas)
Ice Massage
Stretching Pool work
Nutrition

Sleep

The bottom line is we need to use what science says work, not waste valuable family, work, leisure and training time on strategies that waste our time or even worse, no strategy at all!! Get to it fellow masters athletes – recover hard and recover smart!

For specific details (e.g. water temperatures, times to hold stretches or have hot/cold showers, what specific foods to eat etc etc) on how to recover using all the methods outlined above, see chapter 15 of my book The Masters Athlete. Now available in pdf format as  whole book with individual chapters such as the recovery chapter also available as a pdf.

Pump Up the Music to Fire Up Performances

Introduction

I love listening to music to relax. Cold Play, U2 and Sleepy Jackson are my favourites. But I’ve never thought to use  music to pump up my sporting performances. Here is some research suggesting that listening to music can help sprint performance, especially in the morning when you might be half asleep!

The Research

The purpose of this research was to assess the effects of listening to music while warming-up on the dailyvariations of power output during the Wingate all-out 30-second sprint cycling test. 12 physical education students underwent four sprint cycling tests at 7am and 5pm, after 10 min of warm-up with and without listening to music. The warm-up consisted of 10 min of pedalling at a constant pace of 60 rpm against a light load. During the sprint cycling test, peak and mean power in watts were measured.

The Results

The main finding of the study was that both peak and mean power improved from morning to afternoon after no music warm-up. However, these daily variations disappeared for mean power and persisted with a greater morning-evening difference for peak power after music was used in the warm-up. Moreover, peak and mean power outputs were significantly higher after music was used in the warm-up compared to a no music warm-up during both morning and afternoon testing.

So What?

Thus, this research strongly suggests that music should be used during warm-up before performing activities requiring powerful muscle contractions, especially before morning competitive events. Previous research as shown that afternoon performances are generally better than morning because our body temperature is higher by about a degree Celsius in the evening when most world records are set. Warmer muscles mean better energy production. So to pump yourself for those high-intensity morning sessions, think about getting the earphones on!

For more scientifically-based advice on (legal) performance-enhancing ways to improve performance (including specific details on how much and when and how to take supplements such as caffeine, creatine, sodium bicarbonate), see Chapter 18 (Performance-enhancing supplements and the masters athlete) of my book The Masters Athlete.

Source: Chtourou, H. and others (2012). Listening to music affects diurnal variation in muscle power output. International Journal of Sports Medicine. 33(1): 43-47.

Warm-Up Hard for Hotter Performances

Introduction

The gun goes, the starter says ‘go’! Legs or arms are hurting and we’re hanging on wishing we’d done a better warm-up.  I see most masters athletes do an easy warm-up before a race and then wonder why they don’t perform in a race or ‘die’ early in a race that starts out hard. Here’s some recent research evidence from the UK that strongly suggests harder warm-ups are far better than easy ones when it comes to maximising performance.

The Research

Mean power output in watts was determined during a one-minute cycling sprint in 11 trained males cyclists and triathletes (31±11 years; 74.4±10.5 kg; 1.79±0.07m, VO2max 61±5 ml/kg/min) preceded by either an easy, moderate, or hard warm-up and a 10-min recovery. The guys were tested on a cycle ergometer in a lab and used their own pedals and shoes with power cranks used to measure power output. The athletes completed three different warm-ups in a random order and with at least 48 hours between each test:

  1. An easy warm-up consisting of six minutes of cycling at 40% of peak aerobic power taken from a previous VO2max test;
  2. A moderate warm-up consisting of cycling for five minutes at 40% peak aerobic power, followed immediately by 1 minute at 80% of peak aerobic power; and,
  3. A hard warm-up consisting of cycling for five minutes at 40% peak aerobic power, followed immediately by one minute at 110% of peak aerobic power.

After sitting down for 10 minutes after each warm-up, they then did an all-out one minute sprint on the ergo. The researchers measured mean power output in watts during the sprint, oxygen consumption during the sprint, and blood lactate levels before and after the one-minute print.

 The Results

As expected the harder warm-up produced the greatest blood lactates (4.2±0.9 millimoles per litre [mmol/L]) before the one-minute sprint test. However, the blood lactates did not reach the ‘magical’ figure of 5 mmol/L that has been shown to lead to decreased subsequent performance. Crucially, the harder warm-up lead to both reduced lactate levels after the all-out sprint and increased oxygen use during the sprint with no significant differences between warm-up intensities in mean power output (easy  516±28 watts; moderate 521±26 watts; hard 526±34 watts). This sport scientists concluded that a harder warm up-induced a reduction in lactate production and increased oxygen utilization with no change in sprint performance.

 The So What?

 The research team supports other previous research that has showed harder warm-ups are the best way to go for middle distance and short-endurance events (3-10 minutes) that are hard from the word go. So if you know you are doing an event like this, or that the running crew take off hard or the cycling bunch is going to take off hard such as in a handicap race or a hill start event, hit the pool, road or ergo and get warmed-up hard but not to the point of lactate build-up in the legs. For more on the importance of warm-up for older athletes, see Chapters 5, 6 and 12 of my book The Masters Athlete.

Source: Wittekind, A. & Beneke, R. (2011). Metabolic and performance effects of warm-up intensity on sprint cycling. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports. 21(6): e201-e207.