Beta-alanine is a popular supplement for high-intensity and endurance exercise, but what is it and how can it help your performance?
What is beta-alanine?
Any athlete will be familiar with the burning, fatigued sensation that builds up in the muscles during intense exercise, such as in interval training or the final sprint of a race.
This is caused by a build-up of lactic acid (or rather, when that lactic acid breaks down into lactate and hydrogen ions).
To neutralise these ions, the body has a substance called carnosine in its muscles. Beta-alanine is one of the amino acids that make up carnosine, and researchers realised that increasing levels of beta-alanine in the diet also led to increased carnosine.
What foods contain beta-alanine?
Beta-alanine is mainly found in meat, poultry and fish, so vegetarians and vegans tend to have lower levels of carnosine in their muscles than meat eaters. It's difficult to raise beta-alanine levels through diet, so supplementation is a more effective strategy.
"We use beta-alanine as part of our performance nutrition strategy to aid training capacity and improve repeated sprint performance."
Alek Gross, Head of Sports Science, Southampton FC
How does beta-alanine help performance?
Beta-alanine helps athletes deal with repeated high-intensity exercise. This can lead to high levels of lactic acid forming in the muscles, leading to soreness and reduced performance.
Research has demonstrated that consuming extra beta-alanine increases the levels of carnosine in the muscles. Further research has shown that this can lead to improvements in high-intensity exercise.
In one study, thirteen male subjects supplemented with beta-alanine for between four and 10 weeks, and during a cycling capacity test to determine total work done (TWD), those who had supplemented saw an increase in TWD of between 13% and 15%.
Beta-alanine supplements can improve performance in exercise that includes repeated bouts of high-intensity work, such as sprints and lifts, and allow training to be conducted at a higher intensity.
How to supplement with beta-alanine
It's important to note that you need to load with beta-alanine, and that just taking it before exercise will not improve performance.
Loading will take about 4 weeks of 5g of beta-alanine per day. Beta-alanine comes in powder form to be mixed with water or juice in a shaker to make a drink.
How safe is beta-alanine?
The chief side-effect of beta-alanine supplementation is a prickling sensation, or pins and needles, around the face, neck and the back of the hands. This can happen 10-20 minutes after taking the dose, and last for 60-90 minutes.
There's no evidence that this sensation is harmful, but it's possible to limit the side effect by splitting the daily dose in two.
As there are currently no studies examining the long-term effects of beta-alanine supplementation, it's sensible to use it in short blocks of 4-12 weeks, leading up to competition or certain training periods.
Find out more about beta-alanine
Beta-alanine: practical benefits for athletes
Nigel Mitchell, Performance Nutritionist, provides an overview of beta-alanine, explaining the extensive use of the supplement and its practical application at Olympic and professional level.