I normally don’t take or recommend any supplements. But when I was at the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) annual meeting, a bunch of presentations on beta-alanine made it seem relevant to middle-aged athletes – particularly women – looking for a performance boost.
Also this month, the International Society of Sports Nutrition issued a position paper, saying there is strong evidence that beta-alanine supplements work, and that the risk is modest.
Beta-alanine is an amino acid that occurs naturally in meat. When eaten, it combines with histidine to produce carnosine. Carnosine in turn reduces the acid that builds up in your muscles when you exercise. With less acid, you don’t get tired as fast.
A lot of studies have shown that beta-alanine supplements can increase performance in high-intensity exercises, especially bouts that last a few minutes.
Beta-Alanine For Female Master Athletes
At ACSM, I met Jordan M. Glenn, an exercise physiologist at the University of Arkansas, who studied the benefits of beta-alanine for female master athletes.
Women have less than a third as much baseline carnosine in their muscles, he said. And women get benefits from lower doses of beta alanine then men, he said.
In addition, increasing carnosine levels is more effective in people who are already in good shape, he added. On top of that, carnosine levels decrease with age.
“It creates a perfect storm where female master athletes may be able to see more of an effect,” he said.
To test that hypothesis, Glenn and his colleagues randomly divided 22 female master cyclists into two groups. One group took 800 milligrams of beta-alanine and the other half took a fake supplement four times a day for 28 days.
On average, the women were about 54 years old and had been cycling more than 70 miles a week for about five years.
The researchers put the women on exercise bicycles and measured how long it took them to feel exhausted going at peak oxygen consumption (VO2peak).
Twenty-four hours later, the researchers measured their time to exhaustion cycling at 120% of the previous day’s VO2peak. (For a short period, the human body can use an energy production mechanism that doesn’t require oxygen, and that’s where beta-alanine may be particularly helpful.)
The researchers also calculated total work completed by multiplying the time to exhaustion by the amount of power the female master athletes generated on the bikes.
There was no difference between the two groups at the beginning. But gradually the group taking the real beta-alanine showed much greater improvement. They increased the amount of time to exhaustion by 23 percent. The other group increased by only 1 percent.
And the beta-alanine group increased the amount of work completed by 21 percent, while the other group increased by only 2 percent. Interestingly, there was no improvement in the women’s grip strength.
The Bottom Line
Still these are impressive gains. So should everyone start taking beta-alanine? Probably not. If you’re not fit already, you can improve pretty fast just by training a bit harder every week.
And some experts are not even ready to recommend beta-alanine for female master athletes athletes. It’s not so clear what dose should be used, Catherine G.R. Jackson, an exercise physiologist at Fresno State University, California, told me. “One of the side effects of higher doses is paresthesia, for which there is no good explanation.”
Paresthesia is a prickling sensation like the one you get sometimes when your arm or leg has gone to sleep.
Glenn said the researchers had deliberately spread out the beta-alanine into small doses taken four times per day to avoid causing paresthesia. Beta-alanine is also available in extended release formulas which might help avoid this side effect.
Even so, I’m not much of a pill popper. So I wondered about getting beta-alanine the natural way. I’d have to eat a lot of meat to get the dose taken by the women in this study, according to one review of the research on beta-alanine. For example, I’d need about 1.75 pounds (800 grams) of chicken breast meat per day.
Since I’m male, I might need even more than that – some of the studies have used doses almost twice that high.
The bottom line? If you’re a female master athlete looking for an edge over your competitors — or even a young guy — beta-alanine supplements might provide it.
For someone like me, who cares more about staying fit and having fun than winning races, beta-alanine is probably not worth the bother and potential risk.
For more technical details on this study, read this article in Medscape.
Featured photo: “Menlo Park Women’s Criterium” by Richard Masoner.
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