By Carl Valle
Sports supplements that provide performance enhancement are enticing, and determining whether Beta-Alanine can do so falls into a gray area since it’s relatively young compared to other supplements. In other articles I’ve written, I discussed the top ten supplements for sport and those that are overhyped, overpriced, and overlooked. Beta-Alanine is a little different from creatine and caffeine, which are accepted as staple supplements, and needs a separate article to explore its implications fully. In this article, I focus on Beta-Alanine for sports, and readers who train like athletes may also benefit from reading this guideline.
What Is Beta-Alanine?
Beta-Alanine is a sports supplement available in pill or powder form. Small doses—a few spoonfuls—can increase an athlete’s ability to handle heavy workloads. It’s similar to creatine, enhancing muscle and providing other small benefits. For the most part, though, it helps with anaerobic activities. The supplement doesn’t do much beyond increasing one’s tolerance to intense training, meaning it’s not a vitamin and it doesn’t help recovery like tart cherry juice and protein powder do. Instead of rewriting a scientist’s description, I find it better to quote the experts:
“β-Alanine is a nonproteinogenic amino acid and does not appear to have any ergogenic potential by itself. Once ingested, it combines with histidine within skeletal muscle and other organs to form carnosine. When β-alanine combines with histidine, the pKa of the imidazole ring of the histidine residue is increased to 6.83, enabling it to act as a highly effective intracellular pH buffer. β-Alanine is considered to be the rate-limiting step in muscle carnosine synthesis. Thus, the primary goal of β-alanine supplementation is to increase carnosine content in skeletal muscle thereby enhancing intracellular buffering capacity, enabling a greater tolerance of sustained anaerobic activity.”#BetaAlanine increases #carnosine in muscles to help sustain anaerobic activity, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
The science of what occurs at the cellular and organ levels is important because, when you apply supplementation to training, competition, and recovery, the details matter. From the summary of noted researchers at Central Florida, Beta-Alanine is an amino acid that triggers higher carnosine formation in muscle. Creatine directly changes the muscle’s resting status while Beta-Alanine indirectly improves buffering capacity by changing the muscle’s resting carnosine status.
Keep in mind that, while carnosine changes muscle function, how this change interacts with the rest of the body is more complicated than someone’s performance in a bike test or repetitions in the gym. Research on aging populations has shown it provides an acute neuroprotective benefit, but we need to wait to see if future studies will support this finding.
Know your science. Coaches should not act as translators of sport science by speaking bro science to athletes. Athletes don’t need excessive or unnecessary science, but explanations we dumb down too much are sometimes just dumb. If you’re a coach, you should know the science. If you’re an athlete, thank you for reading this article to ensure you know what you’re taking. I also recommend hiring a good nutritionist or sport scientist to understand this supplement better.
Does Beta-Alanine Really Work?
A few studies have shown that Beta-Alanine won’t turn a donkey into a thoroughbred for a sport such as basketball. Much of the research is still in the early stages, meaning the designs of the studies are limited because there’s not enough history on the supplement to nail down a perfect study.
We must be equally critical of studies that show results compared to those that don’t. Coaches and athletes want supplements to work because they can offer an immediate benefit or a way to win, but I tend to be more skeptical and careful. Grabbing a meta-analysis and reading the conclusions is intellectually lazy and dangerous. If the original studies are suspect, we don’t need a summary of them. My point is that we need more rigorous studies to truly understand what’s going on, not that the current position papers and summary studies are invalid.
One cloudy issue with this supplement is that much of the research is tied to a company that sells a Beta-Alanine product. That’s not the end of the world and it’s normal, but it’s why I recommend repeating a study in your environment to see if a supplement makes a difference for you. Independence beyond the available research is a perfect and transparent solution that coaches can do. For now, the studies support that using Beta-Alanine for intense training is promising.
To make any sound conclusions, I recommend you read each study independently and if there’s a strong positive result, ask yourself if you can train or test as the researchers did within your program. A product that works for one population in its specific environment and circumstances doesn’t mean it will show up with your athletes. Many studies are open access and well written, so do your homework.
Beta-Alanine is not great for strength and power, as the research doesn’t show it helps with absolute output. It has promise as a training supplement to help improve workouts over time, which on paper can help a one-rep max, but it’s far from a shot of adrenaline. Increases in work rate during 4k cycling tests (but for some reason not for kayak and rowing) indicate Beta-Alanine is viable for athletes. The NSCA just posted a nice review of Beta-Alanine, which found it helpful with some sports—it looks like there’s enough information to support trying it.
Who Benefits from Beta-Alanine the Most?
I find Beta-Alanine helps CrossFit and some periods of high-density training for team and Olympic sport. Team sports engaged in repeated bouts of work may have a chance of reaping benefits. We also can use it to improve field testing and some forms of extended power, though these are not prized training methods.
Beta-Alanine is a training supplement, not an aide for a maximal effort or a quick fix. Based on the research, the supplement helps push through heavy training periods but doesn’t solve an acute need.
Workouts are tricky since old research summaries pointed out an arbitrary 1-3 minutes of activity, which is a little vague and dated. Fortunately, another meta-analysis review expanded their finding to 0.5-10 minutes, which means we should not expect a vertical to go up nor help with endurance for a triathlon. Even if Beta-Alanine helps recreational runners in a 10k run as the research claims, that’s much longer than 10 minutes.
There’s favorable research for improving isometric holds for about 30-60 seconds, so a half-minute is a great starting point. To help understand, think about lactate accumulation periods—Beta-Alanine can mitigate the burn. The effect isn’t huge, close to 2-3% in training, so it may be a plateau busting solution for those looking to make a breakthrough later.
I’ll cover more details of when, where, and for whom supplementation of Beta-Alanine makes sense later in this article.#BetaAlanine may help bust through a plateau for those looking to make a breakthrough later, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Although for the most part, endurance athletes appear not to be good candidates unless they believe their sprint at the end of the race will determine the outcome, I am cautiously optimistic. Conversely, for all-out absolute work, Beta-Alanine won’t provide a shortcut to better maximal strength.
Team sport and Olympic sport athletes may use it year round or during specific phases of their training. Extreme strength and power athletes may see a slight development phase support from Beta-Alanine, but powerlifters and Olympic lifters are not ideal candidates because they perform the most extreme training that has different fatigue roots.
Beta-Alanine is similar to creatine, meaning it helps with work and capacity style training, so don’t expect it to work as a stimulant; some studies show no effects. I’ve shared the essential information about the science of the supplement, but it’s better to focus on the populations and training that affect the results the most.
What about Beta-Alanine Tingling or Flush?
Beta-Alanine’s most common side effect reported by athletes is paresthesia, a numb-like tingling. I’ve tried Beta-Alanine and felt a little tingle, but no pain or itchiness. When I’ve split up Beta-Alanine into smaller doses during the day, I’ve yet to feel tingling with any product. But this is only my experience. Some athletes complain of itchiness, some like the way it feels because it makes them confident they are “lit up and ready,” and some don’t feel a thing. In the future, I’d love to see more studies to see if the side effect can be mitigated with creative administration techniques.
I’ve only had athletes use Beta-Alanine during development periods, so I don’t know if this becomes a problem after taking it for a long time. I know of several athletes who’ve taken high doses, near mega-dose levels beyond 10 grams a day, who feel no issues after using it for years. Outside of expensive urine tests, I’m not sure what happens with this protocol. I assume that after a certain dose, the carnosine levels saturate to a point where extra Beta-Alanine doesn’t do anything advantageous.
Still, the empirical and reported lack of effects with high doses makes me think that some of the hype is due to the placebo effect or the response is possibly related to an athlete’s genetics. A few professionals have recommended taking it with other products or with carbohydrates to reduce symptoms, but it’s very early to know what’s going on with the flush.
Time Released Products: Are they Worth It?
One of the biggest discussion points concerns dosing with sustained-release tablets or pure free form powder. It reminds me of the misleading information about the absorption of creatine and whey protein, where micronization promised big but delivered nothing special.
Research on Beta-Alanine sustained-release tablets showed some interesting findings—muscle’s carnosine content was noticeably higher with the slower release product. This is important for managing side effects (discussed above) and when considering the concept of uptake versus intake.
Update versus intake concerns how much of the supplement converts after swallowing either the pill or the powder, not the amount listed on the product label. If the research requires six grams, we need to take roughly six grams to avoid impaired results. The research is still embryonic, so optimal dose patterns have yet to be vetted fully. Most of us need about a month to see any results, and some research recommends ramping up slowly in the beginning.Taking Beta-Alanine few times a day is just as effective as a sustained released pill, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
I find that taking it a few times a day is just as effective as a sustained released pill. Simplifying the supplementation demands, however, will improve the likelihood an athlete will adhere to the protocol, so perhaps the added cost is worthwhile. Regardless, when a dedicated athlete takes a higher dose in smaller amounts to offset the conversion loss and the price is less, they can save money.
I’ve looked at prices online, and sustained release looks like a convenience worth exploring. Since the powder products are mainly flavorless, getting enough with power shots is reasonable. Bulk powders are generally common with amateur athletes, but the cost of NSF-approved and similar products means you likely need to use a sustained-release product to get the benefits from low dose administration.
Sustained release looks promising, and microdosing could be very promising for companies to experiment with as it’s both practical and inexpensive. Also, there’s no research on how split doses could affect paresthesia.
How to Cycle and Stack Beta-Alanine Smarter
A few words of caution: if you skipped to this part and failed to read the earlier parts of the article, you may be disappointed or misdirected. My recommendations here are very loose and limited. I’m not an expert on Beta-Alanine. I have far more experience with simple nutrient-based supplements like protein powders and iron supplementation. In the late 2000s, I started doing a little experimentation, and I felt the product didn’t work at all. After 2012 I gave it another try.
Based on the science and some real-world considerations, this outlines my current suggestions for speed and power athletes.
Before adding Beta-Alanine to other supplements, consider my recommendations for when to use it below. Remember it’s not a stimulant, so if you want to see results, you need to be weeks out to saturate the muscular system with higher amounts of carnosine. You can take the product without cycling, as water weight has not shown up as a side effect, but I still recommend not taking it during the off-season.#BetaAlanine is not a stimulant; to see results, you need to be weeks out from a competition, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Athletes should take 6-6.5 grams of Beta-Alanine for about four weeks; some protocols recommend less the first week. Expect to be “carnosine” enhanced after about a month and see results in training and possibly competition. Studies looking at whether Beta-Alanine helps acutely are not showing anything exciting, although other studies have shown an acute benefit.
When to Use Beta-Alanine
Workouts. Anaerobic conditioning and extended power or strength sessions are most likely affected by Beta-Alanine supplementation. If you never train in fatigue states and are very alactic, I don’t think you’ll see any tangible benefit. Most coaches, though, will observe some changes with heavy sessions that go longer, denser, or further (reps). Circuit style training and hypertrophy sessions may be good options for some athletes.
Competitions. It’s hard to say whether Beta-Alanine supplementation affects team sports because the chaotic nature of open sports makes evaluation difficult. Most team sport studies look at the training, but some researchers are attempting to find a connection to estimates of the pace of play or output. A promising Water Polo study hints to its potential, but personal experimentation is important.
Phases. I find you can go two ways with supplementation. One helps assist the building phases of training, such as the GPP (general preparation phase) and SPP (specific preparation phase). The second tackles supplementation as a boost for competition. From a practical standpoint, I prefer advanced athletes use Beta-Alanine in the off-season because natural buffering abilities are not likely to be impaired, but I’m also intrigued with the lack of or negative VO2 changes seen in research.
Now comes the next step, how to stack Beta-Alanine with other supplements. Every coach and athlete who are supplement fans pray for benefits from stacking, also known as multi-ingredient supplements. The wishful thinking of creating synergy by stacking two supplements to add up to more than the sum of the parts is just that, fantasy. So far no research is compelling nor shows a potent mixture that turns two good individual results into an explosive combination.
Theoretically, the products should all compete a bit, even though they involve separate mechanisms. Thus, stacking potentially could create diminishing returns, decreasing the return on supplement investment. And sometimes it only one works under specific conditions. Perhaps only so much physiological change is possible with similar supplements in the same category.
My only recommendation is to experiment with less first, and when an athlete advances—in their training, for example—save stacking for the elites. A high school football player should be worried about stacking his books more than his supplements.
My thoughts on chronic use are completely hypothetical, as I haven’t seen any research that’s looked at the chronic use of Beta-Alanine for athletic performance. Any permanent benefits or negative implications you ask? I don’t know of any, and it may be that supplementation enhances internal mechanisms. Issues with long-term use usually start as oral traditions before they’re studied formally. Like high protein consumption and creatine use, fears are just figments of one’s imagination.
Nutrients and recovery methods have been researched to discover any interferences with internal adaptations, and so far no research has hinted that using Beta-Alanine is a problem; otherwise, 4-8 week studies would show a blunting effect. I was there during the decade (the 1990s) of creatine monohydrate wars and have the “grape juice stains” to prove it.
Beta-Alanine appears safe, and some theoretical growth and health benefits are under study now. A research study of high-dose (double or 12 grams) and short duration with the military found some notable inflammation data, and I recommend reading the paper.
When budgeting and tailoring a nutritional program, I recommend a hierarchy of macro, micro, and nano. If you’re starving or malnourished, don’t spend 40 dollars on a tub of Beta-Alanine; you can spend the 500 dollars a year better on vitamin D and groceries. If all your priorities are in line and you want to experiment with Beta-Alanine, I recommend starting slow and ramping up your use during training when you have the flexibility to see the effects.
Some of my athletes have responded very well and experienced no tingling. A few athletes demand the tingle and feel it’s a great way to know the product is working. Either way, I suggest you have a smart plan in place and get comfortable using it before integrating it into competition if you’re a serious athlete. In time, the science will show more evidence of its effectiveness and how to apply it, but for now the science seems strong enough to say something is there. Time will tell with Beta-Alanine in sport.