Beat the Burn: Beta-Alanine and Muscular Endurance
How much endurance do your muscles really have? Try sprinting around a track for as long as possible. I promise you won’t be able to keep this up for more than a few minutes or a couple of laps. Why? Because your body simply can’t produce enough energy to fuel such a high level of intense activity for very long. But you can improve how hard you can go and how much you can accomplish before your muscles give out. One obvious way is training. Another is proper supplementation. And one supplement that’s garnering a lot of attention in that regard is beta-alanine.
To understand how this amino acid works, it helps to know a bit about how it functions in the body.
A Quick Rundown on Energy Production
Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is the body’s go-to energy source, and it can be created by any of three different systems. The one that’s used depends on the intensity and duration of exercise.
At one end of the energy production spectrum is the phosphagen system, which metabolizes creatine phosphate to support short bursts of intense activity lasting up to about 10 seconds. If you do a 100-meter sprint or perform a barbell snatch, that’s the system you use. At the other end of the spectrum is the oxidative system, which uses oxygen along with carbohydrates, fats, or even proteins to support low intensity activity lasting longer than 2 to 3 minutes (think: aerobic endurance). If you’re a runner, this is where you live.
However, right in the middle there is the glycolytic system, which metabolizes muscle glycogen to create ATP. This is the predominate system relied upon during intense activity lasting from 10 seconds up to around 2 minutes (e.g., interval training). However, one of the main metabolites (a product of metabolism) of this process is lactic acid. The body can process a certain amount of lactic acid, but when it cannot keep up with the high production during prolonged glycolysis (i.e., using glucose for energy), like during the 800-meter dash or a round of boxing, tissue becomes acidified and muscles begin to feel fatigued and “pumped.” This eventually results in muscular failure.
Carnosine buffers muscular acidification thus helping to prolong the glycogen system’s ability to generate energy. The body stores carnosine in muscle tissue and releases it into the system when muscle pH begins to drop. Increased concentrations of muscular carnosine have been linked with increased muscular endurance. So for those of us that want to improve our ability to engage in intense exercise for longer periods of time, more carnosine seems to be a very good thing. So we should all start taking carnosine supplements, right? Well, not quite.
A More Efficient Method
Carnosine is a dipeptide (i.e., two amino acid) protein comprised of beta-alanine and L-histidine. When carnosine is consumed, either in supplement form or from natural sources like animal proteins, it is broken down into these constituent aminos. Beta-alanine and L-histidine are then transported into muscle cells, where they are recombined to form carnosine once again. However, beta-alanine is the rate-limiting factor here, meaning you generally have access to less of it than you do of L-histidine (I know, the math doesn’t seem to add up, but trust me on this). So when dietary carnosine is consumed, only a portion of it is productively used to generate carnosine in muscle tissue. As a result, the most efficient way to produce muscular carnosine is to simply ingest beta-alanine on its own.
How to Use Beta-Alanine
The goal of beta-alanine supplementation is to maximize carnosine concentration in muscle tissue throughout the body. Current research indicates that an ideal strategy is to take 1,600 mg a day in two 800 mg doses (although 1,600 mg at once is acceptable, too). Because it takes time to elevate carnosine concentration, results typically occur after 1 to 2 months of daily use.
The only common side effect from beta-alanine consumption is a harmless, but potentially uncomfortable symptom called paresthesia. It’s characterized by a tingling sensation throughout the body, and most often occurs with higher doses (although some people experience the symptom with doses as low as 800 mg). If you experience paresthesia, try taking several smaller (i.e., less than 800 mg) doses of beta-alanine throughout the day instead of one or two large ones.
Focused training will, of course, improve and extend muscular endurance. But research seems to show that supplementing with beta-alanine may also improve the body’s ability to produce the energy necessary to fuel intense activity. More output means bigger gains in the gym — and stronger performance in your sport of choice.