As a runner, you train hard and fuel your body. But you might be wondering if there are any supplements that could help give you a little edge? Whether you’re a track athlete or a distance runner, you may want to consider taking a look at beta alanine.
Disclosure: This post was sponsored by NOW®. As always, all opinions are my own.
Disclaimer: This post was written and reviewed by Chrissy Carroll, MPH, RD, RRCA Running Coach. It is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as medical advice. Consult a doctor or dietitian about supplement questions.
What is beta alanine?
Beta alanine is an amino acid that is produced in the body. We also get it by eating foods like meat, or taking beta alanine supplements.
Your body uses beta alanine along with another amino acid called l-histidine to create carnosine in your muscles.
Carnosine is thought to help athletes in several ways:
- Buffers acids produced in the muscle during high-intensity exercise, helping to delay fatigue and prolong the length of time the muscle can keep working at that intensity;*
- Acts as a free radical scavenger to reduce potential damage to muscle cells that is produced during exercise;*.
- Potentially affects muscle contractile function through effects on calcium handling.*
Why supplement with beta alanine instead of carnosine?
Supplementing with carnosine isn’t as efficient because the body breaks it down into its two amino acids during digestion. The total amount of carnosine in your muscles is limited by your body’s beta alanine levels. As such, taking beta-alanine is thought to be the best way to increase intra-muscular carnosine.*
For example, research in 400-meter track athletes showed that beta alanine supplementation led to increases in carnosine in the calf muscles.* Other research has confirmed that supplementation with beta alanine increased muscular carnosine content among both active males and older adults.*
Does beta alanine supplementation help runners?
There are not a ton of studies specific to running, and data has been mixed.
However, there are highlights from several other studies suggesting key benefits for runners:
- In a study of male recreational club runners, beta alanine supplementation for 28 days led to improved 800-m running times;*
- Among physically active adults, beta alanine supplementation for 23 days led to improved 10K running performance;*
- Research on 400-meter track athletes found that beta alanine supplementation improved dynamic knee extension torque during the later bouts of an exercise protocol (of intense dynamic contractions).* This alludes to delayed muscle fatigue.* (However, note there was no difference in 400-meter race time in this case.);
- Another study found that beta alanine supplementation led to lower ratings of perceived exertion at the end of a 40-minute treadmill run when comparing pre- to post-supplementation, meaning the exercise subjectively felt easier (despite no difference in performance).*
We can also look at research outside of running. For example…
- Research in Amino Acids found beta alanine supplementation improved time to exhaustion during a submaximal and incremental treadmill test in inactive older adults.*
- A study in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise found that those who supplemented with beta alanine increased mean power output by 5% and peak power output by 11.4% during the final sprint phase after a cycling time trial, compared to the placebo group.*
- Research on collegiate football players showed that beta alanine supplementation resulted in higher training volume for the bench press and subjectively lower ratings of fatigue during training, compared to the placebo group.*
- A study in Amino Acids found beta alanine supplementation was linked to a 13.9% increase in ventilatory threshold, a 12.6% increase in working capacity at fatigue threshold, and a 2.5% increase in time to exhaustion during cycling tests.*
- Research on active males suggests that beta alanine supplementation improved total work during a cycling exercise test by 16.2% after 10 weeks, compared to no improvement in the control group.*
In addition, the International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand on beta alanine states “daily supplementation with 4 to 6 g of beta-alanine for at least 2 to 4 weeks has been shown to improve exercise performance, with more pronounced effects in open end-point tasks/time trials lasting 1 to 4 min in duration.”*
So what’s the final word for runners? The jury is still out! But given the data above, it’s possible that beta alanine supplements could help runners in the following ways:
- Delay muscle fatigue making exercise at certain intensities or certain lengths feel less exerting, even if performance doesn’t change.* More research needs to be done to determine exactly what modalities, distances, and intensities this applies to;
- Possible (but not conclusive) improvements in performance with shorter distance running – think 800-meter and 1-mile races;*
- Possible (but not conclusive) improvements in sprint performance at the end of a longer endurance race.*
Should you try beta alanine?
I always recommend a solid training protocol and balanced diet as the first steps in optimizing performance. If you’ve done those and you’re looking to experiment with supplements, beta alanine could be a good option! (Assuming you are a healthy adult – consult a physician if pregnant/nursing, taking medication, or if you have a medical condition).
NOW® Sports is my preferred brand for sports nutrition supplements for several reasons – they put a lot of effort into scientifically backed products, the ingredients are high quality, and the products have an Informed-Sport certification to assure they’re pure and free from banned substances. Their beta alanine supplements use CarnoSyn®, a patented form of beta alanine that was used in some (but not all) of the research studies mentioned above.
PS – You can score 20% off your order of NOW® Sports products with code CHRISSY! Feel free to also take a peek at all the helpful resources for athletes in the NOW® Sports Hub, including their info about beta alanine.
Timing and Dosage
Most research studies use dosages of 2 to 6.4 grams per day of beta alanine (in divided doses), and the ISSN position paper noted effects with 4 to 6 grams per day. As such, a dosage that fits in those ranges may be reasonable to start with. You may want to consult a dietitian for specific dosages that are best for your body.
Beta alanine is not time dependent; you don’t need to take it all at once in a pre-workout. Taking it in smaller, divided doses throughout the day is ideal.
Keep in mind the specific dosage and any beneficial effects may depend on genetics and baseline carnosine levels. For example, your baseline levels can be influenced by diet, training, and muscle fiber type.
Are there any side effects or safety concerns?
Sometimes beta alanine can cause a tingling sensation, like “pins and needles”. While it’s a harmless side effect, it can be a bit annoying. You can reduce the risk of this by avoiding large doses at once, and instead taking divided doses to reach the full daily amount in the ranges mentioned above.
Many people notice that this sensation can also fade with time as you get used to the supplement.
As far as long-term safety concerns – there is not much research out there on long-term supplementation. However, keep in mind that we eat beta-alanine regularly in food without issue, so it’s unlikely that supplementation would cause serious concerns.
The Bottom Line
Beta alanine may be a good option for a runner considering supplements. If you choose to try it out, look for a high-quality product with third party certification, like NOW® Sports Beta Alanine products. Take divided doses throughout the day (to avoid the tingling sensation side effect). After taking the supplement regularly for a month, monitor your performance and perceived exertion to see if you notice any changes. And of course, always discuss supplementation plans with a doctor or dietitian.
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