Beta-alanine is a naturally occurring amino acid (protein fragment) found in the body. It first hit the headlines back in 1999 when it was found to be present in samples taken from a meteorite known as Nakhla.
These days however, beta-alanine is better known on Earth for its apparent ability to help counteract the build up of fatiguing lactate during high-intensity exercise. This in turn can enhance sprint and short-distance performances lasting around 30 seconds to two minutes.
>> Struggling to get to the shops? Try 6 issues of Cycling Weekly magazine for just £6 delivered to your door <<
There is however some confusion over beta-alanine supplementation; some recent studies have suggested that, while it seems to improve the performance of recreational athletes, it may not be so effective at enhancing performance in elite athletes — possibly because their ability to clear lactate from working muscles is already extremely efficient.
Now a new study has attempted to provide a definitive answer to this question.
In the study, 40 men were split into two groups: trained and non-trained cyclists. The members of each group were then randomly allocated to receive either beta-alanine (6.4 grams per day) or an inert placebo, for four weeks. This meant there were four conditions: trained taking beta-alanine, trained taking placebo, untrained taking beta-alanine and untrained taking placebo.
Before and after the four-week supplementation period, the subjects were tested for their peak and average anaerobic power. This consisted of 4×30-second cycling sprints, with three minutes rest in between each sprint.
The results showed that, compared to placebo, the total work done in the sprint tests was significantly increased in both the trained and the untrained cyclists, when they had taken the beta-alanine supplement. The average power output in the last 30-second sprint was also increased when the untrained cyclists took beta-alanine. For the trained cyclists meanwhile, the beta-alanine improved average power output even more effectively, with gains seen in the first, second and last 30-second sprints.
Amino Acids. 2014 Feb 6.
The bigger picture
Although there have been question marks over beta-alanine’s effectiveness for enhancing sprinting power in trained athletes such as cyclists, the researchers in this study were left in no doubt about its efficacy, commenting: “Beta-alanine supplementation was effective at improving repeated high-intensity cycling performance in both trained and non-trained individuals, highlighting its efficiency as an ergogenic aid for high-intensity exercise, regardless of the training status of the individual.”
These findings fit well with previous research involving trained cyclists, which showed that average and peak power output during a sprint at the end of a 110-minute simulated race was increased by 5 per cent and 11.4 per cent respectively when the cyclists had supplemented with 2.4 grams per day of beta-alanine(1).
However, it’s important to be clear that beta-alanine only enhances very short-duration high-intensity performance — e.g. sprint-type cycling. In the study mentioned, beta-alanine did not improve performance in a 110-minute simulated race. And in a study on trained cyclists who were asked to perform a one-hour time trial, 6.4 grams per day of beta-alanine also failed to improve performance(2).
Research suggests beta-alanine enhances short, high intensity performance
Applying the science
If you’re a sprint cyclist, 2.5-6.5g per day of beta-alanine supplementation for four weeks may help enhance your sprinting performance. For other cyclists, however, any benefits will be minimal. If you’re tempted to try it:
– Always take beta-alanine with food — not on an empty stomach.
– Don’t fall into the ‘performance in a bottle’ trap — the benefits of beta-alanine will only be realised if all the other fundamental principles (e.g. correct sprint-training regime, correct hydration and nutrition) are already in place.
1. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2009 Apr;41(4):898-903
2. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2014 Jan 17