In my research, as well as in others from the early 1990s, we proved high intensity performance was significantly improved by taking creatine supplementation. Over a decade later, a similar story may be playing out with beta-alanine. Here’s how beta-alanine works, what it does for athletes, and how and when to take it.
Carnosine works by preventing muscle acid build-up
Muscle contains significant quantities of a substance called carnosine. Carnosine is a very important buffer, meaning it helps to maintain a normal balance of acidity in muscles. Fatigue during high-intensity exercise such as sprinting and weightlifting is linked to acid (hydrogen ion) build-up in the muscles and blood. This build-up is the burning sensation you may feel at the end of a hard bout of exercise. Muscles reduce work capacity when acid levels get too high. Therefore, increasing carnosine may delay fatigue and increase performance.
Carnosine is made from two amino acids: L-histidine and beta-alanine. Beta-alanine is made by our bodies and obtained in the diet. The reason beta-alanine may be more important than previously thought is that it’s rate-limiting in the synthesis of carnosine levels in muscles.
Beta-alanine boosts carnosine
If muscle carnosine is so important, why not just supplement with carnosine? Muscle is not able to take up carnosine directly because it’s largely destroyed in the gastrointestinal tract. That’s why researchers have focused on the precursor beta-alanine, which is directly taken up by muscle and then converted to carnosine.
In one of the first studies, the optimal dose of beta-alanine to elevate blood levels without side effects was determined to be 10 mg per kilogram body weight (750 mg for a 165-pound person). Subsequent studies examined the effects of supplementing with 800 mg of beta-alanine given multiple times daily. After four weeks of supplementation, muscle carnosine levels were significantly elevated by as much as 66%.
In another study, Belgium researchers supplemented elite 400-meter sprinters with 4.8g of beta-alanine per day divided into six equal doses of 800 mg. After four weeks, muscle carnosine in the calf was increased by 47%.
Unlike creatine, even subjects who started with very high levels of muscle carnosine experienced a significant increase, suggesting no ceiling effect. Increases in muscle carnosine mainly occur in the fast-twitch muscle fibers that are the high-force producing fibers that also produce the most acid.
Beta-alanine increases exercise performance
Given the role of carnosine in buffering acid accumulation in muscle, most studies have focused on high-intensity activity that leads to acid build-up. One study looked at a group of healthy men who supplemented with beta-alanine at doses ranging from 4g to 6.4g per day. Muscle biopsies were taken from the leg to measure the accumulation of muscle carnosine, and a performance test was given before and after supplementation to determine the effects on work and power during high intensity exercise.
After four weeks, beta-alanine increased muscle carnosine levels, and by 10 weeks, carnosine levels were almost two-fold higher than baseline. Further, beta-alanine resulted in a 16% increase in total work done during an all-out cycle test that lasted about 2.5 minutes.
In another study, beta-alanine supplementation increased total work done during a strength training session by 20%.
Ideal for weight training
Beta-alanine primarily works for high intensity anaerobic exercise such as weight lifting. However, beta-alanine has not been shown to increase maximal strength or improve aerobic activity since these two types of exercises are not limited by acid build-up. Many other researchers have examined performance and have shown that improvements with beta-alanine are most commonly seen during anaerobic exercise that increases acid such as multiple bouts of high-intensity, short-duration activity and single bouts of high-intensity exercise lasting more than 60 seconds. That makes it ideal for high-volume, multi-set weight training.
Beta-alanine plus creatine increased lean mass and reduced body fat
Some studies have combined beta-alanine with creatine. In one study, three groups of healthy strength athletes were randomized into a placebo group, a creatine group (10.5g of creatine per day) and a creatine plus beta-alanine group (10.5g of creatine plus 3.2g of beta-alanine per day). Supplements were consumed in divided doses twice per day for 10 weeks. All groups performed a 10-week resistance training program. The creatine/beta-alanine combination group experienced the greatest increases in lean body mass compared to placebo. The combination group also had the greatest reduction in percent body fat compared to placebo.
Tingling effect of beta-alanine
When you take more than 750-800 mg of beta-alanine at a time, you’ll be at the threshold of noticing a tingling, pricking or numbness sensation on the skin — a condition called paresthesia. When taking higher doses, this harmless condition usually disappears after an hour of use. Some users don’t mind the mild, tingling flush when using higher doses, and with more frequent use, the sensation tends to diminish.
How much should you take
Research indicates the largest increases in muscle carnosine have been observed with a dose of 6.4g of beta-alanine per day, but increases can also be achieved with amounts as low as 3.2g per day. To avoid the single dose tingling effect, take 750-800 mg (for a 165-180 pound person), 4-8 times daily. Even at the lower level of 3.2g per day, men supplementing twice per day with 1.6g of beta-alanine for four weeks were still able to boost muscle carnosine levels by 59%. More and more products are now including beta-alanine in their formulas, especially pre-exercise products with blends of creatine, stimulants like caffeine, and a host of other nutrients. Taking beta-alanine before a workout would be a good idea, but like creatine, timing is not critical since the goal is to achieve an overall muscle saturation of carnosine.