The Upshot, Upfront:
Beta alanine seems to work best during all-out efforts lasting one to ten minutes.
It’s intended to stave off fatigue during those efforts.
The science behind beta alanine is intriguing.
I became familiar with beta alanine several years ago when Beachbody included it in their pre-workout supplement, Beachbody Performance Energize. They graciously provided it to my cycling team, Big Orange Cycling. The racers absolutely took to this ergogenic performance booster, nicknaming it everything from “rocket fuel” to “race crack.”
The Beachbody marketing folks weren’t too stoked on that last nickname, but whatever. It proves an anecdotal point; A lot of athletes use and believe in beta alanine.
Should you use it? If you don’t exercise in a hard, prolonged way, probably not. Beyond that, I’m not the boss of you, so it’s not my job to decide—but I can tell you how it works.
What is beta alanine?
Beta alanine is an amino acid. As we’ve discussed, amino acids work as building blocks in our bodies. In this case, beta alanine combines with another amino acid called histidine to make a dipeptide called carnosine. (“Dipeptide” is a fancy word for two amino acids stapled together.)
Carnosine does a lot of things in the body, including delaying muscle fatigue. It occurs naturally, but taking beta alanine can help create more.
Beta alanine is considered safe. It’s not on any banned list that I know of, including WADA and the IOC.
A long, windy explanation of how beta alanine works.
Your cells are fueled by stuff called adenosine triphosphate, or ATP. Everything you consume for fuel eventually converts to ATP—and that’s what makes you go.
Your muscles generate ATP a few different ways. The most common way is aerobic metabolism, which involves oxygen. This metabolism typically works during less intense activities. As long as your muscles get enough O2, they can continue to generate ATP for a long time. I’m not saying you can sustain a light jog or Jazzersize indefinitely, but you can do these things until other factors set in—such as exhaustion, boredom, or public humiliation because community Jazzersize sessions do NOT allow for the improvisation that the word “jazz” implies.
When you go so hard that your muscles cannot get enough oxygen—like when you sprint or lift weights to failure—it triggers anaerobic metabolism, which literally means “without oxygen.” This system can only create a small amount of ATP before you’re done.
Once you stop or slow down, oxygen flow resumes and recharges the supplies needed to make more ATP. It also flushes a byproduct of anaerobic metabolism called pyruvate out of your muscles. This is why it’s useful to pause between sets when lifting weights.
Prolonged efforts such as running your fastest mile or riding your bike up a long hill tend to gray the line between aerobic and anaerobic. You’re basically flip flopping between the two metabolisms so that your aerobic moments can recharge your anaerobic moments. However, you’re not flushing out that pyruvate. This causes a chain of events that lowers the pH in your muscles, meaning they become more acidic. And this causes fatigue so that you slow down.
Carnosine, which exists naturally in muscle, acts as an acid buffer, so that you can fend off the dropping pH and prolong your effort.
Keep in mind that this acidification isn’t the only reason you get fatigued during hard efforts, but current science seems to feel it’s an important one. Also note that carnosine appears to benefit muscles in additional ways, like managing calcium and functioning as an antioxidant.
Carnosine shows up in meat. You can also buy it in supplement form. But here’s the (dry) rub: When you consume carnosine, it breaks down into its components beta alanine and histidine, then reassembles in the liver. By supplementing beta alanine, you’re skipping an unnecessary step in the process.
Beta alanine also shows up in animal products—and the liver produces it naturally—but not in the levels you can get from supplements.
Conversely, you get all the histidine you need from your diet, so there’s no need to supplement that.
While not a slam dunk like caffeine or creatine, research on athletes tends to smile favorably on beta alanine. A 2019 British Journal of Sports Medicine review of 40 studies found it to be ergogenic, especially during 30-second-to-ten-minute efforts. It also found it more beneficial to lesser trained athletes.
A 2020 meta-analysis in the journal Nutrients found it to have a “small” effect during that aerobic-anaerobic transition I explained earlier, but still noted, “…small changes in individual performance must be considered, since they can be the difference between success and failure among high-level and elite athletes.”
Finally, there’s another meta-analysis from 2021 in the Clinical Journal ESPEN finding beta alanine to be ergogenic for Yo-Yo tests. Initially, I was tickled pink about this one because I thought someone had invented some sort of high-intensity sport involving yo-yos. Then I realized they were referring to a type of intermittent running drills developed in the 90s.
The prickly issue.
If you’re new to beta alanine, you might be put off by paresthesia—the prickly “pins and needles” feeling some people get when taking it. Although it can be uncomfortable, it’s a completely harmless side effect that somehow fires up the neurons under your skin.
Speaking from personal experience, you get used to the effect and it fades after a few weeks. A lot of athletes I know like the feeling because they associate it with a “kick ass workout.”
How much and how often?
The Yo-Yo study supplementation worked when people took beta alanine chronically for six to 12 weeks straight. It’s generally thought that you need to build up carnosine levels, like you do with creatine. There’s some research showing maybe some benefit from acute usage, but if you’re going to do it, you’re better off sticking to daily usage.
The International Society of Sports Nutrition recommends four to six grams daily for at least four weeks to see results. If the pricklies are too much for you, spread that dosage across your day however you see fit.
CarnoSyn is an especially well-regarded beta alanine ingredient supplier, so you might look for their stamp on the label of whatever product you want to use.
Either way, I consider beta alanine worth trying—as long as you’re into all-out efforts. If you’re hardcore enough about it, it might even work for Jazzersize.
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Interesting (as usual), Denis. How do you take your beta alanine? Pills or powder?