Creatine's already got a well-deserved spot in the pantheon of dietary supplements. Take it consistently and it'll be there to support your ATP-PCr energy system so you can do more reps.
The trouble is, creatine is kind of like the guy who has attention deficit disorder. He'll be right on point, concentration wise, for 20, 30, or 40 seconds, possibly up to a minute, but after that his mind wanders to bubble gum, or the pretty birdie that just flew by, or how it's really hard to find good pie at restaurants anymore.
Same with creatine. Once your set or session of chosen exercise activity extends beyond 60 seconds, creatine's not much help. That wasn't a problem in the past, at least as far as weightlifters were concerned, because they rarely did any lifting or exercise that lasted longer than 20, 30, or maybe 40 seconds.
Enter CrossFit. And HIIT. And interval training. All these new-fangled exercise modalities that involve 1 to 5 minute-long bouts, typically with rest intervals lasting less than 2 minutes.
In cases like that, creatine merely sits on the sidelines feeling like college football's Rudy, but alas, unlike Rudy, he doesn't get to go in for the final play and get carried off on the shoulders of his teammates.
Staying in for the final play or, for that matter, any activity lasting for longer than 60 seconds or so, is instead the purview of beta-alanine, a non-essential amino acid that, like a longer-lasting creatine, increases the amount of work you can do at high intensities.
Does Beta-Alanine Really Work?
Studies have consistently shown that beta-alanine increases strength, muscle-power output, training volume, high-intensity exercise performance, and aerobic capacity in a variety of sports.
Soccer players who ingested 3.2 grams of beta-alanine every day for 12 weeks increased their performance by 34.3 percent, compared to -7.6% in a group receiving placebo. Boxers who took 1.5 grams of beta-alanine four times a day increased the force of their punches by 20 times and the rate at which they threw punches by four times, compared to a placebo group.
Another study, this one involving competitive rowers, found that beta-alanine supplementation improved 2,000-meter rowing performance by 2.9 seconds, which is equivalent to at least a couple of scull lengths.
Even the military has found that there's direct evidence supporting the use of beta-alanine to enhance combat-specific performance (even though they haven't adopted its use, or for that matter, officially recommended any sports supplement).
And, since it's a hybrid between GABA and L-glycine, two powerful neurotransmitters, plenty of scientists are also classifying beta alanine as a secondary neurotransmitter, which is why users also benefit from its stimulatory effects.
Lately, beta-alanine has even been found to be of possible use in treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression, as well as lowering anxiety and the "startle response" in animal experiments.
How Does Beta Alanine Improve Performance?
Carnosine is a di-peptide molecule that's made of two amino acids: histidine and, ta-da, beta alanine.
If you ingest more beta-alanine, you create more carnosine. This is important because carnosine sucks up reactive oxygen species, which soar super-high during exercise. More importantly, at least more importantly to performance, carnosine protects against the build-up of hydrogen ions during high-intensity exercise.
This prevents pH from dropping, thus preventing the loss or diminution of enzyme function and muscle-excitation coupling that you need in order to keep on exercising.
Can I Get Enough Beta-Alanine From Whole Foods?
The three or four of you out there that took Latin in school probably recognize that the word carnosine is derived from carnem, the Latin word for meat.
That should suggest to you that beta alanine is found in meat and that there are no plant-based sources of the amino acid. However, you'd have to eat a small petting zoo's worth of meat to get enough beta alanine to have any discernible ergogenic affect.
Considering that the daily dose range of beta alanine is between 1.6 to 6.4 grams, you'd have to Joey-Chestnut down between 400 and 1600 grams of chicken breast or 300 to 1200 grams of turkey breast per day.
Clearly, getting your beta alanine through supplementation is easier on your alimentary tract.
What's the Best Way to Take Beta Alanine?
Much like creatine, you can't just take beta alanine right now and expect it to kick in 15 minutes from now as you pull into the gym parking lot. Beta alanine takes its time and gradually builds up levels of muscle carnosine.
In fact, the size of individual doses doesn't even matter much. Instead, it's the total dose over time that affects muscle carnosine levels. Furthermore, carnosine has a super long clearance rate in the muscle, so pretty much the longer you take it, the better you'll be able to perform any form of exercise lasting between 1 and 5 minutes.
If, after some period of time, you stopped taking it, levels would decline at the rate of approximately 2% every two weeks, which is glacial as far as clearance rates go. So take beta alanine before a workout if it's more convenient that way, but it doesn't really matter much when you take it.
All that being said, and as mentioned above, beta-alanine is also considered a secondary neurotransmitter, meaning that it has a stimulatory effect.
Unlike the endurance and strength-building capacities of beta-alanine that take a few days to kick in, the stimulatory properties kick in within minutes, at which point you might feel a mild burning or itching feeling on your scalp or arms.
This phenomenon is called "parasthesia." It's mildly annoying but painless, and it disappears quickly. That, by the way, is the only known side effect of beta-alanine supplementation.
Where Do I Find Beta-Alanine?
Biotest doesn't sell beta-alanine as a standalone product, preferring instead to use it as an ingredient in two separate products:
- In Surge® Workout Fuel, where beta-alanine is stacked with other ergogenic compounds like citrulline malate and betaine, all three of which, when combined with Surge's large amounts of L-leucine and cyclic dextrin, maximize strength and explosiveness while minimizing exercise fatigue.
- In Spike® Hardcore Energy Drink, where beta-alanine's neurotransmitter capabilities add to those of acetyl-l-carnitine and caffeine to help you mentally and physically muscle your way through a tough workout.
If instead you choose to use beta-alanine as a stand-alone product, consider stacking it with things like citrulline malate, functional carbohydrates, and BCAAs (which is what Surge® Workout Fuel has already done for you).
Related: The Legal Performance Enhancer
Related: Your Guide to Pre-Workout Supplements
- Artioli, G. G., Gualano, B., Smith, A., Stout, J. & Lancha, A. H. "Role of beta-alanine supplementation on muscle carnosine and exercise performance," Med. Sci. Sports Exerc. 42, 1162-73 (2010).
- Derave, W. et al. "Beta-Alanine supplementation augments muscle carnosine content and attenuates fatigue during repeated isokinetic contraction bouts in trained sprinters," J. Appl. Physiol. 103, 1736-43 (2007).
- Derave, W., Everaert, I., Beeckman, S. & Baguet, A. "Muscle carnosine metabolism and beta-alanine supplementation in relation to exercise and training," Sports Med. 40, 247-63 (2010).
- Donovan, Tim, et al. "B-Alanine Improves Punch Force and Frequency in Amateur Boxers During a Simulated Contest," Human Kinetics Journal, Volume 22: Issue 5 pages 331-337.
- Hill, C. A. et al. "Influence of beta-alanine supplementation on skeletal muscle carnosine concentrations and high intensity cycling capacity," Amino Acids 32, 225-33 (2007).
- Hoffman, J. R., Stout, J. R., Harris, R. C., & Moran, D. S. (2015), "β-Alanine supplementation and military performance," Amino acids, 47(12), 2463–2474.
- Hoffman, JR, Stout, JR, et al. "β-Alanine supplementation and military performance." International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 2015 Dec;47(12):2463-74.