Perhaps the two most important questions regarding beta-alanine – or any supplement – are, “how will this supplement affect my performance,” and, “what is the dose required to attain that benefit, if benefits exist?” Luckily for cyclists and runners, beta-alanine does improve cycling and running performance. It’s also feasible to achieve these benefits with only a few grams of beta-alanine per day. As an added bonus, beta-alanine is one of the more thoroughly researched supplement ingredients, with at least 60 investigations conducted on its ergogenic effects.
Beta-Alanine for Cycling and Running Performance
Let’s review a few of those studies here. The early investigations on beta-alanine for improving athletic performance were conducted in 2007 after some studies in 2006 verified that oral supplementation of beta-alanine was effective for increasing muscle carnosine (1). A study by Zoeller et al. examined the effects of beta-alanine and creatine following 4 weeks of loading. This study actually had 4 groups, placebo, beta-alanine only, creatine only, and beta-alanine + creatine (2). After 4 weeks, the beta-alanine group had a 10% improvement in power output during a graded cycling exercise test that lasted about 4 minutes. When beta-alanine and creatine are supplemented at the same time, this not only improves power output, but oxygen consumption as well! The doses used in this study were 1.6 grams beta-alanine and 5.25 grams of creatine consumed 4 times per day (total 6.4 grams beta-alanine, 21 grams creatine per day) for the first 6 days and twice per day thereafter (total 3.2 grams beta-alanine, 10.5 grams creatine per day).
To extrapolate a little, 4 minutes is 240 seconds, and this is often what is touted as the “time range of benefits” for beta-alanine due to the aforementioned study and a few others that just examine sprint or distance performance. It suggests that beta-alanine is only effective during the first 4 minutes of exercise. This is great for sprinters, weightlifters, and other athletes participating in short duration exercise. However, it poorly represents the full scope of beta-alanine’s effects. Beta-alanine increases carnosine, and carnosine buffers lactic acid, so we can push our hardest a little longer. As we know all too well, lactic acid can build up during any period of high-intensity effort – including when we are hours deep into a race and need to make a pass, get up a hill, or sprint to the finish.
Beta-alanine is effective for any short burst of exercise, whether it occurs at the beginning of exercise (e.g., in the first 4 minutes) or hours into the bout. Van Thienen and colleagues studied beta-alanine and its effects on performance immediately after a 110 minute simulated cycling race (3). Participants performed the testing procedures before and after an 8-week supplementation period with a similar loading protocol featuring 2-4 grams of beta-alanine per day. Following the ~2 hour bout, the cyclists performed a 30 second sprint test. Their maximum power output after beta-alanine supplementation was over 11% greater than those supplementing with placebo, and average power output during the 30 seconds was 8% greater after supplementing beta-alanine. This study shows that beta-alanine supplementation improves “bursts” of speed within the context of a normal race!
While repeated hills or sprints during – versus just at the end of – a long race have not been investigated to our knowledge, it is our theory that beta-alanine maintains its ergogenic effect. Because at the end of the race, you can sprint it out without consequence of intense fatigue afterwards, so we think that during a race, you still need to be a little bit more conservative. However, beta-alanine will still benefit high-intensity efforts, and it will do so as frequently as lactic acid clears after the push. For example, you’re cycling along at normal race pace (at or near maximal lactate steady state), sprint for 20 seconds to make a pass (above maximal lactate steady state), return to normal race pace (lactic acid that was built up is of less quantity with than without beta-alanine and clears in 2 minutes instead of 4 minutes), you’re ready for another pass sooner with beta-alanine and ultimately improve your finish position as a result.
Beta-Alanine Cycling – Do you Need to Come “Off” the Supplement?
There is currently no evidence that long-term beta-alanine supplementation is harmful or that supplementing with beta-alanine for a period of time will negatively affect natural carnosine levels following the supplementation period. In short, there is no suggestion that beta-alanine must be cycled. After beta-alanine is no longer being supplemented by the athlete, it actually takes quite a while for carnosine levels to return to normal, as carnosine is a very stable metabolite. As a point of reference, normal muscle carnosine concentrations are between 5-10 mM (greater in anaerobic athletes). 4 weeks of 6.4 grams beta-alanine per day increases muscle carnosine by over 60% to 8-16 mM. After cessation of beta-alanine supplementation, muscle carnosine decreases at a rate of only 0.2 mM per week! That means it would take about 15 weeks (almost 4 months) to return to baseline.
The efficacious dose of beta-alanine is between 3.2 and 6.4 grams per day, and in this case, more does appear to be better for increasing muscle carnosine concentrations. The upper limit to muscle carnosine concentrations is currently unknown, but it does continue to increase with escalating doses of beta-alanine. For example, 2.3 grams of beta-alanine daily increases muscle carnosine by 42%, but 6.4 grams per day increases muscle carnosine by 64%. Clearly, there is an asymptotic effect occurring, but it strongly suggests a continuous increase.
Beta-alanine is considered a safe supplement. However, it does have one well-known side effect – paresthesia. Otherwise known as tingling, paresthesia is a harmless side effect of beta-alanine. Beta-alanine activates a group of genes known as the Mas-related genes. These are related to sensory neurons that – as part of our “neural highway” – run to, and end, in the skin. Beta-alanine simply excites these sensory neurons and we feel it as tingling in or skin – mostly in the face and hands where they are in high concentrations. This makes sense, as we primarily sense with our face and hands. Some people feel paresthesia very intensely while others do not at all – it is all related to the Mas-related genes and individual variations!
For more reading on the science of beta-alanine, click the links on references 4-6 to see reviews on the topic.
Many supplements contain beta-alanine. However, few use an efficacious dose. PerformElite by EndurElite uses a complete dose of 3.2 grams of beta-alanine per serving (because 6.4 would make you itch your skin right off). It’s also accompanied by 9 other efficacious and properly-dosed ingredients like beet root, taurine, and PeakO2 mushrooms, to name a few!
- Harris RC, Tallon MJ, Dunnett M, Boobis L, Coakley J, Kim HJ, et al. The absorption of orally supplied beta-alanine and its effect on muscle carnosine synthesis in human vastus lateralis. Amino Acids. 2006;30(3):279–89. doi:10.1007/s00726-006-0299-9
- Zoeller, R. F., Stout, J. R., O’kroy, J. A., Torok, D. J., & Mielke, M. (2007). Effects of 28 days of beta-alanine and creatine monohydrate supplementation on aerobic power, ventilatory and lactate thresholds, and time to exhaustion. Amino acids, 33(3), 505-510.
- Van, R. T., Van, K. P., Vanden, B. E., Puype, J., Lefere, T., & Hespel, P. (2009). Beta-alanine improves sprint performance in endurance cycling. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 41(4), 898-903.