In previous articles we discussed the best supplements for performance enhancement, such as creatine and caffeine.

Today we will review another group of supplements that work in a different way, and potentially complementary. Given the physical activity acidifies momentarily muscles, Compounds that counteract this effect could improve performance.

Below we explore the most studied supplements in this area: beta-alanine and bicarbonate.

Lactate and H +

For years we thought lactate was bad. It was assumed to be a simple metabolic waste, a necessary evil that accompanied energy production. Y since fatigue increased with increased blood lactate, this lactate was believed to be the cause. If you always see firefighters when there is fire, you could mistake them for arsonists.

Today, however, we know that lactate is actually one more energy source, in addition to an important signaling molecule (detail). Your muscles do not produce lactate to punish you, but to help you (detail).

That said, it is true that by activating our glycolytic system other compounds are also released, such as hydrogen ions (H +), which reduce the pH of the muscle and limit its contractile capacity (detail).

Body energy systems: the glycolytic system produces lactate and H +

And this is where compounds like the ones we’ll see below come into play, which act like buffer or pH buffer.

Beta-alanine

Beta-Alanine is a version special of the non-essential amino acid alanine. When ingested, it binds to the amino acid histidine to form carnosine. Supplement beta-alanine for several weeks raises carnosine levels by more than 60% muscular (study).

This carnosine has multiple functions, but at the level of sports performance we are especially interested in its ability to counteract muscle acidification, thus reducing fatigue.

What does the evidence say?

There are dozens of studies on the effects of beta-alanine, but focusing on the existing systematic reviews (meta-analysis, review, meta-analysis), we can conclude the following:

  • Supplementing for several weeks improves performance in high intensity, short duration activities: between 1 and 7 minutes. I mean, it could work for Crossfit athletes and weight lifters.
  • The improvement is statistically significant but small (<3%).
  • To see results, daily doses of 3-6g for at least 2-4 weeks.
  • In endurance activities the benefits are less clear, but could exist, especially in advanced athletes.
  • It could prevent neuromuscular fatigue, especially in older athletes.

It should be divided into several shots a day, ideally with meals, since insulin facilitates its entry into the muscle (study). Although it is commonly taken before training, actually works by cell saturation (like creatine), so you can include it whenever you want.

Dividing the dose also reduces the risk of the only reported side effect: paresthesia (detail), a harmless (but annoying) itching or tingling sensation, especially in the hands and face. If you are going to start for example with 3g / day, do three shots of one gram each.

Although there are no studies to propose very specific protocols, it seems to make sense to load with a higher dose for 3-4 weeks (4-5g / day), and then switch to maintenance doses (2-3g / day).

Not in food?

Beta-Alanine increases muscle carnosine levels, but we can obviously consuming carnosine directly from food. And as the name suggests, the best source is meat (including fish). For this reason, vegans have lower levels of muscle carnosine (study), but there are no studies on a possible greater effect of this supplement in athletes who do not consume meat (detail).

Another possibility would be to supplement directly with carnosine, but this would be broken down by our digestive system into its amino acids (beta-alanine and histidine), being more efficient simply providing beta-alanine.

Sodium bicarbonate

Few compounds are as versatile as humble baking soda. To its multiple domestic uses we can add the ability to improve performance, especially in short and intense efforts: HIIT sessions, series to failure … (review, review, meta-analysis).

Some examples:

  • Performance improvement in female basketball players (study).
  • More reps of squats to failure (study).
  • Reduction of the time in a rowing test of 2,000 meters, especially in the last part of the race (study).
  • Improvement in 4-minute test in cyclists (study).
  • Better performance in sprint intervals (study).
  • Less fatigue and performance degradation in tennis players (study) and boxers (study).

In fact, the results generally exceed those obtained with beta-alanine (meta-analysis), and it is also cheaper.

What then is the problem? The dose. To get benefits you need doses of 0.3-0.5 g / kg. If you weigh 70 kg, that represents 20-35 grams, and in many people this generates side effects, such as having to run to the bathroom.

To avoid this problem, more moderate protocols have also been studied, where instead of the traditional load (1-2 hours before training), they are done small shots distributed throughout the day, ideally with meals (study). This will reduce the side effects without affecting your result (study, study).

Tolerance and individual response is highly variable (detail, detail, detail), and there are also studies where no benefits are observed (review, study, study).

If you want to experiment, start with small doses (0.1-0.2 g / kg), and before taking it in a competition try it several times in training.

Synergies

Although the final operation is similar, the combination of bicarbonate and beta-alanine It might work better than either of them alone (study, study). Also, this could reduce the amount of baking soda needed, minimizing potential side effects.

The combination of Beta-Alanine and Sodium Bicarbonate (BA + SB) seems to work better than either of them alone. Source: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23595205

Both beta-alanine and sodium bicarbonate mainly enhance the glycolytic system, while creatine improves the phosphagen system. For that reason combine creatine with beta-alanine (study) or sodium bicarbonate (study) seems to bring additional benefits.

Conclusions

Intense activity momentarily acidifies the muscles, contributing to fatigue. Supplements such as beta-alanine or baking soda counteract this effect, slightly improving performance.

That said, the improvement is small (2-3%) and only for very specific activities, requiring high intensity efforts (not maximum), for a few minutes. They are therefore not among my most recommended supplements but they can help you in particular cases.