Chasing Marginal Gains: Beta-Alanine

By Jiri Kaloc

Marginal gains have been popularised in cycling by Team Sky a few years back. But it’s not something exclusive to professional cyclists. Anyone who has been cycling for a while and has already dialled in the basics of training, nutrition, and recovery can go further. In this article, we will take a look at the supplement beta-alanine and how it can help you squeeze even more out of your training.

Where can you find beta-alanine?

Beta-alanine is an amino acid that you can get from food and your body also produces in your liver. Particularly good dietary sources include turkey, chicken, beef, pork or fish. Although most people can get sufficient amounts of beta-alanine from their diet, supplementation will allow you to raise its levels even further. And that’s where the interesting stuff happens.

Why do athletes take beta-alanine supplements?

When you exercise hard, your body produces lactate, which acidifies the muscle. Beta-alanine binds in the body to create carnosine, which helps lower the acidity in the muscle. Being able to better manage the acidity of your muscles should reduce fatigue and, therefore, improve exercise capacity. This is why it’s very popular with athletes who engage in short bouts of intense lactate-producing exercise such as weight lifting or CrossFit, or anyone focusing on sprinting events. The question is whether it could be useful to cyclists who are typically considered endurance athletes.

What benefits can you expect as an endurance athlete?

Studies show that beta-alanine supplementation is beneficial for hard efforts longer than 30 seconds and shorter than 10 minutes. This means that interval training is where this supplement makes the most sense. The good news is that most cyclists do at least some intervals, especially focusing on developing power and speed for racing.

On the other hand, if you’re early in the season, building your aerobic base with a lot of Zone 2 rides, beta-alanine would have no benefit to you, your natural production of it would most likely be sufficient. Only if you’re incorporating heavy or high-intensity strength training during your aerobic base period, you may want to consider supplementing.

Is it safe to take?

Despite the endless number of supplements offered in fitness stores, there are only a few well-researched ones that have been shown to be safe and effective. Beta-alanine is one of these few and it is one of only 5 supplements supported in the International Olympic Committee Consensus Statement on Dietary Supplements and the High-Performance Athlete. This confirms that giving this supplement a try may be worth it and should be safe as long as you follow the recommended amounts.

How to supplement with beta-alanine?

The most important thing to know is that it can take weeks of consistent daily beta-alanine supplementation to increase muscle carnosine levels. Don’t rely on pre-workout products with beta-alanine promising quick results – it just isn’t that fast to produce results. Here are the main guidelines to follow:

  • Take in 3,2-6,4 g of beta-alanine per day.
  • On average, it takes 2-4 weeks of daily supplementation to see results.
  • Studies have tested around 6 months of consistent supplementation with sustained efficacy and safety. You can pretty much take it consistently for those 6 months you need to do most interval training.

Does it have side effects?

The most common side effect of beta-alanine supplementation is something called paraesthesia. This is a tingling or itchy feeling on the skin of your hands, arms, feet or neck. It’s not dangerous and it usually goes away in under 1 hour. It can be uncomfortable for some at first but it can also feel like a confirmation of the supplement doing its thing. If you experience a lot of this tingling, you can spread your dosage into several smaller amounts throughout the day to reduce the severity.

Will beta-alanine help you ride faster?

Beta-alanine won’t directly make you faster but it can help you perform more of the training required to gain better fitness. If you take it as recommended, your muscles should be less acidic during hard intervals. This should, in turn, allow you to complete more intervals before fatiguing, which will produce better training adaptations.