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Reconsidering Your Pre-Workout: Beta-alanine Benefits

Many athletes consume caffeine before exercise because it provides them with a jolt of energy. Often, their caffeine isn’t in a cup of coffee, but as an ingredient within a pre-workout powder—powders that also contain beta-alanine.

The issue is, many pre-workouts lack the proper dose of beta-alanine to gain its fatigue-reducing benefit.

Below, I’m going to explain:

  • What beta-alanine is and how it improves performance.

  • How to properly dose beta-alanine.

  • How pre-workout supplements fall short (and what to do about it).

What is beta-alanine and how does it improve performance?

Beta-alanine is a non-essential amino acid made in the liver and can be consumed through the diet (e.g., poultry, meat). When combined with L-histidine, a molecule called carnosine is produced.

At rest, our muscle cells have a pH of 7.1 (neutral). During high-intensity exercise, one by-product of creating ATP/energy to help the muscles contract are acidic hydrogen ions.

If you’ve ever completed an all-out and/or prolonged exercise effort, like a 60-second sprint on a bike, you may be familiar with a burning sensation in the legs that made you want to slow down and reduce your power output, or stop the activity entirely. Those feelings are in part due to the accumulation of acidic hydrogen ions.

But the body is always adapting to the demands we place on it. To slow down this acidic shift, carnosine acts as a buffer against the hydrogen ions. Even though carnosine is the buffer, beta-alanine is the rate-limiting step for carnosine production.

Beta-alanine supplementation can increase carnosine muscle levels up to 80% and tends to have a greater positive impact on performance when supplemented in untrained individuals [1].

A Note on Carnosine Supplementation

If the goal is to increase carnosine, why not supplement with it? Research shows beta-alanine—not carnosine—supplementation increases muscle carnosine levels to a greater degree. The reason? Like food, carnosine is broken down in the gut and has poor absorption into the bloodstream.

How to properly dose beta-alanine

For any supplement to be effective, it needs to be taken:

  • In the right dose.

  • At the right time.

  • For the right activity.

The Right Dose

How much beta-alanine do you need for performance benefits?

Stellingwerff et al. (2012) estimated that in order to increase muscle carnosine levels by 50%, ~230 grams of beta-alanine supplementation must be consumed over time (not in one day!). This works out to be 1.6-6.4 g/day, which better accounts for individual variations.

There are two known side effects of beta-alanine: skin rashes and paresthesia, or the flushing and tingling sensation of the skin that typically subsides 1-2 hours after consumption.

A bolus dose of at least 800 milligrams typically results in paresthesia, so taking the 3.2-6.4 grams all at once may result in a sensation that is too overwhelming for the athlete to tolerate.

Paresthesia-reducing solutions include:

  • Purchase a slow-release option (on the label: “SR”).

  • Split the total daily dose of beta-alanine into smaller doses throughout the day, like 0.8-1.6 grams every 3-4 hours.

How much beta-alanine is in your pre-workout?

Yet many pre-workout supplements fall short of the minimum recommended beta-alanine dose. For instance, here are the beta-alanine quantities of common NSF Certified for Sport pre-workouts:

What's going on with C4 Ripped Sport? The company lists their beta-alanine as an ingredient within a proprietary blend (see the below ingredient list). Blends are a semi-secret recipe, usually listing all ingredients, but not their individual quantities.

This isn’t helpful when we want to know the specific dose of beta-alanine.

The Right Time

If you only take beta-alanine in smaller pre-workout levels four times weekly, you need to restructure your plan.

To reap the performance benefits of beta-alanine, it takes 2-12 weeks of consistent daily supplementation to increase muscle carnosine levels.

Even though beta-alanine is an ingredient in pre-workout, doesn't mean this is the best timing. It doesn’t matter when during the day you dose with beta-alanine, so long as you can tolerate the dose and are taking it every day.*

*Safety data exists for daily supplementation of up to 24 weeks. Thereafter, reducing to a daily dose of 1.2-1.6 grams for six weeks has been recommended. For instance, dosing during the off-season. [1]

The Right Activity

Strictly speaking competition, sporting events lasting 30 seconds* through 10 minutes are the prime time range for pursuing supplementation, with performance improvements increasing by ~0.2-3%. Example events include 100- and 200-meter swimming, 800-meter running, 2,000-meter rowing, and 4-kilometer time-trial cycling.

But let’s not disregard the under 30-second or above 10-minute athlete. The goal of training sessions and strength and conditioning programs are to promote training adaptations—training duration, type, and intensity don’t always mimic competition. For instance, consider repeat sprint or high-intensity weight room sessions: Beta-alanine can help delay fatigue and promote training adaptations, with carryover effects to competition day.

Plus, even long-duration cycling races like the Tour de France have spurts of energy that last within that prime time range where supplementation would be beneficial. For instance, a surge in power up a hill, past the pack, or a sprint to the finish line all require greater power output and prolonged efforts.

However, if you participant in cycling or running races, your goal is simply to finish, and you expect to maintain your speed and power output throughout, beta-alanine supplementation may be inappropriate.

*A 2017 systematic review and meta-analysis found the benefits begin at 1 minute of high-intensity exercise.

Why do pre-workouts provide low doses of beta-alanine?

For a variety of reasons:

  1. Paresthesia: The daily dose needed for beta-alanine’s performance benefits is likely too large for athletes to tolerate all at once. The pre-workout dose is bearable.

  2. Pre-workouts aren’t designed to prioritize beta-alanine: Along with caffeine’s role as a stimulant before exercise, the tingling from beta-alanine makes it feel like the pre-workout is working. Some athletes like this feeling because they think their supplement is working. (False: for beta-alanine to “work” it needs be in the muscle, not the bloodstream/skin). Maybe it's the tingling that is prioritized in pre-workouts.

  3. Pre-workouts are effectively marketed to uneducated consumers: They’ve heard beta-alanine is effective, see the words “beta-alanine” listed on a supplement bottle, and assume the dose is effective. This is typically not the case.

Take-home Message: Focus on the Daily Dose

Overall, when deciding if beta-alanine supplementation makes sense for you, consider your sport, event, or position; training plan, goals, and desirable adaptations; and what your competition goals are. Simply because beta-alanine exists as a supplement, doesn't mean you need to take it.

Scenario #1: I want to use a pre-workout

You’ll need to supplement your supplement.

For instance, if you like P4 Pre-Workout before your morning working, add two tablets of Klean Athlete SR Beta-Alanine at dinner: 2.4 g beta-alanine from P4 + 1.6 g from Klean Athlete = 4 g/day

Avoid using a heaping scoop of pre-workout or doubling the dose, since the caffeine levels in pre-workout can increase to levels that increase irritability, heart rate, or blood pressure and negatively impact sleep (and therefore the athlete's ability to effectively recover). Plus, doubling the dose will double those tingly beta-alanine feelings.

Scenario #2: I'm uninterested in using a pre-workout, only beta-alanine

Purchase a stand-alone beta-alanine supplement and follow the above dosing protocols.

Further Reading

[1] Saunders, B., & Dolan, E. (Producer). (2020). Beta alanine: the latest [Video].

Learn how to choose a safe, research-based, and effective supplement for your sport

The short answer is no, based on current research.

The short answer is maybe, and depends on the type of injury and if the person is participating in a rehabilitation program.

Saunders, B., Elliot-Sale, K., Artioli, G.G., Swinton, P.A., Dolan, E., ... & Gualano, B. (2017). Br J Sports Med,51(8):1-14.

Peeling, P., Binnie, M.J., Goods, P.S.R., Sim, M., & Burke, L. (2017). Int J Sport Nutr,28(2):178-187.

Stecker, R.A., Harty, P.S., Jagim, A.R., Candow, D.G., & Kerksick, C.M. (2019). J Int Soc Sports Nutr,16(37):1-16.


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