Does BCAA Supplementation Improve Running Performance?

For those unfamiliar, BCAA is a type of dietary supplement marketed toward athletes as performance-enhancing. The letters stand for Branched Chain Amino Acids. Have you already included a BCAA supplement in your running regime? Are you looking to learn more about how useful or effective they really are? This article will be a good source of answers to your questions.

Are you a long-distance runner? Has a fellow athlete or health professional advised you to ingest BCAAs for ergogenic (i.e. performance-enhancing) purposes?  In any case, here you are: probably wondering just how useful this supplement really is. To satiate your curiosity, we’ve gone ahead and summarized and simplified the latest findings from scientific literature.

What are BCAAs?

BCAAs, or Branched Chain Amino Acids, are comprised of three essential amino acids, known as “branched chain” (with a molecular structure taking the form of a chain): leucine, isoleucine, and valine.

They are essential because our body is not able to generate them on its own, which means we must consume them via food (meat, fish, dairy products, split peas, pistachios, etc.)

BCAAs can also be consumed via dietary supplement, which is a popular choice for runners.

BCAA production

BCAA supplements used to be derived from human hair via hydrolysis, as well as from pig hair and good feathers, then separated via centrifuge and filtered. The issue with this process is that it can result in a high concentration of heavy metals. In the past few years, BCAAs have been obtained via a bacterial fermentation process (Corynebacterium glutamicum and Escherichia coli) of glucose derived from plants (vegan BCAAs). The downside to this extraction technique is that it is often more expensive.

Why take a BCAA supplement?

Brands that sell BCAA supplements advocate their use for several reasons:

  • Aid in muscle gain and muscle repair following physical exertion

  • Help fight against the loss of muscle mass during training

  • Optimize athletic performance by reducing the muscles’ oxygen requirements

  • Support weight loss (by limiting the loss of muscle mass) during a low-calorie diet

BCAAs and improved fitness levels

Numerous studies have shed light on the effects of BCAA supplements on athletes. The general results indicate that BCAAs:

  • Reduce muscle loss during exercise [1], minimizing pain and maximizing recovery [2,3]

  • Allow for greater isometric muscular contraction power (gains) compared with no BCAA supplement [4]

  • Decrease loss of cognitive ability during endurance feats

Experts’ opinion on BCAA supplementation

Despite these findings, the data collected has been criticized due to the small sample size of subjects present in each of these studies. Moreover, other teams have failed to show in their own studies that BCAA supplementation has any significant impact on athletic ability [6,7,8].

Consuming BCAA supplements does not have dangerous health consequences as long as the quantity ingested does not exceed the needs of the body. The average recommended dosage is 5g per day. Like any other amino acid or protein-based supplement, an overdose can result in side effects of nausea, diarrhea, gastrointestinal disorders, fatigue, impaired motor skills, and kidney failure.

*Credits: Camille Lamy - Running-Care

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