Athletes are always looking for that edge, that little something to get a leg up on the competition. In the pursuit of excellence, is not uncommon to look towards dietary supplements. One commonly used during training is Branched Chain Amino Acids or BCAA. Today we are going to explore what BCAA are, how and why it’s used, and if it is something you should think about incorporating into your nutrition regimen.
BCAA are called “branched-chain” because of their chemical structure which has an aliphatic side-chain with a branch.
What are BCAA?
Although when you think of BCAA, you may think of it in a supplement form, BCAA is actually found in many foods that contain protein as well. Protein is found in a variety of foods from meat and seafood to beans and legumes, it is the building blocks for the tissues in our body. One protein molecule is actually made up of twenty different amino acids. Nine of those amino acids are considered essential amino acids meaning that they cannot be created by the body so we must get them from the food we eat. BCAA are comprised of three of the essential amino acids known as leucine, isoleucine, and valine.
What BCAA Does For Athletic Performance?
Among the nutritive fuel sources used as energy during exercise, amino acids provide a very small contribution (~ 2-4%) to the overall energy supply. During prolonged exercise when glycogen (carbohydrate) stores are low, the body is capable of oxidizing (metabolizing) seven of the twenty different amino acids, including the three BCAA. The BCAA can be oxidized to the greatest extent and used as a fuel source for the muscles during exercise.
We know that exercise alone helps to stimulate skeletal muscle turnover via muscle protein breakdown and muscle protein synthesis, or the breakdown and building up of muscle tissue. With the right building blocks (nutrition fueling plan) in place during and or after, we will be able to help the body further adapt to exercise, improve body composition, increase muscle mass, decrease fat mass, and thus further athletic performance in the next training session.
For athletes who tend to tire quickly, BCAA may be of interest. BCAA compete with the amino acid, tryptophan (the same amino acid found in turkey), that is transported to the brain. By blocking out tryptophan, BCAA reduce the synthesis of serotonin and potentially feelings of fatigue. In theory this could be a useful resource for an endurance athlete who struggles with fatigue during prolonged hours of competition and training. “However, supplemental BCAA have not been shown to delay fatigue or improve endurance performance in elite athletes.”1 While the jury might be out for its advantages in elite athletes, those who are not finely tuned machines may experience a benefit from supplementation.
Without the use of supplementation, many athletes already have high intakes of BCAA because of the high protein content in their sports focused eating patterns. BCAA supplementation is considered safe at recommended doses but before starting a supplementation program, consult with a Registered Dietitian first to ensure it is the best option for you.
- BCAA consumed in divided doses 5-20 g/day is considered safe
- Leucine 42 mg/kg/day for adults 19+ years old
- Isoleucine 19 mg/kg/day
- Valine 24 mg/kg/day
The Take Away
No toxic side effects have been listed, you should listen to your body for how it reacts to BCAA supplementation. Each person can have a different reaction to a multitude of supplements be it performance enhancing or performance dampening. Although a supplement maybe safe to take, there is no short cuts to the path to success. It takes hard work, dedication, a good nutrition plan and the discipline of know when to rest to create a winning formula. Supplements are meant to do just as their name suggests – to supplement an already properly created program, not to be a winning program.
- Rosenbloom C, Coleman E. Sports Nutrition: A Practice Manual for Professionals, 5th Ed. 2012 United States.