While initial research into branched chain amino acids, or BCAA supplements, might come off as something just for “gym rats” or extreme athletes, don't write them off completely if you're a runner, biker, hiker or other outdoor adventurer. It turns out that these essential amino acids can benefit many – if not all – who exercise on a regular basis.
The reason is that amino acids are the building blocks of protein, which make up the human body.
Leucine, isoleucine and valine – the three amino acids found in BCAAs – are considered "branched" because of their nonlinear carbon atom configuration, explains Roxanne Vogel, MS, C.S.C.S., certified sports nutritionist, exercise physiologist and sports nutritionist at GU Energy Labs, Berkeley, CA.
"Amino acids are either produced in the body, which are known as nonessential, or they must be supplied from the human diet, which are known as essential," says Vogel. "There are 20 amino acids total, nine of which are essential and must be obtained through the diet or supplementation to avoid deficiency."
Some rich dietary sources of BCAAs include dairy, eggs, meat, poultry and fish. But supplemental BCAAs are also widely available and often used within the context of sports nutrition.
Gu has included BCAAs in their gels for years, and now also offers BCAA capsules. That's because along with individuals on restrictive diets who may not get enough BCAAs from whole food sources, BCAAs are beneficial for individuals engaged in high-volume or prolonged exercise like hiking, backpacking, long mountain bike rides or lengthy trail runs. "I like to think of them as a 'muscle insurance policy' for endurance athletes," says Vogel.
When you work out in a fasted state – like first thing in the morning, before eating anything – or if you exercise long enough to burn through whatever food energy you recently consumed (which would be very little if in a fasted state), your body begins to break down it's own energy reserves – glycogen, fat, and amino acids from muscle proteins – for fuel, explains Vogel.
And if your glycogen is limited, the body uses amino acids taken from your muscles for energy. "The body is essentially pulling BCAAs from muscles during exercise if it needs them for energy production," says Vogel. "Thus you break down muscle tissue to supply energy, which isn't good."
By providing your body with BCAAs before or during exercise, you're giving it an additional fuel source, which limits the destruction of muscle tissue and delays fatigue.
"Having BCAAs in the body can also promote a more favorable environment, or anabolic state, by stimulating muscle protein synthesis, which will re-incorporate the free amino acids in the bloodstream back into muscle tissue once you stop exercising," explains Vogel. This can help to kick start the recovery process.
When’s the most beneficial time to take a BCAA supplement? They can be taken before, during or even after exercise. "I often say anytime is a good time for BCAAs, and that's because you pretty much can't go wrong taking them immediately before, during or after exercise," says Vogel. "As long as you get them in, they'll go to work!"
If your goal is to protect your muscles and you know you have a long, strenuous session ahead, your best bet would be to take some BCAAs before, either in capsule form, or included in a pre-workout supplement. "Keep in mind, if you are consuming a post-workout protein drink or supplement, these will already contain BCAAs as part of the protein source," reminds Vogel.
No matter what the active pursuit, the goal is to never deplete muscle, which can happen if you exercise long enough without enough fuel. By adding supplemental BCAAs into your nutritional regimen, you can help protect your muscles and keep your body in an anabolic, or tissue building state. And who wouldn't want that?
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