Written by Ben Carlisle
Last updated on: Sep 18, 2022
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Branched chain amino acids (BCAA's) are supplements that have grown exponentially in popularity among fitness enthusiasts and athletes. But can BCAA's help with sporting performance? Or are they only useful for aesthetic goals like losing weight and building muscle?
BCAA's have some very promising effects as a supplement to be taken while exercising regularly. This effects include shortening recovery times, reducing fatigue, maintaining muscle and supporting muscle growth. There’s some evidence to suggest BCAA supplementation can lead to improved sporting performance.
The benefits of supplementing your diet with BCAA's seem to be endless, which has driven their meteoric rise in popularity in the market for fitness supplements. But what if you’re a high-level athlete or even an amateur sports player? How much can they help you get an edge over your competition? Keep reading to find out...
BCAA's are three of the nine amino acids considered essential (your body can’t synthesise them). The BCAA's are leucine, isoleucine, and valine (1, 2). They play a major role in your body’s response to exercise. They will enhance exercise performance and recovery whilst aiding the maintenance and development of lean muscle.
BCAA's don’t necessarily initiate the positive effects they bring about but serve more as a catalyst or a regulator for your body to efficiently synthesise muscle protein cells, efficiently transport hormones and chemicals to the right parts of the body and mitigate muscle breakdown.
The oxidisation processes they facilitate, enhancing muscle signalling and opening metabolic pathways, can play a big role in how your body responds to strenuous exercise and what you consume in your diet (3, 4).
BCAA's have many benefits which can improve your performance in the gym and on the training field. This can help you see results faster from more intense, prolonged exercises with shorter recovery periods. So, let’s take a look at some of the main benefits of BCAA's:
Studies have shown BCAA's, when taken as a supplement decreases serum concentrations of creatine kinase and lactate dehydrogenase in the body, which cause muscle damage after a tough workout (5). This means that you will be able to recover faster, better and with more efficiency than when exercising without BCAA supplements.
Studies have shown fatigue is not caused due to changes in your muscles, but rather your central nervous system (CNS). This is caused by increases in serotonin levels in the brain, which is caused by elevated tryptophan levels in the body.
BCAA's regulate tryptophan levels by competing with it as it gets transported to your brain from your blood. Because less serotonin is produced, fatigue and lethargy are hindered and you can exercise for longer (5).
The activation of muscle-maintaining enzymes when you’re taking BCAA's reduces the breakdown of muscle tissue (1). This means if you’re trying to lose weight through a low-caloric diet, you will not be losing lean muscle as you shed off the extra pounds that you need to lose.
This is unquestionably the biggest selling point of BCAA's, which is why they’re favoured by bodybuilders. BCAA's play a big role in the protein synthesis process (how your body processes muscle protein cells). Balancing protein breakdown and synthesis is a tough act for your body. BCAA's serve as a catalyst to this by opening metabolic pathways, stimulating muscle signalling, and creating a net protein balance, which leads to improved lean muscle growth (1).
BCAA's are proven to be effective as a supplement for fitness regimes and will effectively allow you to improve your body’s basic functionality on a rudimentary level (1), but does this translate into sports? Can BCAA's help sporting performance? And what are the relevant advantages they will provide?
When taken regularly, BCAA supplements have been found to improve the performance of sprinters and endurance cyclists, by increasing their peak power output by 19% and mean power output by 4% (6).
BCAA supplementation also inhibits the body’s neutrophil response (6), which was found to benefit endurance cyclists’ immune functions in the long-term. Neutrophils are the white blood cells that respond to chemotactic cues from the body in sites which are affected by inflammation, which occurs when muscle tissue has been stressed and releases residues (6).
Peripheral fatigue during exercise is known to be influenced by several factors, but the mechanisms behind these phenomena are less clear. One of these factors is changes in 5-HT, which is limited when competing for transportation through blood cells when tryptophan levels are elevated.
The concentration of amino acids (the BCAAs leucine, isoleucine, and valine in particular) helps to regulate tryptophan levels and increases 5-HT synthesis during endurance exercise, which has been shown to improve cognitive tests on cyclists after 30km races (7).
Due to a greater resistance to fatigue, greater recovery and a streamlined protein synthesis process, your body will be able to take on the physical challenges of sport, allowing you to build strength in relevant muscles, burn fat storage and maintain lean muscle mass (1, 7).
These improvements in your body’s core physical functions will create a key baseline for physical performance that will play a major role in your sporting performance as your body adjusts and takes the right shape to exploit the physical attributes necessary to excel in your sport of choice.
In a study conducted to observe the effects of BCAA's on muscle recovery after exercise, it was found that BCAA supplementation mitigates muscle soreness after exercise that stresses the muscles in general, reducing Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) and Exercise-Induced Muscle Damage (8).
Another study on leucine supplementation found that there were significant decreases in plasma or serum levels in the body after aerobic and strength exercise (9).
Research conducted about effective dosages for improved sports performance found that regular intake of between 4-20mg of BCAA's (at leat three capsules) daily over a prolonged period of time is critical for improving overall athletic performance (10).
Another study recommends that you should not take more than 200mg a day for the first 10 days of supplementation (11) and another study conducted about what the right time to take your dosage is was unable to produce any conclusive results (12).
So, the question as to whether BCAA's can help with sporting performance is complex because different sports require you to take on different physical challenges. But, building the right physique and retaining mental focus will always give you a competitive advantage over your opponents.
Given the incredible benefits of BCAA's of being able to support lean muscle growth, shorter recovery periods, reduced fatigue and muscle preservation. Taking BCAA as a supplement will assist with achieving your athletic goals. Not to mention, the cognitive improvements BCAA's can provide which can give you a mental edge over your opponents in sporting competition.