You have likely heard about BCAAs and their potential impact on muscle gain, as well as their common use in bodybuilding and power sports. But did you realize that BCAAs are probably more beneficial for ultra-endurance athletes than for any other type of athlete? After many hours sifting through the scientific literature and analyzing how it applies to endurance sports, I am absolutely convinced this is the truth. Whether it be for ultra-running, ironman, FKT attempts, or anything in between, athletes who go for extended durations stand to benefit tremendously from BCAA supplementation.
A BRIEF OVERVIEW OF BCAAs
BCAA stands for branched-chain amino acid. And BCAAs consist of three amino acids – leucine, isoleucine, and valine. Studies suggest BCAAs be taken in a ratio of 2:1:1 (leucine: isoleucine: valine). The body cannot create BCAAs; you must ingest them via food or supplements. For the majority of people, food provides enough BCAAs. Highly active individuals, athletes, endurance athletes, and especially ultra-endurance athletes will likely benefit from the additional intake of BCAAs.
ALL BCAAs ARE NOT CREATED EQUAL
Most BCAA supplements come from animal fur, duck feathers, and human hair. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound very appealing to me. Unless a BCAA supplement clearly states otherwise, you can assume that this is the case. The reason being – it’s cheap! At Ultraverse Supplements, we always strive to create the best supplements possible, regardless of price. At Ultraverse Supplements, we use sunflowers for our BCAAs, making them 100% vegan friendly. No feathers, no hair (human or otherwise).
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF BCAAs FOR ULTRA-ENDURANCE ATHLETES?
- BCAAs relieve cognitive (central) fatigue (AbuMoh’d et al., 2020). This effect seems especially beneficial in training sessions or events lasting over 2 hours. The longer an event goes, the more valuable this becomes. Therefore, anyone working out for longer than 2 hours will reap this benefit, but ultra-athletes will benefit significantly—more on this in the next section.
- BCAAs increase time to exhaustion, decrease lactate build-up, and promote fat oxidation (Gualano et al., 2011). The benefits of increased fat-metabolism can’t be understated, especially in endurance sports.
- When BCAAs are taken during and/or before exercise, glycogen is spared during extended duration exercise (Monirujjaman & Ferdouse, 2014). Preventing glycogen depletion prevents bonking, hitting the wall, or whatever you want to call it. It’s all the same; when glycogen runs dry, you feel like garbage. If you’re an endurance athlete, you likely already know about the importance of glycogen preservation.
- BCAAs prevent muscle breakdown during extended duration exercise (Kim et al., 2013). This is another particularly useful benefit for ultra-endurance athletes.
- BCAAs enhance protein synthesis, decrease soreness, and promote overall recovery when taken before and following exercise (Kim et al., 2013).
- BCAAs inhibit excess exercise-induced cortisol (Tsuda et al., 2020). Keeping cortisol in check has numerous benefits. If you haven’t heard how cortisol can wreak havoc on your training, check out this blog.
- BCAAs support glycogen replenishment when taken following exercise (Van Loon et al., 2000). This is useful to any athlete but especially beneficial to endurance and ultra-endurance athletes.
CENTRAL FATIGUE AND BCAAs
Put simply, central fatigue is “mental” fatigue or mental exhaustion, and it has a massive impact on exercise performance. One contributor to central fatigue is tryptophan synthesis; this is where BCAAs can be particularly useful for ultra-endurance athletes.
The muscles utilize BCAAs during prolonged exercise, while tryptophan simultaneously increases. As the concentration of BCAAs goes down, and tryptophan concentration goes up, this produces an environment that favors the transport of tryptophan into the brain, which, in turn, increases the synthesis and release of 5-HT (5-hydroxytryptamine). This increase in 5-HT is at least partially responsible for central fatigue. 5-HT is influenced by tryptophan synthesis in that the more tryptophan that is synthesized, the more 5-HT is also created.
Confused? Here’s what you need to know. Supplementing BCAAs before and/or during exercise improves the ratio of BCAAs to tryptophan, inhibiting tryptophan uptake into the brain and 5-HT synthesis, thus preventing symptoms of central fatigue.
Studies observed elevated tryptophan in as little as 30 minutes of exercise and those levels further increase with duration. In other words, the longer the duration of exercise, the more central fatigue becomes an issue. You can only imagine the toll that central fatigue takes during 12, 24, or multi-day events! This is precisely why BCAAs are more beneficial for ultra-endurance athletes than any other type of athlete.
HOW SHOULD ULTRA-ENDURANCE ATHLETES TAKE BCAAs?
Most BCAA supplements are not created with ultra-endurance athletes in mind. Science demonstrates that adequate amounts must be used to reap all of the ultra-endurance related benefits. If you look at most BCAA combination supplements, they’re not hitting the appropriate range, and most are not even close! Most do not market specifically to endurance athletes. Nor do they focus on preventing central fatigue.
BCAAs are SO beneficial for ultra-runners, Ironman triathletes, and the like because of their effect on central fatigue. Of course, when taken in the appropriate dose for preventing central fatigue, you get all of those other great benefits as well (muscle preservation, enhanced recovery, etc.). Therefore, it still makes sense to supplement BCAAs for shorter training efforts, and ideally, even on rest days. If the goal is supporting protein synthesis, preventing muscular breakdown, and decreasing soreness then higher amounts of BCAAs than what you’ll find in most supplements on the market is still suggested.
When it comes to lengthy training sessions and racing, the key is taking BCAAs at the appropriate time and in scientifically appropriate doses. Studies show BCAAs to be effective in reducing and preventing central fatigue in 7-20 gram doses. Because of these large quantities, pills are typically not used (that’s a lot of pills).
BCAAs AND MUSCLE PRESERVATION
The other tremendous benefit to endurance athletes, especially ultra-endurance athletes, is the protective effect that BCAAs have on skeletal muscle.
During extended durations of exercise, muscles start to break down. Protein is not an efficient energy source to consume during exercise, nor is it very palatable or easy to digest. Therefore, consuming adequate protein during exercise to prevent unnecessary muscle breakdown often results in gastrointestinal issues. BCAAs are easily digested and will cause no such problem while preventing excess muscle damage and catabolism.
A systematic review by Fouré and Bendahan (2017) found that the muscular, protective benefits of BCAA use are more pronounced when taken in the following manners:
- In amounts of at least 200 mg/kg (91 mg/lb). In other words, a minimum of 13,650 mg for a 150 lb athlete.
- It is beneficial to split BCAA use into two doses.
- BCAAs are most effective for preserving muscle when taken every day, not just on workout days. Additionally, BCAAs should be taken long-term to see the most protective benefits.
ARE BCAAs SAFE TO TAKE DAILY?
There is no evidence to suggest that daily BCAA supplementation is unsafe. BCAAs are generally very well tolerated and rarely cause any side effects. Tolerable upper intake (TUI) for BCAAs is estimated at around 500mg/kg (Elango et al., 2012). In other words, someone who weighs 150 lbs could safely take 34g of BCAAs/day, according to the TUI. Higher intake than the TUI could cause an elevation in serum ammonia.
SUPPLEMENTS MADE FOR ULTRA-ENDURANCE ATHLETES, GREAT FOR ALL ATHLETES
Taking T-30 before workouts provides you with 10g of BCAAs to effectively prevent central fatigue (remember 7-20g are required). Additionally, this amount will decrease soreness, prevent muscle breakdown, and spare glycogen during exercise. Post-exercise, Terminus will jump-start the recovery process and boost glycogen replenishment with at least 6,600mg of additional BCAAs (amount depending on weight) on top of an already impressive, plant-protein blend.
Remember how I said earlier that taking at least 200mg/kg, divided into two doses is optimal for muscle preservation? Taking T-30 before workouts and Terminus immediately following ensures you are doing just that. Taking both products according to the directions will provide all the BCAAs needed to ensure maximum muscular-protective benefits for athletes of any weight. Yes, I said any weight. How? Simple. Unlike other recovery formulas, we formulated Terminus to be taken according to weight – the heavier the athlete, the more BCAAs (among other nutrients) consumed.
with 7 of THE BEST endurance supplements, and other synergistic ingredients, all packed into one comprehensive formula. Boom. Check that box too.
When it comes to lengthy races and super long training sessions, you can take both supplements multiple times to ensure you get all the BCAAs you need. We thought of that too. Our products are made for ridiculously long efforts; that’s what we are all about! To effectively incorporate both products into extended duration events, check out our fueling guide. This simple guide will ensure that you supplement optimally for any event while keeping you well under all TUIs for BCAAs and all other additional ingredients.
As a bonus, both supplements totally mask the BCAA taste without artificial sweeteners or unnatural ingredients. T-30 even does so without any sugar or calories whatsoever. Anyone who has taken unflavored BCAAs knows that they are pretty nasty tasting (and smelling).
In summary, BCAAs are tremendously beneficial for all athletes, not just ultra-endurance athletes. They are a MUST HAVE for ultra-runners, Ironman triathletes, long-distance cyclists, FKT attempts, cross country skiers, and any sport that incorporates extended duration training and competition.
Disclaimer – Use common sense, and always listen to your doctor over a blog post. They know more about your health situation than anybody behind a keyboard. As someone who has a Graduate degree in Clinical Nutrition, I realize the variance that certain medical conditions create when it comes to optimal nutrition and supplementation. If you have underlying medical conditions, always check with your doctor before starting a new supplementation routine.
AbuMoh’d, M. F., Matalqah, L., & Al-Abdulla, Z. (2020). Effects of Oral Branched‐Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs) Intake on Muscular and Central Fatigue During an Incremental Exercise. Journal of Human Kinetics, 72, 69–78. https://doi.org/10.2478/hukin-2019-0099
Elango, R., Chapman, K., Rafii, M., Ball, R. O., & Pencharz, P. B. (2012). Determination of the tolerable upper intake level of leucine in acute dietary studies in young men. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 96(4), 759–767. https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.111.024471
Branched-Chain Amino Acids Supplementation an Efficient Nutritional Strategy to Alleviate Skeletal Muscle Damage? A Systematic Review. Nutrients, 9(10). https://doi.org/10.3390/nu9101047
Gualano, B., Bozza, T., Campos-Ferraz, P., Roschel, H., Costa, A., Marquezi, M., Benatti, F., & Lancha Jr, A. (2011). Branched chain amino acids supplementation enhance exercise capacity and lipid oxidation during endurance exercise after muscle glycogen depletion. The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, 51, 82–88.
Kim, D.-H., Kim, S.-H., Jeong, W.-S., & Lee, H.-Y. (2013). Effect of BCAA intake during endurance exercises on fatigue substances, muscle damage substances, and energy metabolism substances. Journal of Exercise Nutrition & Biochemistry, 17(4), 169–180. https://doi.org/10.5717/jenb.2013.17.4.169
Monirujjaman, M., & Ferdouse, A. (2014, August 19). Metabolic and Physiological Roles of Branched-Chain Amino Acids [Review Article]. Advances in Molecular Biology; Hindawi. https://doi.org/10.1155/2014/364976
Tsuda, Y., Murakami, R., Yamaguchi, M., & Seki, T. (2020). Acute supplementation with an amino acid mixture suppressed the exercise-induced cortisol response in recreationally active healthy volunteers: A randomized, double-blinded, placebo-controlled crossover study. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 17. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-020-00369-2
van Loon, L. J., Saris, W. H., Kruijshoop, M., & Wagenmakers, A. J. (2000). Maximizing postexercise muscle glycogen synthesis: Carbohydrate supplementation and the application of amino acid or protein hydrolysate mixtures. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 72(1), 106–111. https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/72.1.106