BCAA Benefits: Do They Actually Improve Recovery?

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For the most part, I feel the same way about supplement powders as I do about those trendy Kombucha drinks that seem to be everywhere: They are expensive, taste pretty gross, and I’m not sure whether they’re actually good for me.

As a rule, I try to get my nutrients from real food and I hold firm to the belief that there’s no substitute for hard work over many miles to make you the best runner you can be.

But when Olympian Amy Begley mentioned that she utilizes a Branched Chain Amino Acids supplement to enhance her recovery during marathon training, I was intrigued enough to do some research.

Learn more about potential BCAA benefits and how they can affect your running and recovery here.

What Are BCAAs?

BCAAs are made up of three essential amino acids that the body is unable to produce on its own but are found in foods high in protein: leucine, isoleucine and valine. These three amino acids have a branched side chain of carbon molecules that simplifies the energy conversion during intense exercise. Muscle tissues in the body are about 35 percent BCAAs and—here’s the key—the more BCAAs present in the muscle tissue, the more they will be used for energy; thus, slowing the breakdown of muscle cells and preventing muscle loss.

Can BCAAs Improve My Running?

BCAA supplementation provides two avenues aimed towards improving endurance performance—both by providing our bodies with additional energy source and by altering the mental perception of fatigue.

BCAAs can be utilized as energy to maintain ATP levels during a long, glycogen-depleting event. So, in theory, supplementing with BCAAs mid-race might give your body some additional fuel to work with when you’ve depleted the bulk of your glycogen stores.

There have also been studies on how BCAAs may mitigate the effects of the mental fatigue that seem to creep up on runners. As both glycogen and BCAAs are depleted during an endurance race, increased levels of tryptophan are transported to the brain, where it is converted to serotonin and creates feelings of fatigue. BCAAs inhibit the uptake of tryptophan into the brain, which means less serotonin is produced—delaying fatigue that makes the pavement look like a great place to nap at around mile 22.

Scientists studying the limits of human performance have proven that the real limiting factor in our ability to push our limits is not our muscles, but our minds. You slow down, not when the muscles will no longer fire, but when your brain sends the signal to the muscles that it’s done. Unfortunately, while there is support for this finding in many animal trials, the few studies done with human subjects have been criticized for small sample size and lack of controls, and follow up studies have so far failed to yield conclusive results.

The takeaway: The jury is still out on whether BCAAs improve performance during exercise.

BCAAs and Post-Exercise Muscle Damage

One of the more promising areas of BCAA research supports supplementing with BCAAs before and after endurance exercise to reduce muscle damage and soreness. Well-supported findings indicate that ingesting BCAAs before and after endurance workouts helped suppress skeletal muscle protein breakdown and contributed to a significant reduction in delayed onset muscle soreness while boosting immune function.

Researchers from the University of Tasmania in Australia conducted a study in which 12 cyclists took either a placebo or 12 grams of BCAAs (double the recommended amount from dietary sources) daily for six days. Immediately after the supplementation period, they completed an exercise test that required them to cycle hard for two hours at 70 percent of VO2 Max.

Consuming BCAAs in a drink post-workout is a lot easier than eating a 6-ounce chicken breast

Blood samples were taken prior to the workout, at several hour intervals following the hard session, then once a day for four days. The enzyme levels in the muscles were studied to measure the muscle-tissue damage incurred. The cyclists who took the BCAA supplements showed markedly less muscle damage than the placebo group, supporting the theory that supplementation of BCAAs may lessen the muscle damage of an extended endurance exercise session.

The takeaway: Using BCAAs to decrease the amount of muscle damage and post-workout soreness will allow you to train more frequently and improve your fitness faster.

Should You Supplement?

From the most recent research we understand that having sufficient availability of BCAAs in our bodies for muscle use has been shown to decrease muscle soreness, boost immune function and possibly improve endurance performance. But since we already ingest these BCAAs through the complete proteins in our diets, do we really need to supplement?

Most healthy adults can get enough BCAAs from consuming the recommended dietary allowances of protein in their diet, but endurance athletes may benefit from ingesting more than your average sedentary individual. No adverse effects or side effects have been shown with up to 30 grams per day compared to a placebo. BCAAs are legal and allowed by the IOC, NCAA, NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB.

When consumed in free form (powder or capsule), BCAAs bypass the liver and gut tissue and go directly into the bloodstream. Supplemental free forms circulate especially quickly in the blood when low levels of glycogen and stored sugars are present—as is often the case after a longer workout). There’s the convenience factor as well: Consuming BCAAs in a drink post-workout is a lot easier than eating a 6-ounce chicken breast to get 6.6 grams of BCAAs.

Want to give it a try? Check out our top picks for best BCAA supplements.

How to Take BCAAs

I’m still going to aim for getting BCAAs from my food by consuming appropriate amounts of protein, but I am willing to give supplementing a shot to help my post-workout recovery. If you’d like to consider supplementing, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • During exercise: Replacing glycogen is still key. Consuming carbohydrates mid-race along with some BCAAs may help, but the jury is still out on the effectiveness of BCAAs in reducing mid-race fatigue.
  • Post-exercise: Consider supplementing with 4-8 grams of BCAAs following long exercise sessions to help facilitate recovery and mitigate muscle damage and soreness.
  • What type of supplement to take: BCAAs are available in both capsule and powder form. Make sure your product of choice is free of scary additives and other harmful ingredients. Read the label.
  • Ask your doctor: Make sure to check with your physician to ensure adding a BCAA supplement to your diet is right for you.


How much BCAA should I take?

BCAAs are most effective when you take 91 mg per pound (200 mg per kg) of your body weight each day. You should take the supplement consistently, even on rest days.

Should I take creatine or BCAAs?

Creatine is best for increasing muscle size and strength. BCAAs are better for muscle repair and recovery. Both are essential amino acids that can be taken as supplements to your diet.

When should you take BCAAs?

BCAAs should be taken up to 15 minutes before your workout. This will help delay fatigue and enhance your workout by providing energy reserves for your muscles. They can also be taken during your workout.

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