What are BCAAs? Can They Help Your Recovery?

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 muscles 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.

So, yes or no?

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.

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