Amino acids are the building blocks of the body that make up protein, and protein is the base that makes up muscles, tendons, organs, glands, nails and hair (to name a few!). On top of that, the growth, repair and maintenance of all our cells is dependant upon amino acids. Did you know that next to water, protein makes up the greatest portion of our body weight? So, I would venture to say that amino acids are pretty, mighty, super, duper important!
There are 20 amino acids that regularly make up proteins. Our bodies are capable of making 9 of those amino acids, but we must get the remaining ten from outside sources- specifically our FOOD and supplements. These 10 amino acids are known as Essential Amino Acids. Amino acid supplements fall into two basic categories: Essential Amino Acids (EAA's) and Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs.)
ESSENTIAL AMINO ACIDS
A quick overview of each of the Essential Amino Acids will give us a better understanding of why each is SO important.
- Phenylalanine is traditionally marketed for it’s analgesic (pain-killing) and antidepressant effect, and is a precursor to the synthesis of norepinephrine and dopamine, two feel-good brain chemicals. This could be good because elevated brain levels of norepinephrine and dopamine may actually lower your “RPE” or Rating of Perceived Exertion During Exercise, which means you could be happier when you’re suffering halfway through a killer workout session or Ironman bike ride. Food sources include dairy, almonds, avocados, lima beans, peanuts, and seeds.
- Valine plays double duty because it is BOTH an Essential Amino Acid and a Branched Chain Amino Acid. Valine is an essential amino acid. It can help to prevent muscle proteins from breaking down during exercise. This means that if you take Valine during exercise, you could recover faster because you’d have less muscle damage. Dietary sources of valine include dairy products, grain, meat, mushrooms, peanuts, and soy proteins.
- Threonine is shown to play a role in liver function as well as assists in creating collagen. Because it is an EAA it will work in conjunction with the other EAA's to help decrease indicators of muscle damage and inflammation. This basically means that if you popped some essential amino acids, even if you didn't eat anything, you might not 'cannibalize' as much lean muscle during a fasted workout session. Dietary sources of threonine include dairy, beef, poultry, eggs, beans, nuts, and seeds.
- Tryptophan is a precursor for serotonin, a brain neurotransmitter that can suppress pain, and if you’re taking some before bed at night, even induce a bit of sleepiness. The main reason to take tryptophan would be to increase tolerance to pain during hard workouts, games or races. But studies to this point go back and forth on whether or not that actually improves performance. Tryptophan can be found in oats, bananas, dried dates, milk, cottage cheese, meat, fish, turkey and peanuts.
- Isoleucine is another BCAA/EAA combo, has some of the same advantages of Valine (we'll learn more about this in a minute). Isoleucine is found in eggs, fish, lentils, poultry, beef, seeds, soy, wheat, almonds and dairy.
- Histidine is a precursor to histamine and could help you fight off the cell damaging free radicals you produce during exercise, and carnosine helps you get rid of muscle burn more quickly, and helps turn lactic acid back into useable muscle fuel. So hooray for histidine, it gets a gold star sticker.
- Arginine- most of the studies on arginine show that it really helps folks with cardiovascular disease improve exercise capacity, and like tryptophan, the studies go back and forth on whether it really helps with the athletic population – but it has a great deal of promise.
- Leucine is yet another BCAA/EAA combo (more on that below). Leucine is found in cottage cheese, sesame seeds, peanuts, dry lentils, chicken and fish.
- Lysine may assist with growth-hormone release, which could vastly improve muscle repair and recovery, although if you take lysine in it’s isolated form, the amount you’d have to take to increase growth hormone release would cause gastrointestinal distress. But combined with all the other essential amino acids, there may be a growth hormone response in smaller doses, and there is some clinical evidence that essential amino acid supplementation could stimulate growth hormone releasing factors. Lysine sources include green beans, lentils, soybean, spinach and amaranth.
BRANCHED CHAIN AMINO ACIDS
Now, let's talk about the Branched Chain Amino Acids which consist of Leucine, Isoleucine and Valine (which are also part of the Essential Amino Acid group) BCAA's are interesting because they are metabolized in the muscle, rather than in the liver. What this means is that BCAA's can be relied on as an actual energy source DURING exercise, and could actually help prevent premature muscle breakdown. Several studies have shown that BCAA's could actually help increase red blood cell count, hemoglobin, hematocrit and serum albumin, which basically means, less inflammation, better red blood cell formation (more oxygen), and better formation of storage carbohydrate (more easily obtained fuel). BCAA studies by researchers Sugita and Kraemer also show that BCAA supplementation after exercise has been shown to cause faster recovery of muscle strength and the ability to slow down muscle breakdown even during intense training. In addition, when you supplement with BCAA’s they help maintain higher blood levels of amino acids which can make you feel happier even when you’re suffering during exercise. So as you may have guessed, low blood levels of BCAA’s are correlated with increased fatigue and reduced physical performance.
A study titled "Branched-chain amino acids supplementation enhances exercise capacity and lipid oxidation during endurance exercise after muscle glycogen depletion", by Gualano, et al. that showed that when taken prior to a fasted exercise session, BCAA’s could increase fat oxidation. Hmm... burn more fat while exercising? I'm on it!If all of the essential amino acids are present, muscle repair and recovery can start before you’re even done with your workout – and when you’re mentally stretched toward the end of a tough workout, game or race, high blood levels of amino acids (i.e. from the BCAA’s in sports gels) can allow the body and brain to continue to work hard instead of shutting down. So, if we want to have enhanced mental focus during a workout, keep our bodies from cannibalizing muscle during fasted morning workout sessions, burn more fat during those sessions, and decrease post-workout muscle soreness. We should be supplementing with BCAA's- but, how?
When racing triathlons or going out for a longer training day, GU has a product called Roctane that also has BCAA's. There are other products as well that have BCAA's; Leucine, Isoleucine and Valine. You can even look at the ingredients of different products and determine for yourself which one you will use.
There is a product out there called MAP (Master Amino Acid Profile) that I have not used, but am considering trying because it would be an easy way to get the BCAA's pre-workout. I've been eyeing it for some time now, and after reading up more on this topic, I just might incorporate it into my training. It comes in capsules, so it is easy to take some right before your workout. I have also really liked a product called BaddAss Nutrition that offers many of these BCAA's in a pre-workout drink. I used this product ALL winter as I prepared for both Ironman 70.3 Puerto Rico and Ironman St. George and have to say it was awesome!
You can also buy powdered BCAA's at pretty much any nutrition store (Good Earth carries them and I even have some at my studio along with the Whey Protein Isolate). This is a super easy way to just scoop some of the powdered form of these into your pre or post workout drink or smoothie. If you are struggling with feeling weak, tired, not making progress in your weight loss or athletic goals, or recovery, perhaps you should analyze what you are doing and eating and then consider adding some Branched Chain Amino Acid and Essential Amino Acid supplementation! It might just be the missing puzzle piece that you are looking for. Of course, this is all based on the assumption that you are already making those healthy food choices and getting in your quality FATS (omega 3 in particular), PROTEINS, CARBS (in the form of veggies, fruits, and complex carbs) and getting sufficient WATER (96 oz.+) and REST (7+ hours every night!) Ideally, you want to incorporate BCAA's before and during workouts and then utilize EAA's +whey protein AFTER your workout to ensure full recovery and absorption of the EAA's.
Just to clarify: Essential Amino Acids and Branched Chain Amino Acids are necessary for EVERYONE! This is not just for athletes looking to get faster, stronger, leaner, etc. (although that sure is a bonus). These are crucial for every living being! So, if you are just trying to live a healthier more vibrant and energetic lifestyle, be aware of your amino acid intake and ensure you are giving your body every advantage you can.
Coach Keena is a regular contributor at TriEdge and has 15 years experience coaching and training hundreds of individuals. She is a USA Triathlon Certified Coach and holds additional certifications from the National association of Sports Medicine (NASM) and the American Council of Exercise (ACE) as a certified personal trainer. If you would like to contact Coach Keena go to: www.coachkeena.com.