Jogging. Swimming. Cycling. Dancing. What do all these activities have in common? They’re aerobic, which means the heart is pumping oxygen-rich blood to your working muscles. Your heart is beating faster, blood is flowing from your muscles to your lungs, and you’re producing endorphins, those feel-good hormones that naturally put you in a better mood.
But are there any advantages to consuming essential amino acid (EAA) supplements or BCAA supplements before aerobic exercise? Let’s find out!
BCAA Supplements Explained
Leucine is one of three branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), and it’s the most abundant essential amino acid in muscle. It promotes muscle recovery after vigorous workouts, boosts stamina and endurance, and activates the process of protein synthesis. But, unlike other essential amino acids, leucine (and its BCAA comrades isoleucine and valine) undergo oxidative degradation during aerobic exercise.
Since leucine can be used for energy during cardiovascular exercise, it may seem reasonable to supply extra leucine or BCAAs as a supplement to prevent the oxidation of BCAAs that come from muscle breakdown. Here’s where things get muddled.
When you introduce more leucine or BCAAs into the bloodstream, a greater percentage is oxidized. That’s because the body is designed to keep a balanced composition of amino acids available in the blood, so mechanisms kick in to reduce the leucine you’ve ingested.
The efficiency of the supplement is therefore considerably reduced when given before or during aerobic exercise when the metabolic pathways of BCAA oxidation are already revved up. Consequently, the supplemental leucine or BCAAs will not be available to promote muscle protein turnover.
Nonetheless, ingesting leucine or BCAAs before or during exercise will offset to some extent the accelerated oxidation of these amino acids, as long as all the EAAs are provided. Perhaps more importantly, increasing BCAAs and phenylalanine during exercise encourages the synthesis of the excitatory neurotransmitter dopamine relative to the depressant neurotransmitter serotonin. This can improve mental focus and delay the perception of fatigue.
The verdict? EAAs are beneficial before aerobic exercise, but providing the optimal concentration of all the EAAs for muscle protein synthesis is key. Keep in mind, the effect will be limited during exercise because some of the EAAs consumed will be oxidized for energy.
What About After Exercise?
Now, taking an EAA supplement (one that contains all the EAAs, not just a BCAA supplement) can provide great benefit if taken the first hour after aerobic exercise.
EAAs are the key precursors for increased protein turnover. An increase in muscle protein turnover is the metabolic basis for improved muscle fiber functioning. In addition, EAAs increase the production and functioning of the mitochondria, which is the site in the cell where energy is produced. These responses can only be achieved with a formulation containing all of the EAAs, since all EAAs are present in newly synthesized protein.
While BCAAs alone are not effective, the optimal EAA formulation for post-aerobic-exercise supplementation should have a higher proportion of BCAAs in the total mixture than is represented in the composition of muscle protein in order to restore the BCAAS that were metabolized during exercise.
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