Maybe you’ve heard of BCAAs from your weight lifting friend, but what do they do anyway? And should you be taking BCAAs for running? Let’s delve in!
Disclaimer – This post is for informational purposes only and is not for diagnosing or treatment. See your medical provider or Registered Dietitian for individual recommendations.
Table of contents
What Are BCAAs?
Branched chain amino acids, also known as BCAAs, are specific types of amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein.
The branched-chain amino acids are a group of three essential amino acids: leucine, isoleucine and valine. They are 3 of the 9 essential amino acids. They are essential because our bodies do not make them and therefore, they must be consumed through food or supplements.
BCAAs are branched-chain, and their different structure does make them a little unique compared to the other amino acids.
They can be oxidized in the muscles for fuel, rather than having to go to the liver and then the muscles. This is why they are integral to skeletal muscle metabolism. This may also be one reason for the interest in BCAAs for endurance runners and as a popular sports supplement.
A 2012 study found that 62% of the US population uses amino acid supplements on a daily basis. As we discussed in our breakdown of supplements for runners, supplements are not regulated by the FDA so it is important to be working with a medical expert when supplementing.
You also want to make sure you are taking a quality supplement if you choose to go the supplementation route.
So, let’s talk a little bit about BCAA for runners and if endurance athletes can benefit from them.
Are BCAAs for Runners Necessary?
Runners and athletes have higher protein needs, as we discussed in this article about protein for runners and athletes.
This is because there is a lot of muscle breakdown and repair needed to support exercise and recovery. This is in addition to the other roles of dietary protein, such as hormone and enzyme production, immunity, red blood cell production, stabilizing blood sugar and more.
Leucine, in particular, is the most popular and commonly studied branched chain amino acid, as it is a key regulator of muscle protein synthesis (MPS).
It is often taken in supplement form to help promote muscle hypertrophy and strength. Read this post on the benefits of leucine for more information.
Research studies on the effects of BCAAs are currently inconclusive as to their efficacy on muscle strength and hypertrophy. BCAA supplementation may help reduce muscle soreness following exercise if the diet is not adequate in protein.
However, the addition of leucine to diets of adequate protein has been shown to have no benefits to strength.
This post talks more about BCAAs vs creatine.
Food Sources of BCAAs
Getting BCAAs from food sources is preferable to supplements as the food sources contain all the essential amino acids, and food is generally better absorbed.
BCAAs are found in protein foods and supplements. Sources of BCAAs in food include:
- Greek yogurt and greek yogurt smoothies
- Cottage cheese
- Protein powders
- Beans & lentils
- Tofu & tempeh
- Nuts & seeds
Benefits of BCAA Supplements
When discussing the best bcaa for runners, you want to consider why you’re taking it and when. For example, should you take bcaas before running or after?
Here’s what we can gauge from the research:
- BCAA supplementation may help reduce muscle soreness following exercise, and there is some evidence that they may promote muscle building after exercise and suppress breakdown of muscle protein. The proposed method behind this is that they may inhibit cortisol, our stress hormone, which can lead to muscle breakdown.
- Another potential advantage of BCAA supplements is that they may reduce fatigue during exercise. Higher levels of BCAAs are postulated to limit the entry of tryptophan into your brain. This may be helpful since tryptophan is used in the process of making serotonin, a neurotransmitter related to fatigue in physical exercise.
- BCAAs may aid in glycogen storage, which can be very helpful for endurance runners! By preserving glycogen stores, they may theoretically reduce fatigue during prolonged exercise.
In one study of slow (not elite) marathon runners, supplementing with BCAAs and carbohydrates did help reduce postrace fatigue.
However, again, while these are benefits, if the diet is adequate in protein (>=1.2 g/kg/day protein), the muscular performance benefits as a result of BCAA supplementation are likely negligible.
Meaning you can get the same benefits by eating enough protein and eating it consistently throughout the day. BCAAs and running do not have to go hand in hand.
BCAA Supplement Recommendations
If you choose to take BCAA supplements, the recommended dosage/timing is as follows:
- While there is no official dosage recommendation, studies provide ranges from 200-500mg/kg per day. The tolerable upper intake level (UL) for leucine is unknown, but in healthy adult men it can be suggested at 500 mg/kg/day or ~35 g/d as a cautious estimate.
- The best time to take BCAA supplements is before and/or after a workout, so there won’t be a huge difference for those who choose to take a bcaa before running vs bcaa supplement after running. People who are trying to gain muscle may also take them in the morning and before bed as well.
- A long supplementation period (>10 days) appears necessary to see beneficial effects.
- As always, look for a high quality supplement, such as an NSF Certified for Sport BCAA supplement. This is as close to the best BCAA supplement for runners you’ll find. We recommend Klean Athlete or Thorne.
Special Considerations for BCAAs for Running
Protein Powder Vs. BCAA
Most complete protein powders should and will contain branched chain amino acids. Remember, you can get them in food.
A protein powder is a more complete supplement, whereas, BCAA supplements are conditional and will only contain those 3 amino acids: leucine, valine and isoleucine, unless anything else is added.
For more bang for your buck, you’d get more out of a protein powder. However, if you don’t necessarily need the calories and other things, you could just take an isolated BCAA supplement in and around exercise.
Vegans and BCAAs
If someone is following a vegan diet for runners with no animal products, they may need to use a supplement, such as a plant-based protein powder, to get enough protein and plant based BCAAs in their diet.
Plant-based foods such as beans, lentils, quinoa, tofu, tempeh, nuts, and seeds do contain protein and BCAAs, but if someone is not intentional about their intake, they may find themselves lacking.
One vegan BCAA supplement option is Nuun’s Podium Series Recover supplement.
Another vegan protein powder with BCAA is Vega Sport.
BCAAs for Injury Recovery
BCAAs, due to their potential muscle protein synthesis capacity, may be beneficial for the injured athlete. This is especially true if the athlete is inadequately fueling by not getting enough calories and/or protein (either intentionally or unintentionally) and is in an energy deficiency state.
Similar to above, the timing of BCAA supplementation may be beneficial for an athlete to recover from an injury, such as taking before and/or after a rehab or exercise session.
Again, if the diet is adequate in calories and protein, BCAA supplements will likely not provide any additional benefits, but is another tool in the tool box to consider. Protein needs are higher with injuries as well, so hopefully, if someone is eating more protein, they will be getting more BCAAs alongside.
Collagen may also be helpful for joint injuries.
BCAAs and Older Adults
Any population that is at risk of malnourishment, such as the elderly, may also benefit from BCAA supplementation. If they are unable to get enough calories and protein through their diet, supplementation may be beneficial.
Supplementing BCAAs may help the elderly remain in muscle protein balance as well as prevent rapid decline of muscle mass, which occurs as we get older and occurs more rapidly with inadequate nutrition and/or strength training.
Are BCAAs Safe?
Yes, BCAAs are safe, however they may not be necessary for those eating enough protein. It may be more prudent, less costly and more effective in the long term to make dietary improvements rather than relying on supplements for peak performance.
Whether you take a bcaa before or after running doesn’t seem to make a huge impact.
To reiterate, BCAAs are safe and may be helpful for some runners and ultra endurance runners. However, if the diet is adequate in total calories and protein, BCAA supplements are not necessary.
If someone’s diet is lacking in total calories and/or protein, protein powders after running and BCAA supplements may be warranted for exercise, but it is unclear if they provide much benefit.
Always consult with a healthcare professional, such as a sports dietitian, before taking any supplements.
Other Running Posts
- Low carb diet and running
- Race day nutrition 101
- Runners stomach nutrition tips
- Caffeine before running
Fouré, A., & Bendahan, D. (2017). Is Branched-Chain Amino Acids Supplementation an Efficient Nutritional Strategy to Alleviate Skeletal Muscle Damage? A Systematic Review. Nutrients, 9(10), 1047. MDPI AG. Retrieved from https://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/9/10/1047
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
Plotkin, D. L., Delcastillo, K., Van Every, D. W., Tipton, K. D., Aragon, A. A., & Schoenfeld, B. J. (2021). Isolated Leucine and Branched-Chain Amino Acid Supplementation for Enhancing Muscular Strength and Hypertrophy: A Narrative Review, International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 31(3), 292-301. https://journals.humankinetics.com/view/journals/ijsnem/31/3/article-p292.xml
Rajavel Elango, Karen Chapman, Mahroukh Rafii, Ronald O Ball, Paul B Pencharz, (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