Adequate intake of protein is very important to achieve progress in sports. It is constantly emphasized that protein plays a critical role in muscular strength. This is very true, but less emphasized is the role of branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) in muscular health. Whether you are a bodybuilder, recreational weightlifter, or endurance athlete, the BCAAs are a necessity to progress in your activity of choice.
BCAAs are essential amino acids that must be obtained through dietary protein sources. The ‘branched-chain’ portion refers to the appearance of their chemical structure, unseen by the naked eye (Chemistry 101). There are 3 BCAAs: leucine, isoleucine, and valine. Many studies have confirmed that BCAAs stimulate the production of protein in muscle and help to reduce muscle breakdown resulting from intense exercise.
While most of the amino acids are metabolized in the liver, the bulk of BCAA metabolism occurs in the muscle and some of it occurs in adipose tissue (more famously known as fat). By bypassing the liver, the BCAAs are absorbed by muscle relatively quickly, which in turn helps to ensure quicker muscular recovery.
The BCAAs make up about 40% of the daily needs of essential amino acids. In turn, they also make up about 35% of muscle tissue. Athletes commonly use them to enhance athletic performance and to reduce muscular breakdown during exercise. Some researchers estimate the BCAAs provide up to 18% of total workout energy.
Some research has shown that BCAA supplementation is beneficial when taken before, during, and after exercise. Improvements in physical and mental performance have been observed in marathon runners, especially when using BCAAs prior to exercising. Sadly, results are inconsistent. Currently, most researchers do not believe BCAAs are highly effective in directly enhancing athletic performance.
Energy levels during heavy exercise can be maintained because the body utilizes BCAAs and fat as secondary energy sources after glycogen (sugar) stores have been used up. Adequate protein can even help prevent muscle loss when following any diet. For strength training, basic guidelines dictate total protein intake should equal 1.3-1.6 grams/kilogram of body weight to ensure sufficient intake of BCAAs.
The average daily dose of BCAAs should be between 1-5 grams. This will vary based on body weight, exercise duration, and individual nutritional needs. If experimenting with supplements, local Target stores sell, for example, EAS 100% Whey Protein. It provides 6.3 grams of BCAAs per serving. It is highly recommended to consult with a qualified sports nutritionist for guidance when using any supplement.
Most protein and BCAAs can be obtained from food. Food sources of BCAAs include beef, chicken, fish, soy, dairy products, and eggs. They also can be found in plant-based foods, including whole wheat, brown rice, baked beans, lima beans, pumpkins seeds, almonds, cashews, lentils, and corn.
As research into BCAAs continues, remember that they can be used before and after workouts to help build muscle and accelerate muscle recovery.
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