The major reasons that we want to explore BCAAs for runners is the muscle building and repair effects…but there’s more you need to understand before just throwing another supplement in your cart.
What are the benefits of amino acids? What’s the difference between branch chain and essential amino acids (it definitely matters)? And of course is it any different than the protein powder you’ve already got stashed away for your next post workout smoothie?
As always, I will state that supplementation is NEVER required.
But for many runners it’s hard to get in enough protein to meet the demands of our activity levels and this offers a low calorie option that is easy to implement with some pretty awesome science behind the benefits.
What is BCAA?
Branch chain amino acids are essential nutrients found in food that the body utilizes to breakdown protein. That breakdown results in muscle growth, reduction of muscle soreness, metabolism, balancing hormones and the list goes on.
- 20 amino acids
- 11 the body can produce
- 9 essential amino acids that must be acquired through food or supplementation
- 3 are considered branch chain amino acids
- leucine is the MOST important amino acid
On study showed that those utilizing BCAAs over water had 22% more muscle synthesis (the process of your body recovering and growing from breakdown).
What you REALLY need to know is that they also compared the results to those using an essential amino acid and that group had 50% more muscle synthesis than the BCAA’s group.
When it comes to trying to build muscle we need all the help we can get as endurance athletes because our constant fuel burn makes that more difficult.
So not only are we helping our legs to recover and feel stronger for the next run, but using them around strength training is even more important.
Which is why I prefer having you focus on getting in EAA’s because we might as well get in all the benefits possible!
3 Biggest Benefits of BCAA’s for Runners
For all of my ladies running after menopause, please pay extra attention to the leucine content in your supplement. We know now that it is the most important for the muscle building effect, which we need extra help with as hormones decline.
It matters for EVERYONE, but especially as we age.
According to a number of different studies BCAA supplements or more accurately from new studies EAA benefits include:
#1 BCAA Can Prevent Muscle Loss
While most lifters are focused on building muscle, after a long run my primary concern is that you don’t lose any muscle.
Early in your base building portion of training, it’s ideal to be focused on lifting heavier and utilizing your amino acid supplement to help you increase muscle mass. That’s going to make you faster, more injury proof and help with endurance. Studies have shown it works to do just that.
But as you get in to marathon training, we are largely working to maintain muscle mass through smart fueling and these can help that process.
THIS is why many also look to BCAA’s for weight loss. They help with lean muscle mass and we know that’s key.
#2 BCAA Reduce Fatigue Perceptions
Running is hard. There I said it.
But a big part of the hard is coming from our brain and if we’re dehydrated, eating low carb or just having a bad day then everything about the run can feel more challenging.
Multiple studies have shown, utilizing amino acids can result in a potential reduction in perceived effort levels due to changes in brain chemicals like dopamine. This is inline with why people utilize our own endocanabiniod system with CBD!
#3 Amino Acids Reduce Muscle Soreness
Nothing is worse than having to walk down the stairs backwards after a big race or just going way too hard on a run. If you’ve done either, then that might be a fabulous time to snag your BCAA drink.
Consistency in training is our biggest pathway to success.
So if we can kick start the recovery process and avoid DOMS (sore muscles after running) all at the same time, winning all around.
#4 BCAA for Energy Boost
As noted above, essential amino acids can be more quickly utilized by the body for energy and fuel. This won’t be the same effect as a pre-workout for running that contains caffeine.
But instead, ensures your muscles are more quickly being delivered a source of energy so that you may feel fresher and run longer. I like this because you’re skipping the potential to workout too hard that I often see happen as a result of using energy drinks.
#5 Amino Acids are Great for the Gut
Your immune system lives in your gut. Yup.
So whether you are finding yourself frequently sick the week of a race or dealing with runner’s diarrhea, we want to find ways to enhance our gut health.
BCAA works on the gut in a few different ways. One seems to be that it helps to increase our good bacteria, the same way we look to a probiotic. A few others are still swirling out there as they tend to focus on Whey Protein gut benefits. However, this study on animals is now being used to look at humans because “Compelling evidence supports the notion that BCAAs play important roles in both nutrition and intestinal health.”
#6 BCAA Are Low Calorie
While this is not a primary reason to look to BCAA for running, I know that it plays a role. Those who are running for weight loss, while trying to hit their protein goals often feel like they simply can’t without going too high on calories.
BCAA are often low to no calorie options.
As always, remember that there are massive benefits to getting your protein from whole food sources.
7 Best BCAA for Runners
Due to my preference to steer you to the highest quality and most worth your time, I’ve got a list of essential amino acid supplements that I’ve tried and personally like.
All of these can be mixed with water and sipped just like an electrolyte drink. They taste very similar and don’t need to be mixed in to a smoothie or something else unless you want to.
- Most Affordable BCAA: Vital Proteins Performance Recovery (yup the upgraded version of their collagen powder, not the protein powder)
- Highest Quality BCAA (EAA): Thorne Essential Amino Acids
- Runner Up Quality: Kion Amino Essentials
- Best Muscle Building Recovery Drink: BodyHealth Perfect Amino (I like this one a lot, but it’s pricey. So I tend to use Vital Proteins now)
- Best Powder For Anyone Worried about Elite Testing: Ultra Clean Vegan BCAA Powder
- Best For Anyone With Stomach Issues: Designs for Health BCAA with L-Glutamine
I prefer powders over pills because a pill has to be broken down. Which delays the access of the nutrients to the body. But let’s talk about the final great way to get BCAA, food.
Foods that Contain Amino Acids
Of course, you can find amino acids in many foods as previously noted.
- Eggs, dairy
- Lentils, chickpeas
- Cashews, almonds
It’s called a supplement to help boost your food choices, not replace. So as always BCAA’s for runners are a supplement!!
Think of it like a bonus!
When to Take BCAA For Runners
In the following, what you’re taking really does matter! And more is not better.
10-15 grams of EAA’s is plenty, anything additional looks like sugar to the body and we know how that’s treated. (in other words, 1 serving is plenty)
BCAA’s are metabolized in the muscles. Which means they can act like a carbohydrate source and therefore serve as energy pre-run. While an EAA won’t have that same boosting effect.
For some they dislike that BCAA’s are treated more like a carbohydrate and thus stick just to the EAA’s during and post workout.
BCAA’s Before Running
Drinking them prior to your run can help in a few ways:
- often treated like carbs in the body providing a good energy source
- potential reduction in perceived effort levels due to changes in brain chemicals like dopamine
- kick starting the recovery process by having fuel in your system
- easy way to enforce hydration pre-run because the sweetness encourages you to keep drinking
BCAA’s During a Run
The benefits of drinking them during a run will be very similar to those of taking them before you start, but with a few additions:
- presence of the amino acid valine and/or isoleucine could actually prevent some muscle breakdown, which means faster recovery
- tryptophan (yup same as the Thanksgiving turkey) can help with some pain suppression, so maybe you can push harder in that track session
BCAA’s Post Workout
The most common time you’ll hear about BCAA supplementation is the post workout drink. Which is because that’s largely how weight lifters have always utilized it.
- increase the release of human growth hormone for muscle repair and growth
- quicker return of total strength
While I’m pointing out individual amino acids and their benefits, they all work together! You can’t just find a leucine supplement and ignore the others.
Should I take a BCAA or Protein Powder?
For planted based runners, an essential amino acid is more valuable than most of the protein powder options because they often miss some of the EAA’s.
Other reasons you might swap protein for them:
- they provide that pre-run energy
- they need less breakdown by the body to be utilized (usually in your system within 20-30 minutes!)
- no worries about lactose or soy or other allergens
- preferred taste of something sweet over the powder
- no additional calories if weight loss is a focus
- Since we know Leucine is the primary driver of our muscle growth, it’s important to understand that different types of protein have different amounts.
This chart from My Sport Science helps show how different foods have different amounts.
Hopefully this not only helped with your BCAA’s for runners questions, but maybe even convinced you that there might be a way to level up even more.
Looking for more sports nutrition? Checkout these articles:
- How many calories do runners need?
- What to eat before a run?
- Why NOT to do fasted cardio
- What is the Best Runner’s Diet
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