Are Branch Chain Amino Acid Supplements Worth it?

Recently in a plant-based endurance athlete Facebook group someone posted asking about recommendations for a BCAA mix. They said they were looking for something to sip on daily for energy or as a pre-workout.

Branched-chain amino acids are three essential amino acids that are often taken together as a BCAA supplement. Typically you will see them suggested for muscle recovery and regeneration as well as reducing soreness, but is there any actual research to back up these claims?

My response to the Facebook post was that the supplement is very low on the list when it comes to bang for your buck ways to spend your money. If the original poster is having fatigue issues, factors to consider before taking an expensive and unproven supplement would be

  • Sleep quality
  • Sleep quantity
  • daily calorie intake
  • Daily protein intake
  • Nutrient timing
  • Are the easy days truly easy runs?
  • Is this person overdoing their hard workouts or long runs?
  • Are they running too much volume or too frequently?
  • Is their work stress too high?

No supplement is going to realistically help someone overcome these fundamental core concerns. Many of these are free or very cheap problems that can be solved straight away and could potentially improve not only their fitness but their general well-being.

But let’s get back to the branched-chain amino acids for just a second.

In that Facebook post a few people responded back with the supplements they take and if one were to click on these and they would see some pretty amazing benefits such as increased energy and heightened focus, fueling athletic performance, and decreasing the onset of muscle fatigue.

But what about when you look at the actual research and not what the company was selling the supplement is trying to tell you?

The European food safety authority put out a report on branched-chain amino acid claims including:

  • Improved immune system
  • Growth or maintenance of muscle mass
  • Improved cognitive function
  • Faster recovery from muscle fatigue after exercise
  • Reduced muscle soreness
  • Increased protein synthesis

And would you believe it that a cause and effect relationship has not distinctly been established for any of those proposed benefits of branched-chain amino acids!?

The major problem with the supplements is that there are only three amino acids included. These are leucine, isoleucine, and valine. So the concern is that the supplements don’t include all the necessary building blocks to actually make new proteins for maximal stimulation of muscle protein synthesis!

That has been indeed shown that post-exercise muscle protein synthesis can be increased within just enough branched-chain amino acids but, and this is a big butt, intact for example whey protein resulted in twice as much muscle protein synthesis!

But here’s the kicker, the normal food you eat or basically any protein supplement is going to contain all of these branched-chain amino acids as well as all the other amino acids! When you take a BCAA supplement your potentially spending more money on less protein and less benefit than you would out of simply taking a whole protein amino acid spectrum supplement or my preferred option of just eating adequate amounts of real food.

So this is a good reminder to be wary of what product advertisements suggest the benefits are because when you look at actual research most supplements will fall far short of the claims on the supplement box.

One of the main pillars of my coaching is practicality and not wasting money. First focus on the fundamentals that you can nail down often pretty easily. With my own clients bunch of what we talk about is a lot of what I mentioned at the start of this discussion. How is your sleep, what about your diet, are your easy runs not truly regenerative, how is your overall training load, What are your strength routines like?

These are the things that need to be dialed in and these are the things I work to improve in my clients all over the world through sustainable training habits, nutritional guidance, developing great mindfulness practices, and incorporating easy to do running-specific strength work.

If you like what you hear and want to learn more about how you can implement some great practical ways to improve your own fitness and health visit bit.ly/kyles4pillars to check out some tips on how you can improve your strength and mindfulness straight away!

As always, you keep running and I’ll keep coaching.

Coach Kyle