What Are BCAAs?

I’ll admit that when talking about nutritional supplementation, you’ll lose me every time you start tossing around all the letters — vitamin K, CLA, TAG, CM … OMG, my head hurts.

While I generally find proper nutrition to be pretty straight-forward (eat foods not chemicals), supplementation still seems rather foreign to me. Full disclosure: I tend to fall pretty squarely into the Get-Your-Nutrients-From-Whole-Foods Camp. However, in my constant quest to expand my knowledge base, recently I’ve started paying (the slightest bit) more attention to it since it’s become such a trend among the endurance athletes I coach.

Although, I have to say that there’s one supplement that I’ve been taking for a little while and lately, it seems to have become all the rage. It’s called branched chain amino acids or BCAAs. I started taking this supplement a while back as part of a multi-vitamin for active women — this was long before I had any idea what BCAAs did. Then, a few years back, I started learning a bit more and mixing BCAA powder in with my water before and during some of my workouts. You’ll also find BCAAs mixed in with some of the protein powders on the market today.

But What Exactly Are BCAAs?

First, it’s important to note that amino acids are the stuff (very technical term) or the puzzle pieces, if you will, that come together to form proteins. Amino acids have several important jobs like growing and repairing tissue as well as energy production. The name “BCAAs” refers to a small subset of three particular amino acids — specifically Leucine, Isoleucine and Valine — which are believed to be beneficial for your muscles.

We need to get BCAAs from food because our bodies aren’t equipped to produce them on their own. BCAAs can be found in protein-rich foods (like eggs and meat). So, for most people who eat a balanced diet that includes sufficient protein, BCAA supplementation isn’t actually necessary to keep your body functioning well.

With that being said, BCAAs in supplement form are treated a little differently in the body — they are free-form, meaning that they don’t actually require digestion in order to be absorbed into the bloodstream. Because of this, when taken strategically before and/or during your workouts, BCAA supplements can have a rapid, almost immediate, impact on how protein is treated in your body. So it’s really all in the timing when it comes to supplementation.

Do BCAAs Work?

In my own personal experience, I’ve found that BCAAs have gotten me drinking more water during my workouts, seem to keep me from fatiguing as quickly and appear to minimize the amount of muscle soreness I experience after tough workouts. Some friends and colleagues have reported similar results as well as other stuff like more energy and better focus during workouts.

But all anecdotal evidence aside, studies have shown that BCAA supplementation has a positive effect on post-workout muscle recovery in that they help keep your body from breaking down so much of your hard-earned muscle tissue in order to get enough energy to fuel your workouts. Ultimately, this leads to easier post-workout recovery. Several studies have also shown that BCAA supplementation keeps your mind sharp as your body fatigues — very helpful from the perspective of injury prevention since tired bodies tend to have sloppier form.

It’s worth noting that studies have been split on whether or not BCAA supplementation has any notable effect on exercise performance, so the jury’s still out on that one.

Should You Take BCAAs?

As with any supplement, it can be overdone. If you decide to give them a whirl, consult expert guidance on whether it’s right for you, purchase only from reputable companies, follow the directions carefully and pay very close attention to how it makes you feel. Keep in mind that most people get enough BCAAs in their diet already so don’t go diving head first into the container.

Have you tried taking a BCAA supplement? Tell us about your experience. —Alison

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