Regardless of what type of athlete you are, your nutrition preparation doesn’t begin the morning of your workout. Successful sports nutrition and supplementation to help steady performance and to build muscle safely is something one needs to prepare for over time.
Continually growing in popularity, BCAAs—branched-chain amino acids made up of leucine, isoleucine, and valine—perfectly complement any sports nutrition plan because, when used at the right amount and frequency, they can support muscle growth, alleviate soreness, and help reduce exercise fatigue. Growing lean muscle mass not only helps athletes of all levels obtain a strong and healthy physique, but can also help them reach athletic or competitive goals.
During workouts, our bodies build up lactic acid in our muscles, causing soreness, therefore making it difficult for some to continue pushing forward. Naturally, your body responds by making muscles stronger, but to do so it requires enough amino acids from the blood stream. Because BCAAs are primarily metabolized by the muscle, as opposed to the liver like other nutrients, they are an important fuel source for muscles and help prevent muscle breakdown induced by exercise.
BCAAs are considered essential amino acids because they cannot be made by your body and need to be obtained through diet. While BCAAs can also be found naturally in animal proteins prepared in your kitchen—like chicken, beef, or milk—using BCAA supplements is extremely beneficial, making it possible to reach your nutrition targets and help your body develop and perform at its best.
Building and maintaining muscle mass is an important factor in maintaining healthy body composition. Lean muscle also enhances our metabolic activity and can help support posture and other activities of daily living.
What I Look for in a BCAA Product
As a professional competitive figure athlete, my training and dietary needs are diversified depending on what phase of preparation I am in, the type of activity I’m performing, and even the time of day during which I’m training. For these reasons, I need a very focused product solution to meet my fuel and recovery needs.
Ideally, a BCAA product that is not combined with other active ingredients, like caffeine, makes it easier to customize or use along with other products or ingredients for personal goals.
Because most of us have incredibly busy lifestyles, a caffeine-free option that can be used multiple times throughout the day promotes muscle recovery without the extra burst of energy per serving. If a caffeine-containing product is consumed later in the evening or in excess throughout the day, it can sometimes interfere with restful sleep—a critical element of muscle recovery.
When training for a competition, I also prefer to use a BCAA product that has low to zero sugar and no artificial sweeteners, in order to comply with a calorie-restricted diet, which is also useful for those who are trying to lose weight. I also prefer that it contain no artificial colors. Generally, a low-calorie BCAA product will also leave room for other key macronutrients like healthy fats and complex carbohydrates and will better allow you to tailor your regimen to your dietary and fitness needs.
Why Use Supplements over What We Can Make in the Kitchen?
The quantity of BCAAs obtained from different dietary sources can vary greatly, and for this reason, intake is difficult to measure on an ongoing basis. For example, a 3-oz serving of chicken, beef, or fish delivers about 1.7 g of leucine. Plant protein sources offer slightly lower amounts of BCAAs than meat or whey sources (such as cottage cheese or whey protein powder), with soybeans and other beans providing about 1 g of leucine, 1 g of isoleucine, and 1 g of valine.
BCAA products, particularly ones with 5 g of total BCAAs with 3 mg of leucine, are a convenient way to ensure you are getting a sufficient amount of high-quality essential amino acids to help build and maintain lean muscle mass and support recovery for continued performance, while offering dietary flexibility in case you are not regularly consuming high amounts of protein or BCAA-containing foods.
Remember the Importance of Quality and Safety
So many BCAA products are combined with other ingredients to deliver multiple effects or claims at once. One disadvantage to a multi-claim product is that you may not get as much of a key ingredient as you are looking for.
Also keep in mind that rigorously tested dietary supplements can better aid athletes in achieving their personalized fitness goals because if a supplement contains high-quality ingredients, you really only ingest what’s needed for your body to perform, as opposed to consuming empty calories from other additives or even ingredients that may be potentially harmful to your performance.
Whether or not you’re competing at the professional level, it’s important to know for sure that the supplements you’re taking contain clearly defined ingredients and are safe for use. A good indicator of quality to look for on the label is the NSF International Certified for Sport logo. The NSF Certified for Sport logo means that all ingredients and quantities listed on a product’s label are what’s actually in the product. This provides confidence that what you’re putting in your body is safe and devoid of contaminants, is of the highest quality, and does not contain any of the more than 270 substances banned by major athletic organizations.
The greatest thing to remember is that fitness is a lifestyle, and success can only be determined by your own personal objectives and nutrition routine. Goals are achieved through a cumulative effort, and they don’t happen overnight, so find the nutrition plan and safe supplements that work best for you.
About the Author:
Kristy Appelhans, MS, NMD, is senior director, Global Consumer Safety, for Herbalife Nutrition, and a professional competitive natural body builder.