Amino acid

Eating an amino acid mixture may really be worthwhile – as long as you do it at the right time

How often have you gone into the gym for a workout, only to be tempted by the products on sale promising rapid weight and muscle gain through amino acid supplementation? Then again, the sheer cost may have put you off the idea-and besides, being well educated in these matters, you think you know that a high carbohydrate and energy intake is what the scientists say is best. Yet the chances are you know someone who is bigger and stronger than you who swears by the supplements.

 We’ve reported before in PEAK PERFORMANCE that muscle breakdown (catabolism) in endurance athletes can be reduced when they supplement their diet with branched-chain amino acids (BCMs). Other studies have also shown that after a strenuous strength-training session, even in well-trained athletes, muscle catabolism is increased for a period of roughly four to 14 hours, after which a phase of muscle-building (anabolism) takes place. If the anabolic phase is greater in scale and duration than the catabolic phase, improvements in muscle strength and size will take place.

So any treatments that could reduce muscle catabolism might prove beneficial. A rapid influx of amino acids into the muscle cells immediately after training will theoretically have this effect by providing an alternative source of amino acids for utilisation, thus protecting the precious muscle itself. A RAPIDLY ABSORBED supplement of amino acids, taken immediately after training, might do the trick.

A recent study carried out by researchers at Auburn University in the US compared blood levels of amino acids in 10 male subjects (average age 30 years) after each of three possible treatments: eating a mixture of amino acids in their easily absorbed form; eating the same total amount but as whole protein (cottage cheese); and eating a mixture of the two. Each treatment consisted of a similar wide range of amino acids, and totalled about 23g protein, 5g carbohydrate, 2g fat, and also included just 20ml water. Each subject’s diet was also standardised prior to treatment.

After just 15 minutes, the first and third treatments (ie, those including individual amino acids) produced a much higher level of circulating amino acids than the whole protein treatment-although, as in many areas of nutrition, there were wide variations between individual responses. A promising finding was that the problem that had been feared- -of a correspondingly quick disappearance of the amino acids from the circulation via excretion from the body by the kidneys-did not take place. Notably, there was little difference between the amino acid concentrations observed as long as SOME of the amino acids eaten were immediately available for absorption -ie, after treatments one and three.

In practical terms, what can these findings mean to the athlete wishing to increase muscle mass and get the most out of the hard work put in during specific strength-training sessions? They could mean that those people who swear by amino acid supplements may have got it half-right. The use of such a supplement immediately after training may be beneficial, ideally in combination with an easily absorbed carbohydrate supplement which can both supply the muscle cells with an alternative energy source and help raise insulin levels to encourage the transport of these nutrients into the cells. But the other message is that only a small amount of each of these is considered necessary so long as the major post-training meal is not long delayed. Even if the protein in this meal is more slowly absorbed, the rapidly absorbed supplement should have done its job in raising blood levels quickly.

Suitable amounts of carbohydrate and protein in the post-training supplement are 25g and 10g respectively, and could be prepared yourself as a drink or a mix to be taken as soon as you walk towards the changing rooms. Your normal meal son after training should take care of most of your nutritional needs, but getting that edge of INSTANT nutrient supply may be just what you need to reduce muscle catabolism and to boost the training effects. And a relatively low cost too, if supplements are used in this way. In other words, you get the most benefit from using the supplement at the right time, but without the expense of using them as the manufacturers normally suggest.

(‘Metabolic Effects of Ingestion of L-Amino Acids and Whole Protein’. Journal of Nutritional Medicine, vol. 4, pp. 311-319, 1994)

Alun Williams
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