Sports nutrition as an industry continues to experience explosive growth. The number of brands, manufacturers and products continues to increase as does the search for new ingredients. Unfortunately, the path to the top has resulted in the introduction of a number of ingredients with questionable efficacy, and as a result the list of foundational ingredients seemingly gets smaller and smaller. The introduction of creatine in the early 1990’s provided what many people feel was the first ingredient with legitimate evidence, which fueled the exploration of the “next creatine”. A number of alternative forms of creatine have been introduced, often with a higher price tag, but lacking in conclusive evidence that provides justification for these added costs (Buford 2007). Creatine was different not only because it worked but because of how it worked. By enhancing the body’s ability to reproduce energy, a number of beneficial outcomes have been realized. Creatine operates as a buffer inside muscle cells which results in greater rates of energy production. The rest is history whereby supplementation with creatine consistently increases various parameters of sports performance (Kreider 2003; Buford 2007).
This function led scientists to investigate other buffers inside muscle cells which may also aid in improving the cell’s ability to resist fatigue. With a greater ability to resist fatigue, outcomes such as improved sports performance and management of various diseases may be realized. Scientists determined that carnosine also functions as an extremely powerful buffer in muscle cells (Abe 2000; Harris 2006), and if carnosine levels could be increased so too might the cell’s ability to resist fatigue. Interestingly, supplementing the diet with carnosine is not effective because it can’t be absorbed into the blood (which means it can’t be transported to muscle tissue) (Bauer 1994). Thus, carnosine levels do not increase inside muscle, which means its ability to function as a buffer also won’t be impacted. Supplementing the diet with beta-alanine, one of the compounds which the body needs to produce carnosine, increases carnosine levels in muscle (Harris 2006). And these increased levels have been consistently shown to increase various aspects of sports performance (Artioli 2010).
While functioning in a similar manner, the pathways associated with creatine and beta-alanine are distinctly different, which leads to asking, “What would happen if both creatine and beta-alanine were combined?” Would the same effects be realized as seen when taking either creatine or beta-alanine? Or would they work together and result in even greater performance? A limited number of published studies have addressed these questions. Two of these published reports were well-designed studies which used college-aged men as participants. In both studies, the participants ingested in a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled manner either placebo, creatine, beta-alanine or creatine + beta-alanine for 28 days. These studies did not employ any form of exercise training so a maximal exercise test was completed before and after supplementation and a number of performance measures were assessed. In one study (Stout 2007), physical working capacity increased to a greater extent when beta-alanine and beta-alanine + creatine were ingested in comparison to the changes seen when placebo was ingested. The other study (Zoeller 2007) attempted to measure a series of aerobic exercise parameters (time to exhaustion, lactate threshold, aerobic power, etc.) and did not report any consistent benefit impact for any of the supplement combinations. Overall these studies were not overwhelming supportive of the combination of creatine and beta-alanine, but the fact no exercise training was employed and the type of assessment performed (which some may consider to be more aerobic in nature) might explain the lack of beneficial results. Regardless, these studies were some of the first completed and a series of additional studies are needed before firm conclusions can be made.
Around the same time, another study was completed which used collegiate football players as research subjects. In this 10 week study and in a double-blind manner, the athletes were placed into one of three groups: placebo, creatine or creatine + beta-alanine, where they ingested their assigned supplement each day for the duration of the study (Hoffman 2006). This is an excellent study to discuss because it used a four day/week, whole body heavy resistance training program which was intended to build strength and muscle mass. Before and after the ten week exercise and supplementation period, the athletes were assessed for changes in strength, body composition, power production and hormonal changes. When the creatine + beta-alanine combination was ingested, significantly greater improvements in percent body fat and lean mass were found when compared to the other supplementation groups. In addition to these favorable changes, upper- and lower-body strength changes were greater when either creatine or creatine + beta-alanine was ingested when compared to the changes seen when placebo was ingested. Finally, the total training volume performed for both upper- and lower-body exercises was greater when creatine + beta-alanine was ingested when compared to the other two groups. This last finding, in addition to the more favorable improvements in body composition, suggests that creatine + beta-alanine may favorably improve the quality of workouts.
A number of studies need to be conducted yet to fully realize the potential impact of combining creatine and beta-alanine, but the available research involving resistance training athletes is promising. In the only published study devoted to the topic, greater improvements in body composition, training volume and strength improvements were realized when the two supplements were combined. Future research will certainly determine the final details regarding their use, but at the current time, resistance training athletes may be able to combine the two and experienced heightened and greater adaptations to their training.
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