Beta-alanine redux: Same question, still no answer. But they still recommend you take it.

It’s been three years since I’ve written about beta-alanine. I do monitor the literature from time to time to see what’s new in the BA research world. But really, there isn’t anything new. There still is no definitive answer that BA does anything meaningful. The latest BA study not only failed to find anything meaningful, but also failed to plan to find anything meaningful, allowing the gods of statistical probability to decide if the fruits of their labour would be met with reward.

Kern BD, Robinson TL. Effects of beta-alanine supplementation on performance and body composition in collegiate wrestlers and football players. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 25(7):1804-1815, 2011.

Football players and wrestlers can be characterized as athletes who compete and train in a HIIT-style paradigm. Maintaining lean body mass while improving or keeping performance gains, particularly in times of trying to make weight for competitions is therefore of importance and interest.

This study was reported as a randomized controlled study, but made no mention of any study characteristics that would allow a reader to evaluate the quality of such a design. The authors did not mention how the randomization sequence was generated, how the subjects were randomized, or who was blinded (the term “double-blind” has long lost all meaning in RCT literature). All we know is that about half of the football players and half of the wrestlers took the placebo and the other “about half” of the athletes took 4g of beta-alanine per day for the 8 week study period (it reads like it was 2g at breakfast and 2g at lunch). They did not allow athletes who had taken beta-alanine in the previous 3 months to be in the study.

Performance outcomes included a 300 yard shuttle run, and flexed arm hand (at 90 degrees). Blood lactate was also measured with finger-prick samples. Body composition was measured with a 7-site skin fold test.

The study athletes trained as per their training schedules. Football players practiced 3 days per week and did resistance training 4 days per week. Wrestlers practiced 4-5 days per week and did resistance training 3 days per week.

ANOVAs were used to determine if there were any differences between or within the four groups, and if there was, the t-tests were planned.

The paper reports that both the football players and wresters who took beta-alanine had, “…more desirable results in all tests (mean values) compared to those on placebo, though no statistically significant difference was seen between mean change values (pre to posttreatment) on any tested variables…”

The rest of the results section goes on to outline the actual numbers these “more desirable” results were. I’m not convinced they are meaningful even if they had been statistically significant.

What surprises me about this study is that the discussion section of this paper talks about these results as though they were actually beneficial/successful. I think this warrants a brief overview of how the p-value is interpreted:

The way I like to phrase the interpretation of the p-value is that is the probability of observing the differences in the data between the two comparison groups if there is no difference in the overall population.

As a point of convention, we define something as “statistically significant” if the probability of observing the difference under the circumstance that nothing special is happening is less than 0.05. That is to say that if beta-alanine had no effect at all, it would be highly unlikely for us to observe X difference. Therefore if we do observe X difference, it must be because beta-alanine is doing something. Failing to meet the 0.05 criteria means that while you can’t say beta-alanine does nothing, you also can’t rule out the fact that it was all just a coincidence.

The problem with this study is that not only does it fail to find evidence for beta-alanine as an effective supplement (in ANY of the parameters), it lacks the power to say that it doesn’t do anything either; and that is largely to do with the planning of this study, and every other beta-alanine study to precede it.

If you were going to build a house, you would probably hire an architect, and perhaps an engineer to design it. You would probably spend a lot of time looking for the best materials you could afford and once that was done, then and ONLY THEN, would you break ground for your house. You probably wouldn’t take a look at what was around, start digging a hole and nail gun some boards that were lying around together.

The authors of this study reported that the wresters and football players gained, on average, one pound of lean body mass in 8 weeks, and that the ability to this is meaningful and important. Let’s assume that we could actually reliably measure that without any confounding variables like, oh, say..drinking a 2L bottle of Coke. If that is indeed the case, then you would need 115 subjects to prove that that gain of 1 pound of lean body mass wasn’t just a coincidence. In short, this study was, unfortunately, a random hole in the ground with some random nailed-together boards.

Nonetheless, the authors of this study conclude, somehow, that beta-alanine does produce meaningful results–by far the most ambitious and overreached set of conclusions I’ve read in a long time, given the bleak face of the data. It’s one thing to argue that a small statistically significant difference is important, but to argue that a small not-statistically significant difference is relevant? That takes balls.

The bottom line: Do I hate beta-alanine? No, I wouldn’t say that I hate it. But I do hate the fact that even at only 30-40 dollars a month, thousands of hopeful people are buying into a hype that, apart from unconfirm-able anecdotes, has yet to pan out in any way, shape or form when studied.

Believing that something works is entirely different than something that actually works. In the words of a certain orange-coloured banking company: SAVE YOUR MONEY.

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