Why are amino acids so important in sports?
Amino acids, the "building blocks of life" - the diverse molecules have been shaking up the fitness scene for quite some time. Muscle building, performance and regeneration - all this is supposed to work better with amino acids. Are they really that important in sports? And what are they used for? In this blog post, we explain what amino acids can do and why you can benefit from them as an athlete.
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Table of contents
• In a nutshell: What are amino acids?
• Why are amino acids important in sports?
• How do I supply my body with amino acids?
• Taking amino acids - when is the best time?
In a nutshell: What are amino acids?
Before we delve deeper into the topic, let's take a look at what amino acids are again.
Amino acids can be divided into proteinogenic and non-proteinogenic amino acids. Proteinogenic amino acids are the building blocks of your proteins and enzymes. Without these 21 amino acids, we would not have proteins and would not be able to survive. Non-proteinogenic amino acids are not found in proteins but perform other important functions. One example is the thyroid hormone L-thyroxine or the neurotransmitter GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid).
For the chemistry fans among you:
Structurally, amino acids are special because they have an acid group and an amino group that contains nitrogen. This nitrogen must be excreted with care when proteins and amino acids are broken down, as pure nitrogen would be harmful to health. Instead, urea and, in lower concentrations, ammonia are excreted.
A further distinction is made between proteinogenic amino acids.
Here there are essential and non-essential amino acids. Essential means that your body cannot produce these amino acids itself and must therefore absorb them from food. The non-essential amino acids are then formed from these essential amino acids, among others. Exact guidelines on how much of each essential amino acid you should consume do not yet exist.
Why are amino acids important in sports?
One reason why amino acids are so important for sports is certainly that they are the building blocks of our proteins. Because your muscles are made up of 20% protein and 75% water. The largest part of the dry mass is therefore protein. During recovery after training, small tears in the muscle fibers need to be repaired. Here the proteins are damaged and new ones have to be formed or old ones repaired - both with the help of amino acids.
But there are other reasons why amino acids, especially specific amino acids, are so important in sports:
• Arginine, glycine and methionine are necessary for the synthesis of creatine; creatine is a substance that contributes to the provision of energy in the muscle during exercise, thus ensuring that the contraction can be maintained for longer - without starting anaerobic energy production.
• Taurine - a non-proteinogenic amino acid has an impact on energy metabolism in muscle and adipose cells. Taurine is Involved in Energy Metabolism in Muscles, Adipose Tissue, and the Liver 1.
• The branched-chain amino acids leucine, isoleucine, and valine are particularly often recommended for weight training; namely, BCAA's can be oxidized and serve as an energy source in muscle; during physical activity, this oxidation is more strongly promoted and, at the same time, the breakdown of muscle protein is inhibited when the BCAA's are administered2.
• L-carnitine is a non-proteinogenic amino acid responsible for fatty acid transport into the mitochondrion; muscle does not produce L-carnitine itself, but must take up the amino acid from the blood; during physical work, the demand in muscle is increased, especially during prolonged exercise, because that is when fat burning is particularly active3.
• Tyrosine and phenylalanine are precursors of the neurotransmitters and hormones adrenaline, noradrenaline as well as dopamine; these performance hormones are important for activity and concentration.
• Glutamine is not only a component of proteins, but may even have a function in regeneration; recent studies show that glutamine can accelerate regeneration and resolution of inflammation in damaged regenerating muscles4.
• Arginine and citrulline are substrates of the so-called eNOS. This is an enzyme that produces the vasodilator NO; vasodilation, i.e., vasodilatation, prevents an excessive increase in blood pressure and simultaneously promotes blood flow5; both may be important in sports.
Amino acids have a variety of functions within the muscles, ranging from regeneration and energy supply to increasing blood flow.
How can you supply your body with these amino acids?
How do I supply my body with amino acids?
In principle, there are two ways to supply your body with amino acids - through proteins or isolated.Which option is better?
Proteins as a source of amino acids:
Of course, we take in amino acids every day by eating proteins. These are broken down into individual amino acids in our digestive system and then absorbed by the intestinal cells and released into the blood. The absorption of amino acids depends on the biological value of the protein and the digestion.
The biological value is a value that describes how well the protein can be absorbed. It is increased by an optimal ratio of the individual essential amino acids to each other - often this is not the case. In vegetable proteins, for example, methionine and cysteine are often deficient.
Combining different proteins therefore makes sense in any case.
Isolated amino acids:
Amino acids can also be taken individually with the help of dietary supplements. There are various preparations to choose from here: individual amino acids (for example L-glutamine), only the branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), essential amino acids (EAAs) or other more specialized mixtures.
In contrast to absorption via proteins, the absorption capacity for free amino acids is increased, as these do not first have to be broken down and made available in the digestive tract.
Our conclusion: Of course, a sufficient protein supply is essential for covering the amino acid requirement. However, especially as an athlete, it can make sense to additionally resort to isolated amino acids in order to optimally support the training.
The questions that most athletes - and perhaps you too - are now asking themselves: "Which amino acid product should I take? And when is the best time - before, during or after training?"
Which amino acid product is right for me?
Single amino acids, BCAA's, EAA's - the choice is large. Which product suits you, is not so difficult to answer.
In the vast majority of cases, it actually makes more sense to take all the essential amino acids, as they include both BCAA's and all the other necessary amino acids.
BCAA's prove to be helpful when training would otherwise endanger the muscles, i.e. when muscle breakdown would occur. Here BCAA's can be used to inhibit muscle breakdown, as the supplemented amino acids can be used as a source of energy. That the content of BCAA's in an amino acid complex with all essential amino acids is not sufficient here is rather rare.
Individual amino acids are also only of limited help - at least if only one amino acid is supplemented in total. What good does it do your body if it is showered with, say, L-arginine, but all the essential amino acids are not also given? That's right, there is little benefit. In addition to the essential amino acids, perhaps even in a common amino acid complex, the situation looks different again.
We also have various amino acid products in our range. So there is something for every athlete, depending on what you focus on.
Taking amino acids - when is the best time?
Once you have decided on your amino acid product, one question remains: When is the best time to take amino acids? Before or after training - or completely independent of sports?
1 Wen, C., Li, F., Zhang, L. et al. (2019). Taurine is Involved in Energy Metabolism in Muscles, Adipose Tissue, and the Liver. Molecular nutrition & food research, 63(2), e1800536. https://doi.org/10.1002/mnfr.201800536
2 Shimomura, Y., Murakami, T., Nakai, N. et al. (2004). Exercise promotes BCAA catabolism: effects of BCAA supplementation on skeletal muscle during exercise. The Journal of nutrition, 134(6 Suppl), 1583S–1587S. https://doi.org/10.1093/jn/134.6.1583S
3 Gnoni, A., Longo, S., Gnoni, G. V. et al. (2020). Carnitine in Human Muscle Bioenergetics: Can Carnitine Supplementation Improve Physical Exercise?. Molecules (Basel, Switzerland), 25(1), 182. https://doi.org/10.3390/molecules25010182
4 Koike, T. E., Dell Aquila, R. A., Silva, K. S. et al. (2022). Glutamine supplementation improves contractile function of regenerating soleus muscles from rats. Journal of muscle research and cell motility, 43(2), 87–97. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10974-022-09615-3
5 Khalaf, D., Krüger, M., Wehland, M. et al. (2019). The Effects of Oral l-Arginine and l-Citrulline Supplementation on Blood Pressure. Nutrients, 11(7), 1679. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11071679