Carnosine is a fairly unknown supplement, yet one that can significantly improve your athletic performance.
Carnosine is actually a byproduct of beta-alanine metabolism, which saturates the muscle only to be released during times of anaerobic stress, where it acts to buffer acidity, allowing for prolonged activity at higher intensities.
In this article, I’ll touch on what carnosine is and what performance benefits you can expect to see from regular supplementation.
What is Carnosine?
Beta-alanyl-L-histidine, otherwise known as Carnosine, is what is known as a dipeptide molecule, which is made up of beta-alanine and histidine.
While this molecule hold many health promoting benefits due it’s antioxidant properties, it’s main calling card with athletes at least, is the benefits which are afforded by it’s ability to help buffer low pH, or an increase of acidity within the muscle. But we’ll get back to that a bit later.
Carnosine is a molecule, which is primarily found in muscle tissues such as muscle and the brain. Unfortunately, it’s uncommon to find carnosine in plant products, which alludes to the need for supplementation if you follow a plant based diet.
Overall, in terms of athletic performance, it’s important to remember that muscle, much like with creatine, muscle must be saturated with carnosine in order to be effective. Thus, regular supplementation is suggested (1).
However, let’s dive in to the specific benefits of carnosine and why you should consider supplementing with it.
Carnosine & Buffering
One of the hallmarks of exercise is an increase in lactate, which is a byproduct of the energy system known as glycolysis, which also happens to be one of the primary energy systems used during fairly high intensity activity.
However, despite believing that lactate is the reason for fatigue, research has actually revealed that it’s far more likely this reduction of performance is at least in part due to hydrogen ions.
In fact, some studies have indicated that in at least animal models, no reduction of performance is noted with high levels of lactate alone, but once hydrogen ions are introduced, fatigue comes to fruition (2).
When ATP, the body’s main energy source is broken down to provide energy, one of the byproducts of that occurring is a build up of hydrogen, which combines with water molecules to make hydronium.
Hydrogen ions themselves are very acidic in nature, which results in a reduction of pH or increasing the body’s level of acidity. (Keep in mind that the pH scale is inverted; as acidity increases the pH level decreases.)
Fortunately for all of us, the body’s pH system is tightly regulated, to ensure that your body doesn’t become too acidic or even too alkaline. This is where carnosine comes in.
Carnosine actually is released by muscle when this pH decreases too far in order to buffer or reduce it’s acidity, bringing the blood’s pH system back up to be a bit more alkaline.
Thus, it stands to reason that supplementing with carnosine would be advantageous for literally any athlete. By limiting the build up of hydrogen ions, you can essentially increase the intensity that you perform at and do it for longer periods of time, while avoiding fatigue.
Potential Performance Benefits Of Carnosine
Obviously you understand how having carnosine in the muscle can provide a buffering ability in the muscle, which of course is advantageous for performance. Let’s dive into some of the other performance-based benefits of supplementing with carnosine.
Multiple studies have revealed that when muscle carnosine stores are high, endurance of musculature during athletic performance increases.
In fact, one study indicated that highly trained collegiate wrestlers and football players, supplementing with beta-alanine, a precursor of carnosine, actually allowed subjects to double muscle growth sizes when compared to placebo (3).
Additionally, a meta-analysis determined that by increasing muscle carnosine levels, you can expect on average to see close to a 3% increase in muscular endurance when training in typical ranges of high intensity exercise (around 60-240 seconds). While this may not sound like much, it could be the difference between winning a race and simply placing (4).
Anaerobic Running Capacity
Corroborating the last section, studies have indicated that when muscle carnosine levels are consistently high from beta-alanine use, anaerobic performance is increased (5).
It’s important to keep in mind however, that this benefit may not translate to longer durations of activity. Anaerobic means “without oxygen.” This occurs during high intensity work, such as sprinting for any sport. That’s essentially the same time frame as described above.
Overall, it’s important to keep in mind that the main performance benefit of carnosine is buffering. During longer duration events, buffering over a short period of time is not as important, since the body has time.
Really where carnosine shines is during short, intense bursts of activity that will produce large amounts of hydrogen, very quickly. It’s very important to keep this in mind so as to not expect a performance benefit, if your event is longer duration.
So What’s Carnosine Good For?
Carnosine, based on the research is likely most advantageous for those looking for performance benefit with regards to shorter, higher intensity events or exercise. Athletes such as moderate duration sprinters (swimming, rowing and cycling as well) will probably benefit most from carnosine, since their events are high intensity and fairly short.
However, carnosine can also shine for the normal person that exercises in the gym. Bodybuilding and strength endurance workouts all increase hydrogen in the muscle over a short period of time and can likely benefit from supplementing with carnosine. Over time, an extra rep or two per set can add up, resulting in expedited progress.
Just keep in mind that carnosine should be supplemented regularly, as the muscle needs to be saturated ahead of time. Much like suggestions for creatine, you should take around 3-5 grams daily with food to reap maximum benefit.
Understanding Carnosine & Its Benefits For Athletic Performance
Overall, carnosine is an outstanding supplement with a bunch of science backing up it’s claims. Interestingly, carnosine seems to work best for athletes that primarily rely on anaerobic processes.
Since anaerobic exercise can lead to a buildup of hydrogen ions and carnosine’s main athletic benefit is buffering high levels of acidity, it makes sense that carnosine would be beneficial for this type of athlete.
Consider supplementing with carnosine if you feel you could benefit from improving anaerobic performance.
1) Harris, R. C., Tallon, M. J., Dunnett, M., Boobis, L., Coakley, J., Kim, H. J., ... & Wise, J. A. (2006). The absorption of orally supplied β-alanine and its effect on muscle carnosine synthesis in human vastus lateralis. Amino acids, 30(3), 279-289.
2) Fitts, R. H. (1994). Cellular mechanisms of muscle fatigue. Physiological reviews, 74(1), 49-94.
3) Kern, B. D., & Robinson, T. L. (2011). Effects of β-alanine supplementation on performance and body composition in collegiate wrestlers and football players. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 25(7), 1804-1815.
4) Hobson, R. M., Saunders, B., Ball, G., Harris, R. C., & Sale, C. (2012). Effects of β-alanine supplementation on exercise performance: a meta-analysis. Amino acids, 43(1), 25-37.
5) Chung, W., Shaw, G., Anderson, M. E., Pyne, D. B., Saunders, P. U., Bishop, D. J., & Burke, L. M. (2012). Effect of 10 week beta-alanine supplementation on competition and training performance in elite swimmers. Nutrients, 4(10), 1441-1453.