Do Footballers Need to Take BCAA Supplements?
You’ve probably heard of BCAA supplements and wondered if they actually help to boost performance and recovery? We’ll get to that but first let’s look at what they are and what they do.
What are BCAAs?
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. There are 20 common amino acids and 9 of these are essential.
Non-essential amino acids are ones which the body can make itself. Essential amino acids cannot be produced in high enough amounts naturally by the body, so they must be taken in daily through your diet.
BCAAs stands for branched chain amino acids. They are made up of 3 amino acids called leucine, isoleucine and valine. Together, they make up 35% of the essential amino acids. You can find BCAAs in supplements but also in foods, such as eggs and meat.
What do BCAAs do?
BCCAs perform several functions. For exercise they are especially relevant as they help your cells provide energy to the working muscles and stimulate the process of muscle protein synthesis, which is important for muscle building, muscle recovery and preventing muscle breakdown.
Of all the BCAAs, leucine is particularly important for muscle protein synthesis, whilst isoleucine triggers glucose to be taken into your cells (providing your muscles with fuel). More research is needed to determine the role of valine in the body, however the results are most effective when all 3 amino acids are working together. Low levels of BCAAs in the body can lead to muscle breakdown and lower levels of performance.
Your body’s supply of BCAAs will decrease during exercise. This decrease causes a tryptophan (a neurotransmitter) influx into the brain, followed by serotonin (another neurotransmitter) production, which then causes fatigue.
The theory is that supplementing with BCAAs during exercise would help to prevent or reduce this fatigue, allowing you to train harder for longer without getting tired. BCAAs have also been shown to decrease exercise-induced muscle damage, which may improve muscle recovery following hard training sessions and matches.
What does the research say about performance and recovery?
Taking BCAAs during exercise does not seem to significantly boost performance in terms of being able to train harder for longer. So, despite being useful in theory, they don’t seem to pan out in reality, in terms of increasing time to exhaustion.
However, some research has shown that they can improve reaction time (thought to only be because they can help to delay your mental fatigue), so they might be beneficial if taken before or during a match.
No research has shown that they help reduce muscle soreness or boost recovery from exercise.
Which sources do you get BCAAs from?
You only need about 2-4 g of Leucine to kick start the muscle building and repair processes. This can easily be achieved through whole food sources!
BCAAs are present in all foods that contain protein. Red meat and dairy foods are the best sources of branched chain amino acids.
Some examples are:
But you can also get BCAAs from: chicken, fish and eggs, beans, lentils, nuts and soy products.
How many grams of BCAAs will you get from typical protein sources?
- BCAA supplements typically contain 3-5g BCAAs per serving
- 30 g of protein powder provides around 5.5 g BCAAs
- 5 eggs provide 6.5 g BCAAs
- 150 g of canned tuna has 5 g BCAAs
So, you can see if you already have a healthy, balanced diet, there really is no need to be buying BCAA supplements – it’s almost just become fashionable for gym goers to show themselves using BCAAs, don’t fall into that trap. If you have the money and want to experiment with them, then sure give them a try and see how they work for you. But if your diet is already good and you take whey protein too, you're not likely to see any further benefit from also taking a BCAA supplement - use that money to invest in a different area of your training is our advice.
As mentioned above, if you’re already using a whey protein supplement, then you're already getting additional BCAAs there, 99% of the time there’s no need for a footballer to be buying a separate BCAA supplement.
Is it better to get them from food or supplements?
Research has shown that BCAAs operate more effectively when they are taken in with other amino acids. This means that if you take a supplement, the BCAAs are not as easily used by the body compared to if you get BCAAs from a whole food source, which will contain other amino acids. BCAAs from whole food sources also tend to be cheaper than BCAA supplements on a gram per gram basis.
However, BCAAs consumed in ‘free form’ (i.e. in a supplement) require minimal digestion and are more rapidly absorbed into the blood stream, to then be used during exercise…So, they could be beneficial if you’re about to train and it’s been a long time since your last meal or if you’re training fasted. Neither of these situations are optimal but taking BCAAs would be better than nothing.
If you haven’t had time to eat well (and have money to burn), BCAA supplements can be more convenient, particularly if you’re using them just before a match or during half time. After all, you’re not going to want to start eating lots of protein rich foods right before kick off or at half time.
So, it’s probably best to save BCAA supplements, if you’re going to use them, for around matches only. Of course, make sure that you also are smart with your match day nutrition in general. Whole food sources of protein will keep you covered the rest of the time.
How often do you need to keep topping up BCAAs in the body?
During the day, your protein stores are in a constant flux because protein synthesis and protein breakdown are ongoing in the body. If you’re eating enough protein overall and spreading your intake throughout the day, you don’t have to worry about topping up BCAA intake. It’s the net balance between protein synthesis and protein breakdown at the end of the day that’s important.
For a footballer with a balanced diet, BCAA supplementation really isn’t necessary. If you think your levels are low, then address your diet first and foremost.
Are there any negatives of taking BCAA supplements?
BCAA supplements actually contain calories.
Supplement companies often state ‘0 calories’ which they can get away with because governmental food authorities do not consider products containing individual amino acids as ‘protein containing’.
10g of BCAAs contains around 63 calories, which may not seem like a lot but if you do this before and after every training session it soon adds up. What’s worse is that they can make you feel hungrier! (They compete with tryptophan for entry into the brain, which reduces serotonin production).
Whole food sources, on the other hand, will be a lot more filling because of the other nutrients they contain, and you’ll also be saving money.
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Laviano, A., Muscaritoli, M., Cascino, A., Preziosa, I., Inui, A., Mantovani, G., & Rossi-Fanelli, F. (2005). Branched-chain amino acids: the best compromise to achieve anabolism?. Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition & Metabolic Care, 8(4), 408-414.
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