Ask The Science Chick: Should I Drink BCAAs During My Workout?

Our science editor, Krissy Kendall, PhD, CISSN, answers your burning fitness questions. Get the scoop on BCAAs, hydration, and exercise-related headaches!
Q

Do I really need to use BCAAs during my workout, or can I just drink water?

I frequently get asked whether or not you really need to supplement with BCAAs. Aside from their delicious taste, the answer ultimately comes down to two things: the type of exercise you do and your performance goals.

But before we get into that, let's start off with the basics. Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) are made up of three essential amino acids: leucine, isoleucine, and valine. They're deemed "essential" because the body can't make them, so they must be consumed through food. While you can certainly stick to whole foods like chicken, beef, and eggs for your BCAA needs, supplementation has its advantages because pure BCAAs bypass the liver and gut and go directly into your bloodstream.

Although it's important for everyone to get enough BCAAs, they're particularly important for people with muscle-building or muscle-maintenance goals. BCAAs, especially leucine, help regulate protein metabolism by promoting muscle protein synthesis and suppressing protein breakdown.

I frequently get asked whether or not you really need to supplement with BCAAs. Aside from their delicious taste, the answer ultimately comes down to two things: the type of exercise you do and your performance goals.

Previous research has found that BCAA supplementation before your workout can help increase rates of protein synthesis, suppress muscle protein breakdown, reduce markers of muscle damage, and lessen the symptoms of delayed onset of muscle soreness (DOMS).1-5 Sounds pretty impressive, right?

Well, I hate to be Debbie Downer, but unfortunately these findings haven't necessarily translated to increases in strength or muscle mass. If your goal is to add size and strength, and you're already meeting your daily protein needs through whole foods and protein shakes, additional BCAAs probably won't do much for you.

Don't throw away your shaker bottle just yet, though! Taking 6-10 grams of BCAAs before your workout can lead to less soreness and a quicker recovery time.1 In other words, BCAAs may not stimulate hypertrophy on their own, but they can help you to hit the weights with enough consistent intensity and volume to stimulate muscle growth.

Additionally, during exercise, BCAAs are broken down so they can be used as an energy source.6 A decline in circulating BCAA levels leads to an increase in serotonin concentrations in the brain, which is thought to partly contribute to fatigue during exercise.7

Taking 6-10 grams of BCAAs before your workout can lead to less soreness and a quicker recovery time. In other words, BCAAs may not stimulate hypertrophy on their own, but they can help you to hit the weights with enough consistent intensity and volume to stimulate muscle growth.

Sipping on BCAAs while you work out can prevent this decrease in BCAA levels, helping to delay fatigue and improve both mental and physical performance. Adding 6 grams of BCAAs to your intra-workout drink can also reduce fatigue and enhance fat utilization during exercise in a glycogen-depleted state.8 So, if you're following a low-carb diet or if you train in a fasted state, intra-workout BCAA supplementation could be extremely beneficial!

Take-home message

Supplementing with BCAAs before your workout can help reduce muscle soreness and help speed up the recovery process after a grueling workout. Sipping on BCAAs during exercise may help reduce fatigue and improve both mental and physical performance, especially if you train in a fasted state.

Despite all the research showing that BCAAs may improve protein synthesis after resistance training, there isn't a whole lot of evidence that this actually leads to greater muscle mass in the long run.

Q

Will drinking a gallon of water a day speed up my metabolism and help with fat loss?

If water were the answer to the obesity crisis, do you think two thirds of our country would still be overweight or obese? Probably not. But that doesn't stop people from making bogus claims about how water can speed up your metabolism and rid your body of toxins. I mean, seriously, where do people come up with this stuff?

To my knowledge, there has been one study—I repeat one study—that showed drinking an extra 16 ounces of water increased metabolic rate by 30 percent in both men and women.9 The increase in metabolic rate occurred within 10 minutes of drinking the water and reached a maximum around 30-40 minutes after consumption. While impressive, these findings remain controversial because other studies have found drinking water does absolutely nothing to increase energy expenditure.10-13

One such study attempted to replicate the findings from the first study. Researchers out of Switzerland gave 518 milliliters of water to healthy individuals and measured their resting energy expenditure for 30 minutes before and 90 minutes after drinking the water. The study found that drinking water, regardless of whether it was room temperature or chilled, had minimal effect on energy expenditure.14

So, if it's not speeding up your metabolism, what is water good for? A whole host of things! Your body is made up of 60 percent water, and staying hydrated can help maintain fluid balance and assist in the transportation of nutrients in the body. It also helps to regulate body temperature and the digestion of food, prevent muscle cramps, and (thankfully) reduce the symptoms of a hangover.

Water can also improve your performance in the gym! Even mild dehydration has been shown to affect physical performance, especially if you're doing intense exercise in high heat or humidity. Even as little as a two percent decrease in body weight due to dehydration can reduce motivation, increase fatigue, and make exercise feel much more difficult. Staying hydrated during your workouts may also reduce oxidative stress associated with exercise.15

And while it won't drastically increase your metabolic rate, water can help suppress your appetite and decrease food consumption. In fact, it was shown that a premeal water intake of 16 ounces significantly reduced food consumption at lunch.16

Water can improve your performance at the gym and may also reduce oxidative stress associated with exercise.

Supporting these findings, overweight adults who drank 16 ounces of water before every meal and followed a low-calorie diet had greater weight loss compared to those who just followed a low-calorie diet.17 Being dehydrated may cause cravings and trick your mind into thinking you're hungry when you're really just thirsty. Staying hydrated might prevent you from mindless snacking. Over time, this may help you lose weight.

Take-home message

There are numerous benefits to drinking water, but a faster metabolism doesn't seem to be one of them. However, knowing that water helps to keep your body running optimally should be reason enough to drink more H2O! Moreover, water consumed with a meal can reduce subjective feelings of hunger and increase feelings of satiety.

So, in the big picture, water could ultimately help you achieve your weight-loss goals.

Q

Why do I get a throbbing headache every time I work out?

Typically, exercise can help reduce the frequency and intensity of headaches, thanks to a release of endorphins and extra blood flow to your head. Regular workouts can also help improve quality of sleep and reduce stress, the two most common triggers for migraines. So if you're experiencing headaches during or following your workouts, it's probably not exercise itself that's causing them.

To determine the cause of your headaches, your first step should be to consult a doctor to rule out any underlying medical condition. If you've been cleared to exercise by your doctor, take a look at your nutrition. Are you eating and drinking before your workouts to avoid low blood sugar and dehydration?

If you've been cleared by the docs and know that your pre-workout nutrition is solid, but you're still getting headaches, you may be among the 1-2 percent of the general population who suffer from exercise-related headaches.18

Typically, exercise can help reduce the frequency and intensity of headaches, thanks to a release of endorphins and extra blood flow to your head. So if you're experiencing headaches during or following your workouts, it's probably not exercise itself that's causing them.

Headaches related to physical activity were first described back in 1932 as short-lasting, albeit severe headaches following exercise. Generally speaking, there are two types of headaches associated with exercise: exertional and effort-induced.

Exertional headaches appear to be a response to heavy lifting movements that involve performing the Valsava maneuver.19 The Valsava maneuver causes an increased intrathoracic pressure, which subsequently causes the widening of pain-sensitive cranial sinuses (channels found between the layers of the brain) and an increase in arterial pressure. In other words, pressure builds up in the base of your brain, resulting in a headache.20

In general, exertional headaches have a male predominance (4:1 ratio) and are characterized by throbbing pain occurring on both sides of the head that typically lasts between 5 minutes and 24 hours.21-23

For patients exhibiting signs and symptoms of exertional headaches, an MRI is mandatory to rule out cranial abnormalities, lesions, and hemorrhaging. Treatment of exertional headaches may include limiting exercise, using a proper warm-up and cool-down, and regulating blood pressure. Taking aspirin or NSAIDs about an hour prior to your workout may also help to reduce the onset of headaches. There are also pharmacological drugs that can be prescribed to help reduce the recurrence of headaches.21

Effort-induced headaches, on the other hand, are a response to aerobic activities such as running or swimming. These are more common in athletes, and differ from exertional headaches in that they are not necessarily associated with a power or straining type of exercise. A possible cause of effort-induced headaches is hyperventilation—rapid, shallow breathing—leading to the constriction of blood vessels, which then triggers a reactive dilation of blood vessels resulting in a migraine headache.19

While trigger foods like red wine, chocolate, and others can contribute to these headaches, athletes may have additional predisposing circumstances such as dehydration, low blood sugar, and overheating.

These headaches are commonly described as throbbing pain occurring on one side of the head and last can for 4-6 hours. Additionally, these typically occur following aerobic-type activity and are more frequent in hot weather.24

While trigger foods like red wine, chocolate, and others can contribute to these headaches, athletes may have additional predisposing circumstances such as dehydration, low blood sugar, and overheating. A warm-up regimen may prevent an effort-induced migraine. And, since the headache usually begins after the exercise, a prolonged cool-down may also help.

Take-home message

While there's no cure for these headaches, a proper warm-up and taking NSAIDs before your workout may help to minimize symptoms. I strongly recommend that you speak with your physician if you are experiencing chronic headaches when you exercise, to rule out any serious medical condition.

Do you have a question for Dr. Kendall? Place it in the comments section below—it might be chosen for an upcoming installment!

References
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