I am fortunate to be able to spend two days a week working with Dr. Massimo Testa of the UC Davis Sports Performance Program in Sacramento. Working in a sports performance lab and performing physiological testing on athletes is like being a kid in a candy store. So much can be learned about the uniqueness of athletes and applied to their training programs. When UC Davis was looking for volunteers to take part in a branch chain amino acid (BCAA) research study, I signed myself up as a participant, as I figured it would be a great opportunity to be on the other side of the testing fence and learn about what athletes go through while being part of a research study. The following are some observations and experiences throughout the last couple months, as well as my own conclusions.
Branched Chain Amino Acids
In short, amino acids (22 documented) are the building blocks of protein. Of those 22, the branched-chain amino acids (BCAA) are leucine, isoleucine, and valine. BCAAs are considered essential amino acids, as they must be present in our diets in order for us to function. BCAAs are vital for the maintenance of muscle tissue and preserve muscle stores of glycogen (a storage form of carbohydrate that can be converted into energy). BCAAs also help prevent muscle damage and fatigue during exercise.
By taking part in this study, we were independently investigating the affect of BCAAs on athletic performance in a new product being developed for the market. The goal of this double blind study was to physiologically test and train through two distinct three-week periods while drinking a carbohydrate and electrolyte drink that either A) had these BCAAs present or B) was the same drink without them added (i.e. placebo). The researchers monitored fatigue through both subjective evaluation (the mental side) and blood draws to look for creatine kinase and lactate dehydrogenase, enzymes in the blood that when present, can represent muscle damage.
The Subjective Side of Testing/Training
Taking part in research like this requires an enormous amount of commitment. Just as important as the physiological evaluations being performed (physiological lab testing, blood work) is the subjective side of the study. Every day for six weeks, subjects were required to fill out paper work about their diet, mood, fatigue, muscle soreness, life stress, motivation, sleep and training. In today’s world, it is very difficult to keep research subjects within a controlled environment (unless you want to pay them a large sum of money). In other words, we had to carry on with our normal lives! When the study is complete, all this paperwork will serve as a complement to the physiological data when determining the effectiveness of the product being tested.
In the Lab
This particular study consisted of two, three week periods where each athlete would perform a Max VO2 and lactate response to exercise test (concurrently) for the purpose of determining a benchmark Max VO2 wattage. Using that maximal wattage, three submaximal endurance tests are performed in a three week period while every day drinking a total of 1.5 liters of “the” carbohydrate liquid (either the real thing or the placebo), before, during and after exercise. During these 90 minute submaximal endurance tests, blood was drawn every 15 minutes to measure blood lactate, glucose, and hematocrit. We also did blood draws at 5, 24 and 72 hours after each endurance test. All these samples were then sent to a lab to test for the presence of those two enzymes listed above. In the end, both sets of data are then compared and the truth revealed as to whether the BCAAs help delay onset of fatigue (and do everything else it is suppose to do.)
Learning as a Guinea Pig
• Proper fluid intake – During my first 90 min endurance test, I was monitoring my hematocrit level. It rose from an initial level of 48 to 52 by the end of the test (as well as losing ~1.5 kilos of body weight). It was also interesting to muse that a tested hematocrit level of 52, if obtained after a pro bike race, would have resulted in a suspension from racing! I told myself that the next test, I would try to control my hematocrit better as I assumed the reason it climbed was because of dehydration. The next test, it started at 46. After each blood draw, I asked for the hematocrit, adjusted my fluid intake and by the end of the test, it remained at 46. Lesson learned – drink, drink, drink! I realize that hydration is a simple concept, but seeing yourself dehydrate before your very eyes helps show the absolute importance of proper fluid intake.
• Cadence – It amazed me how subtle differences in cadences affected my feelings of fatigue. I actually was able to control my blood lactate levels by altering cadences during the test. I was using a Computrainer which was set at a particular wattage (% of my Max VO2). By lowering cadence on a set wattage, the Computrainer increases the load. This resulted in using more “muscle” and creating more lactic acid which results in a higher blood lactate reading. By then slowly increasing the cadence, the blood lactate level came back down. Lesson learned, by having a relatively higher cadence, you utilize the aerobic system more and can thus prevent fatigue in the legs.
In general, I noticed no significant difference in fatigue during the two, three-week periods while consuming the different drinks; both drinks looked and tasted identical to me. While this project was challenging (in mostly good ways), I highly recommend that anyone who has an opportunity to take part in a research project involving cycling to do so. It forces you to take a look at what you are doing on the bike, brings some of the obvious things to light and for a short amount of time, makes you feel like a pro! A great deal of data was taken for those six weeks. When the researchers are done evaluating, the subjects will be able to view all of that data, as well as the final conclusions. I suggest you check out your local university to see if they are looking for guinea pigs (I mean test subjects!)
*Note – The official results of the study will not be released for some time. I will post in a follow-up article.
Bruce Hendler created AthletiCamps to provide cycling specific coaching and training to athletes and cyclists of all levels. Find out more at www.athleticamps.com