The Following LabLog was written by one of our regular climbers and Leeds student Dan Wood.
Earlier this year many regulars to the climbing lab would have seen an unusual sight.
A short guy with a chalk covered tablet and a stopwatch recording data as he
sadistically subjects several different climbers to a circuit of problems. Other
sightings of this strange phenomenon were seen in the training area along with
climbers looking pretty exhausted in puddles of their own sweat. Finally some keen
observers would have even witnessed the giving out of enough bags of pills to make
Walter White proud.
So what was this? Government experiments? Russian state sponsored doping
programme? Some strange bloke with a tablet and nothing better to do?
This was actually the data collection stage of a research project for an
undergraduate sports science dissertation entitled “The effects of β-alanine on indoor
bouldering performance”. If that title sounds familiar, you’ve probably seen it on the
notice board and the walls of the men’s toilets on the poster shown below.
This research was conducted to test the effectiveness of a supplement, β-alanine (B-
ALA) commonly used in cycling and bodybuilding on a climbing population,
something which has been theorised anecdotally but until now had not been applied
practically in a scientific study.
So what is β-alanine?
The long answer:
“B-ALA is a non-proteinogenic, non-essential amino acid that is produced
endogenously within the liver and consumed in small-moderate quantities
through the diet as meat and fish (Abe, 2000; Trexler et al., 2015). B-ALA is one
of the precursors to carnosine (B-ALA + L-histidine) (Culbertson et al., 2010);
which is found in high quantities within the skeletal muscle sarcoplasm of
most vertebrate and non-vertebrates as well as in the CNS (Harris et al.,
2012).” - Wood, 2017
The short answer: B-ALA is an amino acid (not a drug) produced in the liver and half
of a protein called Carnosine which is found in its highest quantities in fast twitch
skeletal muscle and is consumed in meat and fish. Put simply the faster the animal,
the more carnosine it usually has.
This protein has been reported to have several purposes, all of which have varied
levels of scientific backing. The top two which are pretty much proved are:
1. Carnosine is a pH buffer within muscle tissue. Meaning it helps control the
acidity of muscle tissue and blood and therefore muscular fatigue.
2. Carnosine contributes to the regulation of Ca 2+ sensitivity. Which means
the heightened presence of Carnosine increases the sensitivity of calcium
ions which control muscular contractions, resulting in more forceful muscular
contraction and therefore theoretically increased strength?
By supplementing with B-ALA one can increase the quantities of carnosine in their
muscle beyond what they would usually get from their diet. This results in increased
muscular endurance and possibly increased strength (Hill et al., 2007; Hobson et
al.,2012). This has been recorded as increased performance in sprint cycling through
the delay of neuromuscular fatigue and improved time trials (Stout et al., 2008; Van
Thienen et al., 2009).
However, it isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Many of the other studies in the area
have shown little effect of B-ALA, this can be mostly attributed to the studies in
question focusing on events and measures where blood acidosis is not a key
success variable and therefore would give inconclusive results.
So what did you actually do?
After ethics approval and a very successful recruitment drive, 10 participants were
selected to take part in the study. The participants were required to attend a
maximum of 5 sessions. These included a health and dietary screening, and two
separate types of testing. The CPT (Climbing performance trial) which involved the
completion of 10 problems of a set difficulty and that ranged in climbing demands;
and the AFT (Anaerobic Fatigue Trial) which involved performing two maximal
callisthenic circuits. These tests were conducted before and after a 4-week
supplementation period where the participants were given either B-ALA (4g/day) or a
placebo of cornflour (4g/day).
What did you find out?
Over the four weeks there was an improvement in climbing performance scores and
AFT scores in the majority of participants, with the B-ALA group improving more but
unfortunately not statistically significantly. This was mostly due to study design more
than anything else as the climbing tests used were improvised due to a lack of
supporting research. Blood data was inconclusive as a result of university funding
restrictions and logistical issues.
Fortunately B-ALA significantly improved the session rate of perceived exertion (s-
RPE) which is a measure of how hard the climbers perceived their performance. In
a nutshell, those who took the B-ALA found their trials easier despite performing at a
higher level. This was also reflected by the reporting of the climbers in the B-ALA
group being able to train for up to twice as long without feeling fatigued and an
increased sense of readiness for climbing.
These results are in line with the research of La Torre et al (2009) who conducted
experiments into the blood profiles of professional bouldering competitions in Italy.
Bouldering in a comp format, elicits a similar blood lactate profile as a lead climbing
competition which is known for increased blood acidosis. However, in the bouldering
competitions the blood acidosis profile was intermittent, meaning although bouts of
climbing were shorter there was an accumulative effect. This explains why there was
not an effect on the RPE of individual climbs but a significant effect on the s-RPE.
Application & future research
This study has highlighted that B-ALA can improve neuromuscular fatigue (main
cause of falls) in bouldering. As for its usage the following guidelines were produced
if any climbers were interested in trying it out for themselves in the future. Following
these guidelines should provide optimal dosing and performance with a reduction in
the only side effect which is acute paraesthesia. This is a harmless reaction caused
by increased plasma B-ALA levels and results in short term tingling of skin around
the face and sometimes arms.
Within bouldering B-ALA would be best applied to training. Allowing for the increase
in length and frequency of training sessions therefore leading to better performance
and importantly, more climbing!
Further research will be likely looking at the effectiveness of B-ALA and other
supplements such as caffeine and BCAAs on bouldering and sport climbing
performance, as well as looking at the effects on a female population as well as
4g/day for 4 weeks.
Dilute in 1L of water (add cordial if palatability is an issue).
Drink solution throughout the day to avoid paraesthesia or drink
After 4 weeks dosage can be increased to 6g/day and then to
8g/day after 8 weeks.
Consider cycling supplementation every 10-12 weeks to avoid
taurine deficiency. 1-2 weeks should be sufficient.
It has been a pleasure to conduct this research at the Climbing LAB which has
certainly lived up to its name. All the staff have been incredibly helpful in this entire
process and I wish them the very best in the future.
I would also like to
thank all of the
took part in the
project as they put
everything thing into
their role and this
could not have gone
ahead without them.
If anyone is
participating in any
research in the
future or would like
any advice on sports
science I’d be happy