Strength and Endurance in Athletes

By Donna Barsky, PharmD

The breakdown of glucose when we exercise or expend energy causes a release of hydrogen ions, which are effectively the acidic part of an acid. There is also a bi-product known as lactate produced, which is where the term lactic acid comes from.

Lactic acid is lactate and hydrogen ions. Lactate is broken down to pyruvate and then used for aerobic energy production, making it quite a useful bi-product. Where the burn in the muscles comes from is the accumulation of hydrogen ions within the working muscle. This happens because the intensity of work undertaken by the lactic acid system is high enough that hydrogen ions are produced faster than they can be ‘buffered’ by the blood, so we get an increasing hydrogen ion accumulation with a decreasing concentration gradient between the muscle and the blood during prolonged anaerobic activity. This can decrease our endurance and slow our response time.

When beta-alanine is ingested, it combines with the readily available histidine and turns into the molecule carnosine, which acts as an acid buffer in the body. Carnosine is stored in muscle cells and released in response to drops in pH, which is caused by the breakdown of glucose in athletes. Increased stores of carnosine can protect against diet-induced drops in pH, as well as offer protection from exercise-induced lactic acid production. This buffering is done by muscle carnosine in our system, which is produced with the combination of histidine and beta-alanine. Humans have nearly an unlimited amount of histidine, but we’re limited in the amount of beta-alanine available in our systems.

Supplementing the system regularly with beta-alanine (a dipeptide/amino acid) for 30 days or longer can significantly increase the endurance of an athlete. This combined with the correct nutrition on days of competition can and will increase the playing time and continue to produce both strength and quick responses for the length of time needed. An athlete needs to supplement his diet with 3.2gm of beta-alanine per day for 30 to 45 days to build the available muscle carnosine for more endurance. Then he can drop down to 1.7gm per day to maintain endurance throughout training. Beta-alanine is safe for athletes and is totally free of banned substances.

No less than three hours prior to the game, athletes should have a light meal utilizing vegetable proteins and complex carbohydrates. (Sugar is not a complex carbohydrate and should not be used as an energy producer).

If a protein drink or bar is used, use only vegetable, rice, or egg protein with smaller amounts of glutamic acid or glutamine. (Not whey protein due to the high concentrations of glutamic acid.) Glutamine/glutamic acid, when broken down for energy, can produce ammonia, which shuts down any endurance level.

During the game there should be a replacement of electrolytes in the tune of 400 to 600ml/hour to replace expended fluids. This should not contain more than 200 calories of sugar in any hour of hydration. Athletes should be drinking 400 to 600ml of electrolyte solution every hour. Proper functioning of the digestive, nervous, cardiac, and muscular systems depends on adequate electrolyte levels.

Muscle cramping usually involves improper hydration and/or improper electrolyte replenishment. Cramping is your body’s painful way of saying “Hey! I’m on empty! Resupply me now or I’m going to stop!” It’s like the oil light on the dash; you never want it to get that low. The contents of any electrolyte combination for an athlete during training or competition should be approximately the following.

PROTEIN is critical for muscle repair. There should be 10% of a vegetable protein (chick pea is good) contained in the electrolyte solution for any athlete. Do not use whey protein due to the ammonia produced from all the added glutamic acid, which will be broken down during activity.

CALCIUM is the most abundant mineral in the human body (about 2.85 lbs/.8 kg in the average person). Normal heart rhythm, healthy nerve transmission, and strong muscle contractions require a constant blood calcium level. During exercise, calcium-dependent enzymes produce energy from fatty and amino acid conversion. Because fatty acids are such an important fuel during endurance exercise, providing 60 to 65% of your energy needs when exercise goes beyond two hours in length, having adequate calcium available to efficiently convert them into energy is crucial. When blood calcium runs low, the body extracts it from the bones, but this process can’t keep up with your exercise depletion rate. Serum calcium deficiency during endurance events may produce high blood pressure, muscle cramps, and weakness.

MAGNESIUM should accompany calcium at a ratio of 1:2 (1 part magnesium:2 parts calcium). When calcium flows into working muscle cells, the muscle contracts; when calcium leaves and magnesium replaces it, the muscle relaxes. Many enzymatic reactions necessary for fuel conversion to muscular energy occur in the presence of adequate magnesium. Deficiency of magnesium contributes to muscle cramps, tremors, sleep disturbances and, in some cases, convulsive disorders.

POTASSIUM is the chief cation (positively charged ion) within all muscle cells. It is necessary for maintaining the optimal concentration and balance of sodium. Potassium deficiency symptoms are nausea, vomiting, muscle weakness, muscle spasms, cramping, and rapid heart rate. Even though 100 to 200mg are lost in sweat alone (not counting internal muscle and cell use), if we try to replace those amounts all at once, optimal sodium balance is altered. In addition, too much potassium is hard on the stomach and can cause severe stomach distress. Citrus drinks (orange, lemon, lime) are good basics for the solution in a 1:3 mix. (One part citrus juice to three parts water).

SODIUM is the chief cation (positively charged ion) outside the cell. The average American carries 8,000mg of excess sodium in extracellular tissues already. During endurance events, a minimum of three to four hours is necessary to deplete this mineral, which may result in symptoms of abnormal heartbeat, muscle twitching, and hypoventilation. However, if sodium is replaced at or near the same rate as depletion, it overrides the hormonal regulating mechanisms that enable the body to conserve electrolytes. Consumption of too much sodium will cause a variety of problems, the least of which is fluid retention. Therefore, we highly recommend a more moderate, body cooperative replenishment of sodium. Keeping sodium intake levels between 1,500 to 2,300mg/day will support sodium requirements without taxing the aldosterone pathway or the kidney organ’s role in homeostasis. That way, there may not be a need to include a large amount into the electrolyte replacement.

CHLORIDE is the relative anion (negatively charged ion) that accompanies sodium. This electrolyte is absolutely necessary in maintaining the osmotic tension in both blood and extracellular fluids. It’s a somewhat complicated process, but to put it in the simplest terms, think of osmotic tension as being the proper balance and consistency of body fluids and electrolytes. An appropriate amount of chloride (as sodium chloride) supports, but does not override, the function of the hormone aldosterone in regulating and conserving proper electrolyte levels.

MANGANESE is necessary in trace amounts for optimal muscle cell enzyme reactions for conversion of fatty acids and protein into energy. Again, fatty acids and protein are a crucial part of the endurance athlete’s fuel supply, so while manganese is not technically an electrolyte, its importance cannot be overstated. Research also shows that manganese deficiency plays a key role in blood sugar fluctuation, free radical build-up from intense exercise, and nerve function disorders, especially in older athletes.

PYRIDOXINE HCL (vitamin B-6) is a coenzyme required in 60 enzymatic reactions involving metabolism of carbohydrates, fats, and protein. We include this water-soluble B vitamin because of its active role in maintaining sodium-potassium balance.

L-TYROSINE is an amino acid added to protect thyroid and adrenal function. Blood plasma deficiency during extreme endurance events will lower thyroid and adrenal production, which hinders the proper rate of metabolism. Symptoms of l-tyrosine depletion first appear as depression, later anger, then despondency that degenerates into total despair. If any of these has ever happened to you during a long training session or race, it may be due to low thyroid and adrenal production; it can be easily avoided by the intake of supplemental l-tyrosine.

After training/competition, it is then appropriate to use whey or animal protein to ensure that the glutamic acid/glutamine is there to repair and rebuild the injured muscles. This may also decrease any soreness due to activity.

If you have any questions for Dr. Barsky, you can speak with her at Texas Star Pharmacy, 3033 West Parker Road, #100 in Plano. 972-519-8475.