Cris LaBossiere

Cris LaBossiere
Strength training and mountain biking. My two favorites

Monday, March 30, 2015

Getting ripped with BCAA's

Branched Chain Amino Acids, BCAA's.

Leucine, isoleucine, and valine.

I'm on another supplement trial.  Two of the many suggested promises of taking BCAA's before, during, and after, or just before and after training are;

1) Decreased DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness).  The soreness and stiffness you can get between one and three days after hard strength training (or any challenging activity that you're either not used to, or you've increased the intensity of).

2) Increased endurance, shorter recovery periods, reduced muscle damage for endurance training, like cycling and running.

I'll update my experience here over the next two months, adding a review on studies on BCAA's.

So far BCAA's have done nothing at all to reduce DOMS.  I was taking 3 grams 15 minutes before strength training and immediately after.  This did nothing for performance, and nothing to change my perception of DOMS.

I found plenty of broscience recommendations to consume at least double the amount I was taking (I was following the manufacturers recommendations listed on the container), as well as adding a dose in the middle of the workout.

I have no confidence at all in speculative broscience confabulations about how great people recall their performance increases being.  I understand that one of the common arguments broscientists make is that researchers are stupid lab people who don't understand the real world of training, and so "real" training advice should be sought from people in the gym.  I guess this means making no exception for the exercise physiologists who are also athletes or avid exercisers.  This perception also introduces an interesting irony in that the anti science gym rats will gleefully purchase, consume, praise, and recommend products made by the very scientists they rebuke.

Confidence or not, I still tried the broscience dose.  You know, to be thorough.  I still found no change whatsoever in DOMS or performance, or recovery.

As usual I was careful about recording my strength training; every rep and every set recorded.

I keep detailed records of my training on the bike as well.  So any change from the norm would show up in my training records.

With looking at my blood lactate, heart rate, wattage (how hard I'm peddling), and my perceived exertion, my rate of progress is the same as usual. Small, predictable increments every week or two, nothing out of the ordinary.

My daily resting heart rate and orthostatic heart rate testing has revealed I'm not recovering any earlier or later than usual.  This is after three strength training sessions and three bike training sessions.

With BCAAS, and the specific promised improvement claims I'm testing, there is supposed to be an immediate noticeable change.  This is because all of the amino acids I'm taking will be metabolized quickly.  The process takes hours, not days or weeks.

So far BCAA's are fail.  But as usual, I will be thorough and finish off the supply I bought, waiting out any possible subtle trending affect that a broscientist might protest about.

Something to think about.. 6 grams of BCAA's amounts to 24 Calories. Nobody in their right mind who understands nutrition and exercise energy demands is going to be believing that ingesting a mere 24 Calories could possibly contribute to any kind of endurance improvement. Especially when carbohydrates and fats are the predominant fuels for muscles, with protein contributing little energy (10% to 15%). So the endurance improvement claim is a non-starter. But who said broscientists are in their right mind?

Worth mentioning:

One of my gym rat buddies I was working out with was keen on being kept up to date on my BCAA trial.  He joined me for the workout where I added the extra broscience recommended dosage.

I had a great workout.  My friend remarked, "I wonder if your extra reps today were from the BCAA's."  "It's plausible", I said.  After all, that's why I'm doing this.. to see if training performance improves.

But it wasn't so.  The very next workout I didn't perform as well and cut my last set to avoid junk training when fatigued.

Looking at my training records my "good day" was part of my normal fatigue/ recovery cycle, which is normal for everyone.  It takes about 14 to 21 days to go through the cycle.  My improvements were from the natural adaptation to good training, not from the BCAA's.

In coaching there is this old saying, "beware the third week of training".  It refers to the common occurrence that regular performance orientated training causes a gradual accumulation of fatigue, which by the third week of training, shows up as diminished performance and feeling a bit sluggish.

The remedy is to be mindful of the trend, and start backing off a little (or taking a break for a few days more than usual) around week three or so.  After paying more attention to recovery protocols you start your "cycle" over again, and sure enough, around week three (ish) you start losing a few reps on some exercises, or your cardio activity will start feeling a bit tight at the start, a little harder to push, and heart rate is usually higher than normal for the same pace.

Likewise you will experience a few workouts per month where everything clicks and you perform a little better than usual.. but there's a catch.. we all know these days are fleeting and within a few workouts of the stellar day, much of the time, sometimes even the very next workout, your performance starts slipping again.

My few extra reps?  Well I've had workouts like this cycle consistently. It's predictable.  You train, and you adapt. The adaptation is expressed through greater strength and or endurance.  Did more reps with the same weight?  Great.  You're experiencing the expected adaptation to exercise. That's why we train: to stimulate a response in our bodies.  The few extra reps I achieved were right on schedule.

Same pattern as before taking BCAAs, same pattern now, and the pattern will continue after I stop taking BCAA's.

The most important part of why this is worth mentioning was the susceptibility to confirmation bias.  My friend wanted there to be a possibility that the supplement was working, and, despite my scepticism, so did I.

The reality of hitting a fatigue cycle the next week as well as reviewing my normal rate of progress quickly disintegrated any current wishful thinking on my part that might be lurking in my subconscious.  That's the trouble with our natural human fallibility of confirmation bias (automatically choosing to see things in a way that supports an existing belief or a "power of suggestion" outcome).

This is how scams, hoaxes, and things like horoscopes work.. they prey on the vulnerability of our natural gullibility, wishful thinking, habituated beliefs, and susceptibility to the power of suggestion.

Had I not been taking any supplement my buddy and I would have simply treated the extra reps workout as one of those normal adaptation days where you're more recovered and have a better workout. Just like we always do.

This is what most people will be experiencing when they perceive a supposed performance increase with any supplement they take.  They will be expecting to feel better, and so they allow this perception, and will even fake the perception to justify using the supplement.  Or they will simply experience a normal adaptation to training and attribute it to the supplement.  When they have bad training days, it's just a bad day or whatever.. And when they have a good training day, it must be the supplement.  That's confirmation bias.

Herd mentality applies here too.  If a bunch of people you know are getting "benefits", well then, you are too, and now you can have a communal placebo effect love in with all your friends.

Yeah, I know..  You didn't want to here that.  But hey, if you can have just as good training results with healthy eating, proper recovery, and good sleep, without the supplements.. maybe that's a better place to be.  Better for the wallet.  Better for the psyche too, because now you can enjoy your fitness without falling for the promise of false hope.

Stay tuned.. See if I get ripped abs, or ripped off, with BCAA's

Final results:

OK, after a couple months on BCAA's I experienced no change in my normal rate of improvement.  This means my rate of adding reps and increasing the weight I lift was the same before, during, and after my BCAA trial.

The most important take home here is that if you're motivated and train efficiently you'll make progress, because adapting to exercise is coded into our DNA.  If you train right and eat right, you can't avoid making gains.

Equally important is recognizing our vulnerability to wanting to believe a pill is going to, or is, adding to our performance.  If you're not on anything and you squeeze out more reps you'll be satisfied that your training is working.  If you're on whatever performance supplement and squeeze out more reps you're likely to want to attribute those reps to the supplement, and not the training.

That's just how our heads work.  Be mindful of this so you don't deceive yourself, and are not deceived by hype or personal testimonials from others who don't realize they have succumbed to the placebo effect.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Superfood showdown: Quinoa VS Lentils

Quinoa.  Claimed superfood. A sacred crop of ancient Inca culture.

The United Nations declared 2013 the "International Year of Quinoa".

Hailed by endurance athletes for improving performance, with tall tails of how just one handful of the ancient grain can propel you for hours, as it did the Inca's.  Not really.. as one handful of quinoa is about 90 calories (depending on how big your hand is).  That's enough calories to get me about ½ a kilometre (0.8 miles). So, not a miracle endurance food.. such a thing doesn't exist.

It's easy to cook, tastes great, and goes with pretty much everything.

Ok.  What about lentils?  I haven't seen any advertising for lentils, the "superfood".

The hipsters and "clean eaters" aren't into lentils like they are quinoa.  Poor lentils, they're just not hip enough.  At a mere one tenth the cost of quinoa they're just not expensive enough to be posh like quinoa.

 With archaeological evidence showing lentils were part of the human diet nearly 13,000 years ago (about 6000 years before quinoa shows up in our diet), it looks like these little pulses could be assigned even more "ancient" mythical greatness than quinoa.  Looks like the soothsayers who push the idea of "superfoods" magical powers missed an opportunity to bamboozle folks with how lentils are even more ancient that quinoa.

Apparently lentils are blessed by seventy prophets of varying religions, including the big two; Jesus and Mohammed.  Can I get a hallelujah or a Allahu Akbar? How about a praise Saturn, ancient Roman god of a bunch of stuff, including agriculture.

Take that, quinoa.

Cooking time is similar between quinoa and lentils (about 10 - 15 minutes), even less for red lentils.

Witticisms aside, quinoa and lentils are great choices for easily prepared very nutrient dense foods.  Don't let the hype behind quinoa convince you it's something it can't be (magical), and don't let the lack of attention to lentils prevent you from adding them to your healthy diet.

I buy both, and use them interchangeably. I definitely like the price of lentils more. Lentils can go a long way to providing you and your family with good wholesome nutrition while costing literally pennies per serving.

According to wikipedia, Canada is the number one lentil producing country in the world, most of which is exported.

Support Canada! Eat lentils.

Or maybe eat lentils because they're an inexpensive, very nutrient dense, great tasting and versatile food.

The amino acid score for quinoa is slightly better than for lentils, but lentils have about twice the total protein.  If your diet is balanced and you have good variety, you won't be depending on any one food to meet all your protein or other nutrient needs anyway, so nit picking at specific nutrient strengths and weaknesses between comparable foods is a waste of time.

Take a look for yourself.. Lentils come out very favourably. Don't like the price of quinoa? Buy lentils.  You won't be selling yourself short.

Below are the calories and nutrients in one cup of cooked lentils and quinoa. Data from   Links to nutrition data full page below as well.

Claims of quinoa being a super endurance energy food are totally false.  Any starch carbohydrate source will provide an energy source.  Sweet potato, potato, rice, pasta, beans, oatmeal.. take your pick.  The lentils and quinoa deliver more vitamins and minerals per serving, but the others also have nutritional strengths, and energy density is very similar between all of them.  Mix it up.

Whenever I hear claims for tremendous health or performance outcomes from eating "superfoods", I have a cough reflex.  You know, where you muffle saying "bullshit!" while coughing?

In my view the phrase "superfood" is sensationalism, marketing puffery, and typically used by self-proclaimed guru's and diet experts who are ultimately trying to sell some kind of diet or supplement, or food product, or just trying to sell themselves as having extra special insightful secrets that others "don't want you to know".

Nutrient dense foods have enough going for them that's legitimate, no need to make exaggerated claims.  It's true that making the switch from a chronically poor diet to a healthy diet can make a very significant difference in the health and wellbeing of an individual, but it's not true that eating quinoa instead of lentils  (or the other way around) will make a significant difference in ones health.  Or eating kale instead of spinach for that matter.  If you already eat healthy and cover all your nutrient needs through a variety of whole foods, having a kale and blueberry smoothie will not give more energy than something else of equivalent calorie value, and won't cause you to sleep better, or run further, nor will it prevent disease.

I'm not saying never drink a kale - blueberry smoothie. . . I'm saying don't put misguided faith into such things delivering a special and significant health or performance benefit that is better than an otherwise already healthy diet.

The better quality of life comes from the combination of good sleep, varied diet (we need the variety because no single food covers all our needs), and healthy exercise, not from a single "superfood" or super smoothie or whatever.

Don't feel torn between posh quinoa and street-cred lentils.  There is no real dichotomy, no special reason to choose one over the other (unless you have an allergy to one).

Lentils and quinoa are better choices than junk food though.



Cooked Lentils
Cooked Lentils
Cooked Quinoa

Cooked Quinoa