The endurance training differs from other types of sports activity primarily by the way the body reacts to the increased load. While exercising with weights one first detects a change in the volume of the muscle itself, in endurance activity the adaptation is a preparation for a more demanding training which may follow. Increasing the oxidative ability of the muscles, the elasticity of the ligaments, and the density of bone tissue prevents the individual from being damaged in the future. This increase in capacity is all too often attributed only to muscular changes, but we forget that the nervous system plays a key role in this - every muscle fibre is revitalized by the peripheral nervous system and if we want to increase the capacity, new muscular and neural connections must be established.
The organism responds to the increased load with adaptation. How does this happen? Everyone knows that muscle damage produces new, more robust muscle fibres. However, in spite of the general belief micro-injuries are a less important part of the story. In addition to biochemical adaptations (hormones, signals, receptors) and the aforementioned micro-injuries, by far the most important is the mechanical stretching that triggers a certain nervous response. Muscular work at a higher level signals the brain to expect greater burden in the future. The satellite cells become active, they begin repairing damaged fibres, they even turn themselves into muscle cells. This is a simplified mechanism of hypertrophy, i.e., a process that we strive for during endurance training. However, something else is more important than hypertrophy for endurance athletes.
Adaptation: hypertrophy and atrophy
It is not always true for an adaptive change that it follows a set path - especially in the case of an activity that lasts to long, we can experience atrophy instead of hypertrophy. It is a reduction in the size of cells or the amount of muscle tissue, and the causes may vary. In addition to insufficient training (resulting in reduced blood supply), atrophy is also affected by too much training, an inadequate diet, or a combination of both. That's exactly the problem - insufficient muscle supply during long training - however, we are most susceptible to during endurance training. Therefore, in the light of improving sports achievements, we need to separate between anabolic and anticatabolic nutrients - the previous stimulate the growth of muscle tissue, while the latter prevent the decomposition of a new or existing one. While an endurance athlete generally takes care of muscle growth (anabolic nutrients), due to the specific nature of his training, more attention needs to be paid to anticatabolic nutrients.
Atrophy can be triggered by both calorie deficiency and malformation of macronutrients. Whenever we find ourselves in the lower third of our glycogen reserves during a long training, we already trigger the catabolic process to some extent. For intense activity, at least 2-3 g of glucose per minute is burned, and without rigorous filling with energy gels every 20 minutes, it is hard to keep glycogen untouched. Muscle fibres, also due to the increased stress hormone, cortisol, begin to break down into smaller subunits, in order for the organism to obtain nutrients that you would otherwise have to obtain with food. To an extent, this can be prevented if there are enough proteins and their key amino acids (BCAA, glutamine, sufficient leucine), in addition to sugars, during the training itself.
HMB: An old amino acid, an improved formula
If we know a little about how protein is synthesized in the body, with the targeted addition of certain substances, we can also achieve better results in training. More nutrients that allow or induce protein synthesis will therefore be consumed in more demanding workouts - taking into account a healthy amount. One of them is also the leucine amino acid. Leucine is a branched essential amino acid - the body can not produce it alone, so we need to administer it with food, and athletes often consume it as one of the three amino acids in BCAA formulas. The leucine has the most important role of all the amino acids. It enables the so-called leucine zipper - leucine, as every seventh amino acid, connects proteins to each other and thus builds muscle tissue. Without lecithin protein synthesis could not start, no matter what amount of amino acids we have in our blood. Leucine is therefore a key amino acid that allows the building of new muscle tissue and prevents the degradation of the old one, while maintaining the nitrogen balance and the level of glycogen. But in order to achieve visible effects, we should use a lot of leucine.
Fortunately, our organism has created an inherent solution. The leucine is metabolized in the body into two compounds - mostly into the acidic form, and in 5% into an extremely potent HMB (beta-hydroxy-beta-methylbutyrate) to which most of the anticatabolic effects of this amino acid are attributed. And the anticatabolic effect, not so much anabolic, is the one that an endurance athlete wants. The question arises of why athletes should not then add the leucine derivative itself, the HMB?
The answer is simple - for some time now top athletes have been adding HMB as one of the five basic additives for endurance. There are the following: regeneration beverage, hydration beverage, BCAA, glutamine, and then comes HMB. If the other four can be seen more as foods that float in our blood, HMB is the additive that triggers the protein synthesis and prevents the decomposition of these in extreme conditions.
What do studies say?
In the light of endurance activities, HMB is a better choice than leucine - a cyclist, swimmer or sprinter does not expect heavy muscles, i.e., large oxygen users in unnecessary places. HMB does not only participate in protein synthesis - wherein leucine as a whole amino acid is slightly more effective - it protects the cell from apoptosis, i.e., cell death. For endurance training, it is crucial that as many satellite cells remain active as possible. It is therefore not surprising that in order to avoid muscular atrophy, it was clinically first given to chronic patients, elderly patients and patients in hospital care who could not get up from their beds. The effective dose for athletes is 3g, but it does not need to be exaggerated - 6 grams are no more effective than 3 grams.
HMB seems to have the greatest impact on preventing muscle damage - endurance athletes, above all cyclists, have started adding HMB before training and anecdotally noticing that their feet were less "tired". Subjective assessments are well supported by evidence. A study published in The British Journal of Nutrition showed statistically significant differences between HMB supplementation and a placebo. Athletes who used HMB showed lower creatine kinase values, the main indicator of muscle injury (relatively 104% vs. 329% with placebo), and a higher subjective perception of regeneration.
What about the impact on strength alone? In kinesiological research, the increase in strength is extremely difficult to achieve with an individual supplement - not because the latter would not work, but because of two methodological limitations. Firstly, studies are usually performed on trained individuals whose bodies are already adapted to the upper limit of human capabilities. The increase in power, which the participants will feel subjectively, fall into the area of irrelevant statistical deviation. Secondly, studies usually last (much) less than 6 weeks - in order to optimize the functioning of physiological processes, ergogenic factors often require such a period. Ahahtanin and colleagues thus demonstrated as much as 21% increase in strength in untrained individuals during the 21-week period, with only 4% increase in strength for exceptionally trained athletes. Nevertheless, these 4%, in the light of the small differences in the results of the season, are also a good starting point for professional cyclists, swimmers or tennis players.
When and how to consume HMB?
So where could we place HMB? HMB is an ideal supplement for obtaining, and even more so for maintaining pure muscle mass under conditions of calorie restriction or long training. Ideal because it is effective and extremely safe at the same time - studies have shown no adverse effects even in quantities that are ten times higher than recommended. In the light of other supplements, we do not need to replace other products with it, because it is unique in its role. A regeneration drink is a mixture of hydrates, proteins and microelements that regenerate damaged muscle fibres after training - it is food that quickly comes to the cells. During exercise we use an energy-hydration drink and BCAA, in case the latter in insufficient. The hydration drink will prevent us from exhausting glycogen reserves and provide energy and electrolytes for longer training, while the branched BCAA amino acids give the three most potent amino acids. Here, again, we have to mention leucine, already present in BCAA and inducing protein synthesis. Before training, we should consume HMB - it will prevent muscle damage and reduce the breakdown of muscle tissue, and to a certain extent it will relieve pain in achieving the highest watts during training lasting for several hours. HMB is also not a substitute for glutamine, the most represented protein in our body. Glutamine should be regarded as a material that is needed more for exceptional efforts, and especially where there is lacking that needs to be filled (injuries). For glutamine, there is a certain gap between clinical use and sports nutrition, while HMB's impact on regeneration and muscle damage is unequivocal.
HMB is definitely the ingredient that will most benefit an endurance athlete during long-lasting and highly intensive preparations. The building up of strength is inversely proportional to the time of regeneration - insofar as it takes longer to rest, this also means a lower frequency of training. 3.5g HMB per day allows a shorter regeneration time, while in order to achieve the best effects one should use it for a longer period of time (at least 6 weeks). Thus, it is necessary to start consuming the HMB 2 weeks before the preparatory period, in order to reduce the level of muscular injuries during the maximum intensity and to enable smooth training.
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