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What is Sodium Bicarbonate, how does it work and is it effective?

Which athletes would benefit from its use, how should they take it, and are there any potential side-effects that we should consider?

Sodium bicarbonate, also called baking soda, is a common household item that many of us are familiar with. What some may not know is that the International Olympic Committee considers sodium bicarbonate to be among the top 5 ergogenic aids to enhance exercise performance in certain sport-specific scenarios. Which athletes would benefit most from its use and how should they take it. Also, are there are potential side-effects that we need to consider?


What does sodium bicarbonate do?

Sodium bicarbonate supplementation leads to an acute increase in bicarbonate concentration in the blood, making the blood more alkaline. This increases the pH gradient between the muscle and blood leading to an increased transport of hydrogen ions out of the muscle during exercise. This system is also important during exercise, since hydrogen ions can accumulate during high-intensity activity leading to muscle acidosis which can cause muscle fatigue. Thus, more hydrogen ions removed out of the muscle would consequently better maintain the intramuscular pH and minimise the detrimental effect that hydrogen ion accumulation has within the muscle and could lead to an improved exercise performance.


Does sodium bicarbonate improve exercise performance?

A recent analysis that included 158 original studies showed that, on average, sodium bicarbonate supplementation leads to small beneficial improvements in exercise performance (1). The duration of the exercise was a factor that modified the size of this response, with no effects when exercise lasted less than 30 seconds (too short to be influenced by muscle acidosis). High-intensity exercise lasting anywhere between 30 seconds and 10 minutes benefits from sodium bicarbonate supplementation, and this may include tasks such as 200-metre and 400-metre swimming, 4km Time Trial cycling, 2000-metre rowing and 800-metre to 1500-metre running. Interestingly, and perhaps surprisingly to some, endurance exercise over 10 minutes also saw improvements with sodium bicarbonate. It is often thought that endurance exercise is too low in intensity to be influenced by muscle acidosis and, consequently, to benefit from sodium bicarbonate. However, endurance athletes must transiently increase intensity at various moments throughout exercise, such as a sprint finish in cycling, or a final lap sprint in 5,000-metre and 10,000-metre running. These moments of increased intensity are vital to overall performance and may be the moments at which sodium bicarbonate most benefits endurance exercise. Athletes involved in repeated sprint activities, such as team sports, where maximal or near-maximal efforts are performed with short recovery periods are also likely to benefit from using sodium bicarbonate. Considering this, those individuals whose competition event may not last in excess of 30 seconds (for example, 100- to 200-metre sprint) may still benefit from sodium bicarbonate supplementation during their high-intensity training which likely includes repeated-bout efforts. Overall, sodium bicarbonate can be considered an effective performance enhancing supplement for many athletes.

Overall, sodium bicarbonate can be considered an effective performance enhancing supplement for many athletes.

How much do I need and when should I take it?

Sodium bicarbonate is ingested relative to body mass, with 300 mg/kg body mass (BM) considered to be the optimal dose for enhancing performance (though some studies have shown 200 mg/kg BM to be equally effective). Considering a 70 kg individual would need to ingest 21 g, that is a lot of powder. The supplement can be dissolved in a drink, though palatability is low, or ingested in capsules (size 00 capsules can contain 1 gram of sodium bicarbonate meaning a total of 21 capsules for 21 grams), with both methods of ingestion equally effective. Data (2) suggests bicarbonate peaks and remains stable for a prolonged period of time, and that supplementation could be initiated between 1 and 3 hours prior to when it is needed. Indeed, individual studies have provided sodium bicarbonate anywhere between 1 and 3 hours prior to exercise with improvements in subsequent performance.


Are there any side-effects?

Unfortunately, there can be some unwanted side-effects that may occur following sodium bicarbonate ingestion including gastric discomfort, such as bloating and abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea. The incidence and intensity of these side-effects varies widely between and within individuals. Many athletes may feel that experiencing some side-effects is a small price to pay for potential performance improvements, although caution is advised since some studies do suggest that these side-effects could compromise performance. Luckily, there are some strategies to reduce these uncomfortable symptoms, the most effective being ingesting the supplement alongside a carbohydrate-rich meal. Taking it in capsules give far less problems than a drink and experimenting with different doses and different delivery mechanisms, ingestion with meals, the issues can usually be managed well.

Recommendations for use

Current recommendations for supplementation would be to ingest 200-300 mg/kg body mass approximately 1 to 3 hours prior to initiating exercise. The sodium bicarbonate can be dissolved in a drink or taken in capsules, and it is recommended to ingest it alongside a carbohydrate-rich meal to minimise any uncomfortable side-effects.


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  1. DE OLIVEIRA, L. F., DOLAN, E., SWINTON, P. A., DURKALEC-MICHALSKI, K., ARTIOLI, G. G., MCNAUGHTON, L. R. & SAUNDERS, B. 2022. Extracellular Buffering Supplements to Improve Exercise Capacity and Performance: A Comprehensive Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Sports Med, 52, 505-526.
  2. DE OLIVEIRA, L. F., SAUNDERS, B., YAMAGUCHI, G., SWINTON, P. & ARTIOLI, G. G. 2020. Is Individualization of Sodium Bicarbonate Ingestion Based on Time to Peak Necessary? Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 52, 1801-1808.


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