The Use of Baking Soda as an Ergogenic Aid

The search for new ergogenic aids to enhance athletic performance is never-ending. Researchers are constantly searching for any substance with the slightest hope of benefits to give athletes an edge on the competition. Hence, sodium bicarbonate (i.e. baking soda) has made its way into athletics. The fact that it's not a banned substance in sport, coupled with the conceivability for ergogenic effects has given it quite a level of popularity among anaerobic sports competition.

The fact that it's popular has very little to do with whether or not it works, however, and because effectiveness is what we're concerned with, this is what we'll focus on. The consensus among the literature indicates that sodium bicarbonate improves performance in activities that include intermittent trials and/or bursts of maximal anaerobic endurance.

And this is fine. But due to the fact that the studies are done bad, the consensus doesn't mean much. To address whether or not sodium bicarbonate works, we'll start from the top.

What is sodium bicarbonate?

It's baking soda. It's used in baked foods, explaining its name. Its function revolves around it being a urinary and systemic alkalizer, meaning it can reverse acidosis. Acidosis being an increase in the acidity of body fluids. So essentially, eating baking soda can reverse that acidity. It works in a two different ways- both of which are advertised heavily by low-budget supplement companies. First, because sodium bicarbonate is a base, its high pH interacts with the low pH of acidity, balancing it out. Second, it buffers the hydrogen ion concentration, and hydrogen is what's creating your acidic problem.

The physiology and philosophy of what it does.

The previously mentioned effects are proven to exist. That's why alkalizers exist. Alkalizers are bicarbonate based substances used to relieve heartburn and indigestion. They usually refer to them as antacids when sold for this purpose- and it's a huge market because it works really well. So what we know so far, is that sodium bicarbonate neutralizes acidic gastrointestinal, urinary, and blood pH levels. This is not debatable.

Furthermore, any form of anaerobic exercise will cause the pH in the blood to drop, making it more acidic. This is because anaerobic energy is produced through glycolysis. The purpose of glycolysis is to take your carbohydrates, and break them down into pyruvate- releasing the actual energy during the breakdown of the carbohydrate molecules. That's how you get the energy you use from the carbs you eat. However, pyruvate doesn't just sit there when you're done producing it. It can either be shuttled to the mitochondria to produce aerobic energy, or converted into lactic acid. Being shuttled to the mitochondria, however, requires sufficient oxygen. And anaerobic activity by definition, means that the oxygen demand is not being met. Thus, most of the pyruvate ends up becoming lactic acid. As more lactic acid is created, the pH continues to drop in the cytosol of the muscle. The muscle normally operates around a 7.0 pH level, and if it drops as low as 6.8, the muscle's contractive force is hindered enough to interrupt function.

This loss of function happens through several pathways. First, the low pH levels disrupt the hydrogen bonds that are important for the 3-dimensional structure of the proteins. If this structural integrity is interrupted, the muscle loses the ability to function. Additionally, it inhibits phosphofructokinase, which is the major enzyme allowing for glycolysis to occur and therefore energy to be created. Furthermore, it interrupts calcium's release from the sarcoplasmic reticulum, and its binding to the troponin, both essential in directly allowing the muscle to contract.

So now you know enough physiology to consider that sodium bicarbonate seems to have the potential for anti-fatiguing effects. Let's summarize why this is... The underlying philosophy on why its believed to work is as follows: eating baking soda neutralizes blood acidity caused by lactic acid build-up. Lactic acid build-up accounts for muscular fatigue in anaerobic activity. Therefore baking soda interferes with the cause of fatigue in anaerobic activity.

This philosophy has been taken to heart by exceedingly numerous researchers who have come to the conclusion that sodium bicarbonate improves performance in running (Goldfinch, McNaughton & Davies, 1988), rowing (McNaughton & Cedaro, 1991), cycling (Lavender & Bird, 1989), swimming (Gao, Costill, Horswill & Park, 1988), and several other related activites with similar levels of exertion.

This actually seems completely legitimate so far. But consider that more physiology does exist beyond what I've said so far- and this additional physiology is a huge, huge problem for those in favor of sodium bicarbonate as an ergogenic aid.

The physiology of what it won't do.

It won't work. I'll tell you this much up front. Think of the math expression: If A = B, and B = C, then A = C... You know that one right? This is how they're trying to sell you on sodium bicarbonate. The logic actually makes complete sense, it's just that it doesn't matter if it does...

I'll explain... You eating baking soda is A. B is having your gastrointestinal tract, urine, and blood be subject to an alkalizer. C is the neutralization of the acidity sent to the bloodstream when glycolysis begins producing energy more rapidly. This is all true and makes complete sense, but again matters essentially not at all.

Still explaining... Muscular fatigue happens as a result of a decrease in pH within the cytosol of the muscle, where the initial buildup of lactic acid takes place. From the cytosol, it is then buffered to the bloodstream. This causes your blood to have a decrease in pH. Sodium bicarbonate's alkalizing effects take place in the GI tract, urine, and blood stream. Notice that none of those are actually inside the cytosol. So the "lactic acid buffering supplement" companies give you the information that low pH levels cause fatigue, blood pH is lowered as a result of anaerobic work, and bicarbonate based substances neutralize blood pH. They then expect you to make the assumption that changing blood pH is associated with a change in the pH responsible for fatigue- as blood pH and cytosol pH are two entirely different things. But if you make that assumption, it would appear as though it works great. But it won't. I'll explain why.

If blood pH were to have an impact on fatigue, it would have to happen one of two ways. First, blood pH could directly impact, or be a reflection of the pH in the cytosol. Second, during repeated measures of exercise, there's a greater total amount of lactic acid shuttled to the bloodstream. And if buffering the blood faster encouraged the cytosol to dump it to the blood faster, fatigue would be delayed.

If one of those two theories could possibly exist, the assumption that supplement companies expect you to make would be validated, and sodium bicarbonate's use as a supplement would be justified. If not, sodium bicarbonate has no effect on fatigue, and its only worthwhile use would be as an antacid to counteract heartburn and indigestion, and thus, the supplement companies would be either uneducated or deceitful. Does this make sense?

Well it turns out earth's physiology system doesn't coincide with either mechanism that could cause it to be effective. Furthermore, the vast bodies of research actually attempt to explain their support with bad physiology. Mackenzie (2004) argues that sodium bicarbonate's "buffering results in acid being drawn out from the muscle cells into the blood due to a concentration gradient." This would imply that lactic acid buffering is a diffusion based transport. If you're not familiar with physiology, a lot of things are. Your breathing and oxygen transport is a result of gradients, as is almost everything else in your body. And if lactate buffering was one of them, the concentration gradient between the cytosol and the blood stream would in fact determine the pace of the exchange. However, lactic acid buffering is not one of them. It happens by means of carrier mediated transport via sodium chloride lactate antiports. Changing the blood pH will not affect the rate of transfer to any degree.

And since blood pH therefore has no impact on the cytosol pH or the rate at which the cytosol buffers lactic acid, there is no ergogenic effect that can be derived from sodium bicarbonate.

The literature.

Matson & Tran (1993) found the mass body of research regarding sodium bicarbonate's ergogenic effects to be highly inconsistent. I feel this is the best summary of the literature. Good work Matson & Tran (1993). Good work. The truth in that statement seems fairly obvious to me though, considering that the body of research consists of countless thousands of poorly conducted studies using a useless product. I imagine when you end up supporting something like this, the results are going to be heavily skewed and conflicting.

And it doesn't end with just general support. Studies have found sodium bicarbonate to have effects on not only anaerobic, but also aerobic fatigue (McNaughton, Dalton & Palmer. 1999), obviously every anaerobic sport, increases in muscle metabolism (Potteiger, Webster, Nickel, Haub & Palmer, 1996), in addition to fatigue, increases in peak power (Price, Moss & Rance, 2003), changes to the perception of exertion (Swank & Robertson, 1989), all influenced by very specific guidelines of dosage amount, time of ingestion, number of ingestion sessions before the event, and so on. McNaughton, Backx, Palmer & Strange (1999) even suggested "the addition of sodium bicarbonate to a normal diet" would offer further ergogenic possibility.

Wow. All this would accomplish is chronic hypertension in the place of heartburn. I would rather have the heartburn. To prove further stupidity in the researchers, lets assess each of the suggested benefits and guidelines individually.

Anaerobic fatigue-lowering effects.

While the majority of the studies do find fatigue to be lessened during bouts of physical exertion under the influence of sodium bicarbonate ingestion, none of them are accurate. You already know there's no way the cytosol could be affected, which is the only relevant area. The only other logical explanation would be that the internal conditions guiding the rate of removal via the carrier mediated transport system could be affected by something that's triggered by the pH of the blood- so essentially you'd have somewhat of a 3-step domino-ish effect. Although this is wrong in the first place, lets say that it's right. It's the last hope for bicarbonate fans, so we won't shoot it down out of courtesy. We'll just say this instead: there's a delay of approximately 2 minutes between the cytosol hitting its peak lactic acid level, and when the blood reaches its peak lactate level. This means the cytosol pH changes well before the blood. Further meaning: there's a mildly hefty time period separating when the muscle's contractility becomes interrupted via this pH change, and the time that the blood buffering from any agent will begin to take effect. So guess what? Fatigue happens well before sodium bicarbonate is given the opportunity to do anything. The event is over before the blood buffering, which is useless in the first place, is doing anything reasonable.

Increasing maximal power output

Virtually all researchers hypothesize that sodium bicarbonate improves maximal power output, but when the results of the study are assessed, most of them aren't able to attain this (Kozak-Collins, Burke & Schoene, 1994), (Gaitanos, Nevill, Brooks & Williams, 1991), (Ibanez, Pullinen, Gorostiaga, Postigo & Mero, 1995). Once in a while, however, a study is able to come up with statistical significance of this in the results (McNaughton, et. al., 1991). With no physiological explanation why baking soda could ever be associated with power other than reducing it due to discomfort, which of all the previously mentioned studies do you think were conducted the most poorly?

Aerobic fatigue-limiting effects

Aerobic fatigue has nothing to do with pH. Aerobic energy is produced by oxidative phosphorylation, by which the end product is water and ATP. Neither of those are impacted by or associated with changes in pH anywhere in the body. I feel this is all I need to say.

Perception of exertion.

Numerous sodium bicarbonate studies claim to have an effect on the perception of exertion (Swank & Robertson, 1989). This way, when physiology fails to find a legitimate reason why sodium bicarbonate would improve performance, "perception of exertion" can step in and be impossible to disprove, as ridiculous as it is. And this is fine, but realize that the most scientific way to document this is by asking the participant how hard it was on a scale of 1 to 10. This is why I say it is ridiculous. Furthermore, the use of the word "perception" means that this is strictly a psychological effect. Listening to music or watching something visually stimulating would offer a sense of distraction. Distraction changes perception, and thus, you have your psychological effect. Eating a horrific tasting concoction of salt 2.5 hours prior to testing does not qualify as a distraction unless you can still taste it so vividly that you're unable to think of anything else during the testing protocol. So as I said, in essence it's impossible to disprove, but utterly ridiculous to believe.

Muscle metabolism changes.

Although some studies do support this (Potteiger, Webster, Nickel, Haub & Palmer, 1996), the majority suggests that sodium bicarbonate has no significant effect on muscle metabolism (Stephens, McKenna, Canny, Snow & McConnel, 2002). And finding no effect is actually a better outcome for sodium bicarbonate fans, considering the only metabolic change conceivable would result in net energy loss. If there is an effect it's this: the lactate that would be used as fuel in the heart and brain is buffered causing a loss of gross fuel utilization. So luckily most studies suggest that no negligible metabolic change exists.

Impact of dosage.

This one is popular among the researchers. Many studies suggest chronic dosage over the course of several days, others suggest acute dosage several hours prior to the event, and I suggest none. Go with my recommendation and I'll do something the other researchers won't: I'll give you a scientifically accurate reasons why. Reason one: gastrointestinal discomfort and complications are not uncommon (Lazebnik, Iellin & Michowitz, 1986), (Brismar, Standberg & Wiklund, 1986). Reason two: the results of consuming greater levels of sodium bicarbonate predominantly shows up in the urine and the associated liquid where your pee strikes (McKenzie, 1988), (Zimmerman, O'Connell & Soria, 1990). Reason three: it won't do anything that helps you (science & me, 2004).

Right in the face of pure fact, researchers turn their head and produce countless technicalities and guidelines to maximize the placebo effects of ingested bicarbonate. Granted, they don't refer to it as placebo effects, but under the laws of science, it will not produce a change in your body, so I don't know what else to call it. It's absurd to think they're psychological, so if they're not physiological, they're either fake or placebo.

And the fact that "professional" people have come to support it as an ergogenic aid is very, very saddening. To show just how vivid this level of sadness is, I conducted my own study with several subjects in the exercise physiology laboratory at Willamette University comparing the ergogenic effects of sodium bicarbonate to that of music.

A study of my own.

I thought, since baking soda has no physiological effect, I'd line up its ergogenic possibility with music, which also has no physiological effect. This way, the psychological effect size of sodium bicarbonate, being the only non-disprovable physical benefit, can be compared directly to another ergogenic aid known to produce strictly psychological effects. Whichever of the two produces a greater psychological effect, would therefore be the better "supplement."

The methodology of my research was based on the majority of previously conducted sodium bicarbonate studies, except that music trials were incorporated as well. Parry-Billings & MacLaren (1986) conducted research with 30 second Wingate cycle ergometer tests separated by 6 minutes of recovery with athletic male subjects, applying .3g per kilogram of body weight of sodium bicarbonate 2.5 hours prior to testing. So did I. I used college-aged athletic males with no history of gastrointestinal illness or hypertension, and had never used a "buffering agent" before, and put them through the exact same testing protocol.

Before testing, participants were measured for height and weight, by which a computer profile was created. The stationary cycle ergometer was weighted to produce braking at 7.5% of the participant's bodyweight. Following the participant's familiarization with the equipment and a brief warm-up, he began pedaling as fast as possible. Within one second of peak speed, the fixed resistance was applied to the flywheel. The participant continued to pedal at maximal exertion until the 30 second time frame had elapsed. Revolutions of the flywheel were recorded and interpreted in 5 second intervals by the computer. After this first bout was completed, the participant was given 6 minutes of recovery time before initiating the second. The second bout was performed identically to the first.

The order of testing conditions (music, bicarbonate, and control) were established in several different orders, such that a practice effect and fatigue would not be confounding variables. The participants were then randomly assigned to these various orders of conditions.

For the music trials, some participants brought in their own music, and the others listened to Rockin' in the Free World because it's all I had at the time. The volume was set to their preference, and the music began briefly before they began pedaling.

Peak power was measured to test maximal force output differences while power drop was measured to test variance in fatigue. In order to find the significance between the control, bicarbonate, and music trials, analysis via an ANOVA test was conducted with an alpha value of .10.

My results.

The music trial group with the highest peak power was roughly 1620 watts. The highest peak power among the control group tests was roughly 1450 watts. And the highest peak power among the bicarbonate ingestion trials was roughly 1140 watts. Note that several trials were conducted in each testing condition and this is simply the trial in each condition with the highest peak power. Overall however, peak power was the only data comparison that ended up with statistical significance. Music trials compared to bicarbonate trials were found to be statistically significant at a p value of .06 for increased peak power.

Now, I could stop there with the knowledge that the music trials outperformed the sodium bicarbonate trials in producing an ergogenic effect for peak power generation, and neither showed any significance in limiting fatigue. But that wouldn't be very thorough of me. And me lacking thoroughness ignores a fairly important detail that could otherwise be misleading.

As far as fatigue goes, the power drop did show certain trends, but nothing large enough to predict that it would approach levels of statistical or even practical significance. In my study, the music trials had the largest power drop, the control trials had the second, and the bicarbonate trials had the lowest. Despite the fact that it comes at a level nowhere near statistical significance, this is the type of data agenda-based studies can capitalize on. So let's actually assess this little trend.

The fatigue lines up perfectly linear to peak power, just in much smaller doses. The largest power output is associated with the largest fatigue, and the lowest power with the lowest fatigue. So although the bicarbonate ingestion trials produced the lowest power, they also produced the lowest power drop, being as they didn't have much further down they could go. Nonetheless, these trends could still be used to represent misleading fatigue data.

Explaining the implications of the fatigue data.

The existence of these trends can be explained one of two ways. First, if my study had a thousand participants instead of a dozen, these trends might just disappear. This, logically, would be the hopeful outcome for baking soda fans because it would mean that the peak power would probably linearly increase as well. If not, it simply means that the power generation, associated energy demands, and therefore lactic acid build-up, are simply lower in the bicarbonate trials. This is negative outcome. This means that, despite being less fatigued, the actual overall performance would be vastly worse from the ingestion of sodium bicarbonate.

And as I already mentioned, this effect may disappear as the sample size increases, but in my study, it was a large contributor to the only data that attained statistical significance, and therefore, I feel it's probably worth explaining.

If you've ever had to consume it before, you probably already understand the decline in performance. If not, I'll explain. When you're playing in the ocean, and you become completely engulfed by dead fish parts, and you're trying to drink the water, but you keep mistakenly getting mouthfuls of dead fish parts too, that's what it tastes like. And you must continuously attempt to purposely swallow more and more for the study despite this. And once you stomach it, that's not the end of the discomfort. First off, you've just consumed the most colossal percent of your day's sodium you will ever consume in a single batch. One of my participants was a 260lb college football player. At .3 grams per kilo of bodyweight, he was swallowing 370% of his day's sodium in one dead fish water tasting cup of somewhat-liquidy-splendor. I can't tell you the number of times he vomited during the bicarbonate trials. A lot of people did. But the vomiting doesn't just come from the crazy-high sodium and nauseating taste.

Remember sodium bicarbonate's effect as an alkalizer? Being as that effect actually is real, you're changing the pH balance of your gastrointestinal tract to a generally intolerable degree. The amount that you're consuming isn't even in the same ballpark as a handful of Tums and Rolaids. You will experience gastrointestinal discomfort. Whether it is severe enough to interrupt your performance is questionable. In my dozen-participant-study, it certainly did. But it didn't affect everybody, so there is reason to believe that this decline in performance would disappear in tests with larger sample sizes. And if this happened, the most likely scenario would be that the power and fatigue would increase linearly to match the control group. I'm not saying this would happen though. You eat a third of a box of baking soda and see if you feel like working out as hard as possible. It's extremely nauseating.

The underlying point.

But the underlying point is this: there's no physiological indication that sodium bicarbonate has any benefit related to athletic performance at all. Furthermore, there is a physiological explanation for a degradation to performance. That's all. Take it if you want but I certainly won't envy your discomfort in doing so.

Question: Why would music produce an effect?

Answer: the explanation for the music working better appears to be distraction causing a change in perceived exertion. That psychological effect I talked about earlier. This seems to be supported in other valid studies involving music and exercise (Ciccomascolo, Finn, Barbarich & Rinehardt, 1995). Other studies have suggested music can have some effect on activating the sympathetic nervous system as well, causing increases in heart rate (Dorney, Goh & Lee, 1992), but this gets a little speculative as an explanation for ergogenic effects, and it's really not consistent enough to believe anyway. But there is at least one valid mechanism for ergogenic aid via music. Line this up with zero from sodium bicarbonate and results appear to be both logical and predictable.

Question: Is there anything that can encourage faster removal of lactic acid in the cytosol?

Answer: yes. Active recovery. Remember that the pace of the carrier mediated transport that removes lactate to the blood is guided by internal conditions. It generally takes about 15 to 20 minutes to buffer all of it dependent on these conditions. Active recovery increases the rate of removal, sitting doesn't.