Baking soda, more formally known as sodium bicarbonate, has a lot of uses beyond just baking, from cleaning various surfaces, soothing your heartburn, to even browning your meat better. In addition to these uses, baking soda has another unexpected and underrated use: It can be used to improve athletic performance and exercise.
Similar to creatine, baking soda can help with short, high-intensity bouts of exercise, which is thought to be due to its ability to buffer hydrogen ions produced from anaerobic metabolism. In a number of studies, it’s been shown that athletes taking baking soda experience less fatigue during high-intensity exercise, which allows them to push harder for longer periods of time, and also report a reduced recovery time, which can help them over the course of a training cycle.
“In the sports science world, we know that [baking soda] works, and it works well,” said Jose Antonio, a sports scientist at Nova Southeastern University. However, “in the real world, where you get to try it, nobody likes to do it.”
Research shows that baking soda is an effective performance enhancer
Baking soda as an athletic aid has been studied for decades, with a significant body of research showing that it is most helpful for short bouts of high-intensity exercise that range from 30 seconds to twelve minutes. In practical terms, this can aid in sports such as weightlifting, martial arts, running, swimming, and cycling. In terms of its effectiveness, baking soda can help eke out just a little bit more performance at high intensities by shaving a few seconds off a race time or landing just a few more punches during a boxing match.
Research also suggests that combining baking soda with creatine can lead to a greater effect on athletic performance than either one alone, which is thought to be due to the different modes of action for the two supplements. “You’re getting different mechanistic effects,” Antonio said.
Creatine works by increasing your body’s stores of phosphocreatine, which is what your body uses for energy. Having a higher supply of phosphocreatine in your body can help you eke out just a little bit more work at high intensities, when your supplies are running low.
By contrast, baking soda works by buffering the hydrogen ions that are produced from anaerobic metabolism. It’s these hydrogen ions that are responsible for the fatigue and the “burn” you get from high-intensity exercise. Baking soda helps to neutralise some of these hydrogen ions, which in turn helps delay that onset of fatigue.
The drawbacks to using baking soda
The main reason baking soda isn’t often used as an athletic supplement is because you need a lot of it — to the point that it can cause stomach upset and diarrhoea. The recommended dosage amount is 0.3 grams per kilogram of body weight. For a 60-kilogram athlete, that works out to 18 grams a day. Given that one teaspoon weighs about 5 grams, that’s about 4 teaspoons of baking soda. That’s a lot of baking soda, and by extension, a lot of sodium, which means that if you have high blood pressure or have been advised by your doctor to limit your salt, this isn’t an option.
However, as Antonio points out, “A low dose is better than no dose.” The minimum effective dose starts at 0.2 grams per kilogram of body weight, which is a more manageable amount; and it’s also possible to split the dosing up across the course of day. “The logical thing to do is to use small doses and work your way up,” Antonio said. This way, your body gets used to baking soda, which can help minimise any potential GI issues.
We tried it out
These past few weeks, I started mixing in a low dose of baking soda into my daily water bottles, using a low-sugar powdered drink mix to mask the taste. I added in the baking soda over the course of the day, adding about two teaspoons in total, portioning them out over two to three large bottles of water. I also added in a scoop of creatine to one of the bottles, to augment the baking soda. The result was a slightly fizzy, slightly bitter drink. The dose was low enough that I didn’t experience any noticeable GI symptoms. I also added it in daily, including on non-workout days.
For context, I’m a former athlete who developed an autonomic nervous system disorder called postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, or POTS for short, for which one of the first clues was an unexplained drop in athletic performance. Currently, exercise is an important part of managing my condition, but I struggle more with high-intensity exercise, as it takes me longer to recover.
Anecdotally, adding in the baking soda coincided with a stretch of workouts that felt a little better than usual for me, and after stopping the baking soda for a few days, my workouts felt just a little harder. The difference was subtle enough that it could easily be a placebo effect, but given the research on it, it’s an easy (and cheap) enough measure that I’m willing to continue with it.
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