You might not know this but taking sodium bicarbonate or baking soda as a supplement is actually a thing
From the very start of my triathlon journey over a decade ago, I always wanted to make the most out of my training. I started with data-driven training with the help of power meters and heart rate monitors. Over the years, I’ve added a better understanding of the human body and the dynamics of how training can shape one’s performance. I guess I’ve ticked all the boxes right? Far from it!
As the years go by, my thirst for information has never waned. In fact, I still continue to look for ways my athletes and I could find that edge. As of late, diet and proper supplementation have been at the forefront of my crusades. In this article, we will focus on the latter, specifically, a supplement that you might not have known is actually a thing: sodium bicarbonate.
What is sodium bicarbonate?
To those who aren’t familiar, sodium bicarbonate is better known as baking soda. Yes, this is the same stuff you see in your kitchen. While it has many uses, it has some interesting supposed benefits in sports. In a nutshell, the theory goes that sodium bicarbonate helps neutralize the acidity brought about by intense exercise. Thus, the “burning sensation” we experience under high workloads can be mitigated.
Sounds like a plan, right? That’s what I thought as well and hence I subjected myself to sodium bicarbonate supplementation for four weeks for your reading benefit.
Why baking soda?
First of all, sodium bicarbonate is an appealing supplement because not only is it dirt cheap, it’s also quite easy to find, use, and is completely legal. You won’t be at risk for any doping violations with this supposed performance enhancer. However, there are a few quirks I need to discuss.
Most of the research I found studies how sodium bicarbonate affects high-intensity, short duration exercise and not longer events like what we’re familiar with. I found this quite intriguing and used this as added motivation to see how endurance athletes like myself would react to it. Would there be any added benefit? Let’s find out.
Trial and error
When I first took this supplement, I haphazardly put in a teaspoon or two in a shaker bottle, added roughly 500mL of water, and started chugging. This, I warn you, is not the way to go. You see, when you ingest a hypertonic solution (i.e. something that is more saturated with particles than our cells and blood), water from our gastrointestinal tract rushes to dilute things and create balance. This results in a rush of watery stool that would sideline you for the better part of the morning.
Most would already have given up and ditched the sodium bicarbonate experiment. I’m not one to quit so easily. Instead of throwing in the towel, I did some research and calculated how many grams of sodium bicarbonate should be diluted in water to make it as close as possible to ideal hypotonic osmolality (the saturation that is easily absorbed by the body). Once I was able to crunch the numbers, voila! No more bathroom trips before the workout. However, there was a problem: to hit the target number of grams per kg of body weight, I needed to consume a lot of liquid.
Not willing to chug that much water before a workout, I researched to see if there’s a possible workaround to it. Yes, instead of acute loading, some studies showed that serial loading was just as effective. Instead of consuming things in a single go, I could spread it out during the day. This still meant I’d be drinking several liters of water but it was more reasonable and practical.
During the first few days of the experiment, I was obviously drinking a lot of liquids and this caused me to frequently urinate. Not really a problem since we’re all stuck at home anyway. On top of this, because of the added sodium, I was quite puffy because of all the water retention. Based on my calculations, I was holding over a liter of excess water since the experiment started. Not really a deal breaker but you certainly feel it while running. I thought to myself “train heavy, race light.” The experiment continues!
I kept grinding on with my usual routine. I logged in the workouts and made some noteworthy observations. First of all, during harder efforts, I noticed that I was recovering faster between sets. My legs felt fresher and soreness post-workout was dramatically reduced. As for peak wattage, I didn’t really notice a significant increase in power, but take this with a grain of salt as I’m not really a sprinter. I was holding slightly higher watts for my first 20-minute set though and this seemed promising.
However, as the workout progressed, one thing I noticed was that my heart rate kept going up. This is quite uncommon for me as my beats per minute stay consistent throughout my usual workouts. This sensation made finishing the workout difficult. I was struggling to finish the same workouts I usually do and it made things frustrating.
I thought this might have been a fluke and so I continued with the plan. A few workouts later, it was the same result most of the time. Was I pushing harder earlier in the workout such that I was gassing out by the end? The power data says no. So what could it be?
I tried to analyze what working out with sodium bicarbonate felt like and toward the end of it, I realized it felt quite similar to the tail end of a hot race. A lightbulb moment occurred and I realized it felt a lot like dehydration. Why didn’t I realize this early on? Well for one, my workouts were only an hour long; I never really get dehydrated with such a short workout. Secondly, I was drinking a lot of water so I didn’t think it could happen. I just thought I was tired or that something was off.
I did some more reading and found out that taking excessive amounts of sodium can also cause dehydration since water gets drained from your cells. Possibly, this gets amplified during longer exercise.
Since there’s no exact way to see if this was the reason, I decided to prove my theory through the process of elimination. After the four weeks were up, I stopped sodium bicarbonate supplementation cold turkey. The result? The elevated HR was gone. I was killing my workouts once again and hitting new PRs in terms of 20-minute power. Conversely, I also noticed a little more soreness post-workout, but this might also be a result of the new milestones I was reaching.
Would I recommend baking soda?
To be honest, it’s hard to make a conclusion based on my anecdote about the supplement. This is definitely not a research paper but the experience gave me enough insight about how it affects my body. Personally, I wouldn’t try it again.
However, since people respond to things quite differently, I don’t see any harm in trying it unless you have comorbidities such as high blood pressure, gout, kidney stones, etc. Obviously, if your doctor recommends you cut back on sodium, you should probably avoid this. Secondly, I wouldn’t really recommend using this supplement long term. There has been a lot of research showing ill effects of excessive chronic sodium intake and you probably shouldn’t risk it.
Is this the end of the road for baking soda?
Oral ingestion of sodium bicarbonate seems like a dead end for me. However, since other people have encountered similar problems, a company based in the U.S. has been working on other ways to deliver sodium bicarbonate more directly to the muscle. Topical lotions spiked with sodium bicarbonate are now in the market and these are definitely appealing. There is one downside though: They’re expensive.
Will I give it a try? Maybe in the future, but for now, I’ll look at other supplements that are also quite promising. Of course, I’ll keep you all updated.
Have some training questions, feedback or suggestions for future articles? Drop a note in the comments section below or on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. You can also get in touch with Don directly here.