Have you ever heard of anyone eating baking soda to help reduce muscle soreness? A guy at my gym swears by this practice and said he can no long squat without baking soda. Any insight on this one? It sounds a bit gimmicky, but it would surely be an inexpensive supplement if it worked!
Great question. First, if this guy is eating baking soda by the spoonful, he'll also be running to the can and squatting even more! The premise of taking baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) is that it will neutralize the hydrogen ions that "build up" in your muscles during a workout. For those who care about the how's and why's, read on. For the others, well... sorry.
Let me slip into my lab coat real quick, tighten up the tape between my glasses, and take out my biochem book for a minute. Anaerobic exercise (sprints, weight training, bursts of speed, like in football, etc) requires a high turnover rate of the body's energy source, ATP.
ATP can only provide a second or two worth of energy, so turnover is rapid and crucial. The rapid production of ATP comes from the breakdown of phosphocreatine, the storage form of creatine, and something called anaerobic glycolysis.
Depending on the necessity of energy, and quick energy at that, glycolysis will run its course. However, when glycolysis begins to move into high gear, it also produces hydrogen ions, which have been implicated in muscle fatigue (you know, the burning feeling in your quads when doing a drop set of leg extensions) and some speculate muscle soreness after the workout.
Subsequently, if there was a way to buffer those hydrogen ions, it could mean that you may be able to continue the normally anaerobic activities (sprinting, lifting, etc) for a longer period of time.
The body has an internal mechanism to buffer some of this hydrogen. A recent study actually demonstrated a change in blood pH as well, moving it more towards the acidic side of things (which is the result of and increase in hydrogen ions), so a more "basic" supplement, that could help in the buffering process may be effective.
A recent study published by the American College of Sports Medicine's journal, Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, took a look at the effects of sodium bicarbonate (e.g., baking soda) on sprint performance.
Researchers sought out to determine the effects of sodium bicarbonate ingestion on an intermittent sprint test. The sprint was designed to replicate the average sprint profile of a typical team-sport game.
The theory behind this study was similar to what I described earlier. Many team sports require athletes to perform repeated start and stop high-intensity efforts (think basketball, football, field or ice hockey, etc). To perform well, it is crucial that athletes are able to recover between each burst; if not, performance will suffer and the game, event, or competition will be lost.
In this small study, seven female team sport athletes were recruited. None of the subjects were using any other nutritional supplements simultaneously.
The experiment required subjects to be tested on three separate occasions. On day 1, subjects performed a graded exercise test to determine their VO2max.
Forty-eight hours later, in a random, counterbalanced order, subjects then performed the sprint test after the ingestion of sodium bicarbonate (2 * 0.2g/kg doses taken 90 and 20 minutes before the start of the sprint test) or placebo. The next sprint test was separated by one week to provide what's called a washout period.
This was done to ensure there were no residual effects from the supplement on the participants in the study. The researchers felt that one week was enough time to clear any sodium bicarbonate from the blood.
Other supplements, like creatine, for example, take approximately 30 days to clear. After the one week washout period, subjects were given the opposite supplement than the first test.
The sprint test utilized in this study was designed to mimic the average sprint profile of a typical team-sport game. It consisted of two 36-minute "halves" of sprint exercise.
The researchers divided the protocol into 2 minute blocks of sprinting, active recovery, and rest. More specifically, subjects had a 4 second all out sprint, followed by 100 seconds of active recovery, followed by 20 seconds of rest.
Subjects were given a 10 minute passive recovery between the simulated halves.
The dose of sodium bicarb was selected because pilot work suggested there were no negative side effects. It's very important to note that larger doses (0.3 g/kg) dramatically increased GI disturbances (can be very painful GI disturbances). This will surely put a damper on heavy deadlifts. Therefore, it's important to emphasize, more is not better.
There were no significant differences in the total work completed between the two conditions. However, the sodium bicarb group completed a significantly greater amount of work during seven of the 18 sprints in the second half compared to the placebo group. Similarly, the peak power in the sodium bicarb groups was significantly greater in 8 of the 18 sprints during the second half.
The main finding in this study was that pre-exercise ingestion of sodium bicarbonate was effective in buffering the pH of the blood before and during the sprint test. Second was that the supplement was beneficial at selected time points during the second half of the sprint test.
The thought of giving the dose of supplement they did in two times before the workout was novel; no other study has followed this same protocol. Therefore, it's a bit premature to suggest everyone begin taking this same dose in the manner outlined to enhance performance.
Anecdotally, I've heard from a colleague who works with several pro athletes that they actually dilute alka seltzer (same buffering agent) in water and drink this during a workout to prevent cramping. Remember, more is not better; don't blame me when you're pulling a "Harry Dunn" from the bathroom scene in Dumb and Dumber.