If you read things on the internet, you probably come across claims for a new product, supplement, or magic beans that will make you faster on a weekly daily hourly basis.
But baking soda? You know, that stuff you put in your cycling shoes when they reek (unless you’ve given up on that losing battle, as I have) or, you know, bake with (unless you’ve given up on that too, and instead just stand in front of the refrigerator eating everything in sight after your long ride with your cycling shorts still halfway on/off, as I do).
It’s certainly not snake oil. But does it work? And why would we even expect it to work?
The reasoning behind dosing yourself with baking soda (aka sodium bicarbonate) has to do with acid-base physiology and pH. Basically (pun not intended), if exercise induces a mild acidosis, then taking something to “alkalinize” your system (sodium bicarb) has to combat that and make you less fatigued/able to go faster, right?
Whether sodium bicarb works has been studied a decent amount – but before we get there, let’s address the general problem with that new “alkalinizing water” that’s appearing at the grocery store, or anything else that claims it “reduces the acidity of the blood”. Rather than subject you to a boring physiology nerd lecture, I’ve summed up the science in this handy scale:
***Your lungs and kidneys are pretty good at keeping your body at physiological pH, regardless of what you shove down your pie-hole before you exercise***
(And now, without further ado, baking soda.)
Do the studies say it works?
Yes and no – going through the most recent experiments on cyclists, a theme emerges: physiologic changes do appear to occur, but there’s no consistent performance bump. For example: 13 non-cycling trained males rode to exhaustion (at 100% peak power output) 1 hour after ingesting either (1) sodium bicarb solution, (2) caffeine, (3) caffeine + sodium bicarb, or (4) an essentially plain solution. They measured blood pH, base excess, and the concentration of bicarb ions in participants’ blood before and after that time trial – and although these measures of alkalosis were higher in subjects who consumed bicarb, there was no significant difference in time trial performance.1 So, although ingesting bicarb may in fact transiently alter your pH and buffering capacity, it doesn’t necessarily enhance your performance (at least if you’re a non-cycling trained male).
Is it just a placebo effect?
In another study, 8 “recreationally active” males cycled to exhaustion (peak power output test) an hour after drinking either a neutral solution or a sham solution (interpretation: fake baking soda. The sham solution was mixed with carbonated water to replicate the gut fullness and GI discomfort that you would get with drinking sodium bicarb – this, along with the instructions given to participants, set up the expectation in their heads that they were drinking something performance-enhancing).2
It worked. Subjects rated their perceived exertion lower after drinking the sham solution, suggesting that the ergogenic effects seen in some studies may attributable to having the expectation that it’s going to help you in the first place (yes, the placebo effect), rather than any actual alteration of your cardiorespiratory physiology.
Is Our Timing Just Off?
Maybe sodium bicarb does have an effect, and we’re just missing the right time window – you know, like taking your caffeine/sugar/meldonium way too early before your race, and then wondering why it’s not working.
To eliminate any questions about timing, another study had 11 people come into the lab early, drink their baking soda, and then be stuck with a needle at regular time intervals to see when each person’s pH and bicarb level peaked. They then used that peak time to dose bicarb for the subsequent cycling sessions: 10 x 6 second sprints, with 60 seconds of recovery in between each. So with everything perfectly timed, they did find some significant differences with sodium bicarb – total work done was higher, although there was no increase in peak power output in these 11 subjects.3
So what’s an athlete to do with all these conflicting studies?
The hallmark of solid science is replicability. If you can’t repeat a test and get the same result, how are we supposed to believe that the effect is real, and not due to random chance?
So what happens when you put another 15 active men through a cycling max capacity test after either sodium bicarb or placebo – not once, but 6 times?
If you were one of those 15 men, your performance was on average higher after sodium bicarb in only 1 of the 6 trials. 5 people improved in none. This is despite the fact that blood pH and bicarbonate excess did go up after every single sodium bicarb ingestion trial. Total work done during the cycling tests did not significantly improve with sodium bicarb during any trial.4 So again, although your blood gets a little more basic, no performance effect – and now observed over 6 separate tests on the same people. Besides being another nail in the coffin for chugging baking soda before your next ride, this suggests that we should be cautious when looking at the results of single-test studies of the effects of sodium bicarb.
The Bottom Line
So far, there’s no convincing evidence that drinking a baking soda solution is going to reduce your time to exhaustion or otherwise make you faster. The fact that you do see the right changes in your blood chemistry but still no (consistent, replicable) performance effect is particularly uninspiring. However, keep in mind that the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence. On the scale of things you can put in your body that are possibly performance enhancing, baking soda is pretty benign – you may experience some GI distress, but USADA is not going to come after you for this one. If you’re chasing those marginal gains and are willing to do some self-experimentation – hey, give it a go.
- Higgins MF, Wilson S, Hill C, Price MJ, Duncan M, Tallis J. (2016) Evaluating the effects of caffeine and sodium bicarbonate, ingested individually or in combination, and a taste-matched placebo on high-intensity cycling capacity in healthy males. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. Apr;41(4):354-61. doi: 10.1139/apnm-2015-0371. Epub 2016 Mar 17.
- Higgins MF, Shabir A. (2016) Expectancy of ergogenicity from sodium bicarbonate ingestion increases high-intensity cycling capacity. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. Apr;41(4):405-10. doi: 10.1139/apnm-2015-0523. Epub 2016 Feb 10.
- Miller, P, Robinson, AL, Sparks, SA, Bridge, CA, Bentley, DJ, and McNaughton, LR. (2016) The effects of novel ingestion of sodium bicarbonate on repeated sprint ability. J Strength Cond Res 30(2): 561-568. 2016.
- Froio de Araujo Dias G,da Eira Silva V,de Salles Painelli V, Sale C, Giannini Artioli G, Gualano B, Saunders B. (In)Consistencies in Responses to Sodium Bicarbonate Supplementation: A Randomised, Repeated Measures, Counterbalanced and Double-Blind Study. PLoS One. 2015 Nov 17;10(11):e0143086. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0143086. eCollection 2015.