Sodium bicarbonate, also known as baking soda, is a popular household product. It has many uses, ranging from cooking to cleaning and personal hygiene. However, sodium bicarbonate may also provide some interesting health benefits. Many athletes and gym-goers use it to help them perform during intense training. This detailed guide explains everything you need to know about sodium bicarbonate and exercise performance.
What is Sodium Bicarbonate?
Sodium bicarbonate has the chemical formula NaHCO3. It's a mildly alkaline salt made up of sodium and bicarbonate ions.
Sodium bicarbonate is also known as baking soda, bread soda, bicarbonate of soda and cooking soda. It is commonly found in nature, dissolved in mineral springs.
However, it is best recognized as the white, odorless, non-flammable powder you can find in your local supermarket.
How pH Affects Exercise Performance
In chemistry, pH is a scale used to grade how acidic or alkaline (basic) a solution is.
A pH of 7.0 is considered neutral. Anything lower than 7.0 is acidic and anything above that is alkaline.
As humans, our pH is naturally close to neutral. It normally stays around 7.4 in blood and 7.0 in muscle cells.
You function best when your acid-alkaline balance remains close to this target, which is why your body has various ways to maintain these levels.
However, certain diseases or external factors can disrupt this balance. One of these factors is high-intensity exercise, also known as anaerobic exercise.
During anaerobic exercise, your body's demand for oxygen exceeds the available supply. As a result, your muscles cannot rely on oxygen to produce energy.
Instead, they must switch to a different pathway — the anaerobic pathway.
Creating energy through the anaerobic pathway produces lactic acid. Too much lactic acid decreases your muscle cells' pH below the optimal 7.0 .
This disrupted balance limits energy production and may also reduce your muscles' ability to contract. Both of these effects ultimately lead to fatigue, which reduces exercise performance
How Sodium Bicarbonate Helps Maintain pH
Sodium bicarbonate has an alkaline pH of 8.4 and can therefore raise your blood pH slightly.
Higher blood pH allows acid to move from muscle cells into the bloodstream, returning their pH to 7.0. This enables the muscles to continue contracting and producing energy .
Scientists believe this is the primary way that sodium bicarbonate can help you exercise harder, faster or for longer.
How Does Sodium Bicarbonate Affect Sports Performance?
Scientists have examined how sodium bicarbonate affects exercise performance for more than 8 decades.
Not all studies published to date show the same effects, but the majority agree that it is beneficial .
Sodium bicarbonate is especially helpful for high-intensity exercise that lasts between 1 and 7 minutes and involves large muscle groups .
Additionally, most improvements seem to take place near the end of a workout. For example, a recent study observed a 1.5-second performance improvement in the last 1,000 meters of a 2,000-meter (1.24-mile) rowing event.
The results are similar for cycling, sprinting, swimming and team sports .
However, the benefits can vary from person to person. They may also depend on the type of activity, gender, personal tolerance and training level .
Finally, only a few studies have examined how sodium bicarbonate affects endurance exercise, and not of them all found benefits .
More research is needed to explore this topic before recommendations can be made.
How Does it Affect Interval Training?
Interval training is when a person alternates between intense and less-intense exercise during a single session.
Some examples of this type of training include forms of running, cycling, rowing, swimming, Olympic weightlifting and CrossFit.
Studies that looked at this type of exercise found that sodium bicarbonate helped prevent decreases in performance .
This generally led to overall improvements of 1.7–8% .
Interval training is very common in many sports, and studies find that sodium bicarbonate intake can benefit judo, swimming, boxing and tennis.
Finally, the ability of sodium bicarbonate to help you push through the final stages of your workout may also improve your workout results.
For example, participants who took sodium bicarbonate during an 8-week interval-training program had cycled for 133% longer by the end of the study period .