Many athletes are supplementing with sodium bicarbonate to enhance their performance, and here’s why. Your body tries very hard to maintain a slightly basic pH between 7.35 and 7.45 to optimize all of your biological processes, especially blood oxygenation and aerobic cellular respiration. Your body maintains pH balance by regulating carbon dioxide through the respiratory system and by reabsorbing bicarbonate and excreting it through the urinary tract system (1).
However, during high-intensity exercise, your body cannot meet its demand for oxygen and must rely on your anaerobic energy system to produce energy in the form of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) (2). This process primarily uses glycogen for quick energy but results in the performance limiting byproduct of lactate. The hydrogen ions in lactate are theorized to cause the burning sensation in your muscles by creating an increasing acidic environment (acidosis) when you reach your anaerobic threshold. As you train this system, your kidneys will naturally produce more bicarbonate (HCO3) to buffer the buildup of hydrogen ions. This will allow you to keep a neutral blood pH for a longer period of time (3).
Supplementing baking soda before exercise can help flood your system with more bicarbonate, allowing your body to neutralize the acidic pH levels in your muscles faster and more efficiently to allow you to perform at a higher level (1).
Sodium bicarbonate (NaHCO3) is a white, crystalline alkaline powder with the pH of 8.4 and has the ability to neutralize acidic components (3). Based on a comprehensive meta-analysis of the literature by International Society of Sports Nutrition, sodium bicarbonate supplementation increased exercise performance in numerous muscular endurance activities, such as cycling, running, swimming, rowing, crossfit, various combat sports (boxing, judo, karate, taekwondo, and wrestling), high-intensity interval training (HIIT), and other skill based sports (4). The effects of sodium bicarbonate are well studied, safe, and effective, with minimal side effects (5).
According to a meta-analysis, sodium bicarbonate supplementation can improve your mean power output by 1.7% in high-intensity short duration races (6). The ergogenic effects of sodium bicarbonate are best for vigorous activities lasting between 30 seconds and 12 minutes, because your body is primarily using the lactic acid system. Research has also shown that sodium bicarbonate supplementation can increase muscular endurance during repeated high-intensity exercise intervals.
In one study, baking soda supplementation was shown to likely be beneficial for performance in 2000 meter rowing events, particularly during the second half of the event (7).
However, the longer the exercise duration increases, the more your body relies on your aerobic energy system, which does not necessitate supplementing a buffer to acidity as much (6).
Baking soda can both help exercise performance by decreasing muscle fatigue and increasing power output (4). However, there may also be a psychological placebo effect at play, since the baking soda will dampen the feeling of muscle fatigue, leading to better overall performance (8).
The recommended dose is between 0.2 grams and 0.5 grams per kilogram of body weight with the optimal dosage being around 300 mg per kg of body weight of baking soda, because it offers the most benefit with the least amount of side effects (5).
The timing of the supplementation has a high degree of variability between individuals. However, it is possible for athletes to maximize peak performance by fine tuning their ingestion of baking soda (5). The general, single-day supplementation protocol is to consume your dosage of baking soda between 60 and 180 minutes before beginning exercise. It can be done in a large, single dose or in multiple smaller doses (5). Multiple-day protocols of sodium bicarbonate supplementation can also be effective for improving exercise performance. By ingesting smaller, 100mg to 200mg servings of baking soda between 3 and 7 days before your event, you can limit the risk of sodium bicarbonate side effects on the day of your event.
If you want to increase the performance-enhancing power of baking soda, you can combine it with caffeine, beta-alanine, and/or creatine. A study involving 6 elite 200 meter swimmers showed that performance improved by consuming both baking soda and caffeine (9).
A double-blind placebo study involving a group of healthy trained men who performed 6 intervals of maximum, 10 second sprint intervals with 60 seconds rest on a fixed cycling bike found that sodium bicarbonate (SB) with creatine (CR) increased performance. In the SB+CR trial, peak power increased by 7% as opposed to the CR trial, which only increased it by 4%. Also, SB+CR trials maintain relative peak power longer than the other groups (10).
A crossover study involving 16 swimmers found a high probability that coingestion of both beta-alanine and sodium bicarbonate lead to increased performance, with 6 of 7 athletes studied swimming faster after BA supplementation (11). However, more research still needs to be done.
The major downside of ingesting baking soda is that some athletes experience gastrointestinal distress. Baking Soda reacts to stomach acid by producing salt, water, and carbon dioxide. The excess CO2 can have side effects, such as nausea, bloating, gas, and abdominal pain. It can also cause other unfavorable symptoms, such as diarrhea or even vomiting if too much is consumed (12).
If you would like to try supplementing baking soda, you should start with a relatively small dosage at least 2 hours before exercise to see how your body reacts. Then, you can gradually increase your dosage and optimize the timing (13).