UNUSUAL SUPPLEMENT FOR EXERCISE PERFORMANCE

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This is an article that I’ve wanted to write for a long time. I have consumed baking soda for exercise performance for about four years. Anytime I mention it, I have to explain how it works and how to do it. However, out of everyone that I’ve explained it to and got to try it, I don’t believe any stuck with it due to one major drawback—the taste. The main purpose of this article is to present some possibilities for combating the awful taste of baking soda, but first I need to explain how it benefits exercise performance.

 

WHAT IS BAKING SODA?

Baking soda is a salt made of sodium ions and bicarbonate ions (NaHCO3). It is also known as sodium bicarbonate (NOT baking powder) and typically presents as an odorless, fine, white powder that can be found in most supermarkets for about one dollar per pound.

 

WHAT IS BAKING SODA USED FOR?

In recent years, baking soda is one of the products touted to have tons of magical health benefits. It won’t cure cancer (though it can help prevent injuries during chemotherapy), but it does have many other uses. Baking soda can be used for numerous applications, including to soothe insect bites or other skin irritation; to whiten and clean teeth in addition to, or instead of, toothpaste; and to react with acidic ingredients in recipes and form gas bubbles (carbon dioxide, CO2), which is an important ingredient for getting some baked goods to rise. As stated in the introduction, this article will focus on the exercise performance benefits of baking soda.

 

HOW DOES BAKING SODA WORK?

For anyone that doesn’t care how baking soda works or doesn’t have much knowledge of chemistry, feel free to skip this section because this will go into detail on the chemical process. For the general idea, check the summary at the end of the article.

Blood pH normally remains around 7.4 in a healthy individual and the pH in the muscles is around 7 at rest. The muscles contract optimally around this pH. During high-intensity exercise, demands for energy require the muscles to utilize anaerobic respiration to keep up. Anaerobic respiration creates lactic acid as a waste product (the burning feeling towards the end of a set). Lactic acid, being an acid, lowers the pH below what is optimal in the muscle cells for contraction. The lower pH limits further energy production and hinders the ability for the muscle cells to contract, leading to fatigue.

In chemistry, baking soda is known as a buffer; it is a weak base that can prevent pH from dropping when an acid (such as lactic acid) is added to the solution. Consuming baking soda can, therefore, keep the muscle cells at optimal pH for a longer time. This means (in terms of lifting) more reps before fatigue. More reps over time mean better muscle and strength gains, similar to how creatine increases exercise performance over time.

 

BETA-ALANINE

Beta-alanine is a “proven” supplement that is common in most pre workout supplements; it’s the ingredient that gives the tingling feeling about 15 minutes after taking the pre workout. This offers that nice feedback loop so people can form habits because they can “feel” it working. Beta-alanine works in a similar way as baking soda, keeping pH from getting too acidic and causing fatigue. However, beta-alanine works inside the muscle cells by replenishing stores of Carnosine—the intracellular buffer. This pathway works as well, but to a much lower effect; beta-alanine offers a median increase of 2.85% to the exercise performance compared to baking soda’s 27% increase in back squat reps and 6% increase in bench press reps. Similar increases are seen in sprinting and rowing. The more large muscles involved, the higher the effect, as seen with the much higher increase in back squat reps vs. bench press reps.

For a one pound container of beta alanine, the cost is around $20. In comparison, a one pound box of baking soda is around $1. Not only is baking soda more effective than beta-alanine, it is also significantly cheaper. However, in paying more for the container of beta-alanine, consumers typically also receive flavors in the product that make it much more palatable.  Baking soda has an awful taste, which can be a huge downside.

 

DOSE AND TIMING

The full dose for optimal performance gains is 0.33 grams per kg of bodyweight. However, I would use calculated ideal bodyweight rather than actual bodyweight, especially for anyone considered overweight or obese by BMI. The formulas for ideal bodyweight are:

  • Males—50 kg+2.3 kg for every inch over 60 inches (5 feet tall)
    • Ex: 84 kg (185 lb) male that is 5’9”. 50 kg+2.3(9)=70.7 kg ideal bodyweight
  • Females—45.5 kg+2.3 for every inch over 60 inches
    • Ex: 60 kg (132 lb) female that is 5’3”. 45.5+2.3(3)=52.4 kg ideal bodyweight

The ideal bodyweight would then be used for the dosing. For example, the male’s dose would be 23.3 grams and the female’ dose would be 17.3 grams.

Doses should be taken between 60 and 90 minutes before exercise. I typically start taking my dose about 90 minutes out and finish the full dose about 60 minutes before I get to the gym.

Even though the optimal dose is 0.33 grams per kg, I would start with about half that dose for the first few workouts you try it. This can let you see your tolerance for consuming baking soda and help to avoid adverse effects.

 

SIDE EFFECTS

Baking soda does not have many side effects and the severe ones are only with very high doses (much higher than the dose I recommended above). Typical side effects someone may see are burping (due to the gas bubbles formed when the baking soda reacts with stomach acid), nausea, or diarrhea. Starting with a lower dose to see how the body tolerates the baking soda will help with side effects. Other ways to help are by consuming plenty of water and spread out ingestion over more time.

 

SODIUM INTAKE

Some examples for the variation in sodium loss through sweat.

One factor many people are wary of is the amount of sodium in baking soda; it’s about one-fourth sodium by weight. This means our example male from above consuming 23.3 grams of baking soda would ingest about 6 grams of sodium. However, a 2010 study in NFL players found that they lost between 0.642 grams and 6.7 grams of sodium per hour of exercise. I know that likely no one reading this is an NFL player or doing workouts with that level of intensity, but it gives an idea of the sodium loss through sweating during exercise. Sodium is very important for exercise performance, so this increased consumption from baking soda is beneficial for athletes, not detrimental.

Another fear is the amount of sodium intake on blood pressure. A study from 1990 compared baking soda consumption (NaCO3) to table salt consumption (NaCl) in terms of the effect on blood pressure. The study found that baking soda did not raise blood pressure; in fact, it even lowered it slightly (by about 5 mmHg). To add anecdotal experience to this, I once had a nurse question the effect on my blood pressure because she was concerned by how much baking soda I consume. She immediately retrieved her blood pressure cuff and checked my blood pressure, finding it to be about 10 mmHg lower than what my typical blood pressure runs. Obviously this is one nurse checking the blood pressure of one subject, leaving room for plenty of variables.

METHODS TO HELP TASTE

Now we have arrived at the practical methods for consuming baking soda. As I mentioned, I have been consuming baking soda for about four years. The taste is awful and it takes serious dedication and some experimentation to keep it up. To save everyone some time and awful taste, here are a few methods I have experimented with to help the taste.

  • Tablets/capsules: taking the doses in forms of tablets or capsules makes the taste factor almost completely irrelevant. However, even though the taste isn’t as much of a factor, cost and number of tablets/capsules you have to consume become factors. A thousand count bottle of 650 mg sodium bicarbonate tablets costs a little over $30; that’s $30 for about a pound and a half of baking soda compared to a dollar per pound at Walmart for the powder. You would also be consuming about 38 tablets every time you wanted to exercise, which is a burden.
  • Dilute the baking soda in more water: pretty simple idea; add more water to dilute the baking soda and make the taste less intense. When I used this method, I would mix about 24 oz. (a full shaker bottle) with the baking soda and sip on it for about 45 minutes (because that’s how long it took to finish the whole amount). The taste was still pretty bad but doable. Since the volume of water was more, it took a longer time to drink and more sips=more bad tastes.
  • Mix with non-acidic beverage: I have tried mixing the baking soda with other beverages to mask the taste. I have tried my chocolate whey protein as well as whole milk. However, the sour taste doesn’t go away, so it just makes your beverage taste worse. I didn’t try this method for long because it just started to ruin my enjoyment of the other beverages.
  • Add lemon juice: this method involves mixing the baking soda with water like normal, then adding a tablespoon of lemon juice. Since lemon juice is about 5% citric acid, you will have to add a little more baking soda (the citric acid will react with the baking soda), but the flavor is a little better than pure baking soda. It can still be a bad taste, but especially if you enjoy lemon flavor, this option is a decent one to try.
  • Shots directly into mouth: this method is the one I currently use and have settled on for a while. It involves taking shots like how people will often take pre workout shots directly into their mouth and mix it with water. About three grams of baking soda is placed into the front of the mouth using a small pre workout scoop. A small volume of water is then added. I then lean forward to keep the water/baking soda mix in the front of my mouth by my teeth and swish it slowly. After a couple seconds, swallow the slurry mixture; it is unlikely it will be fully dissolved but that’s not important. I usually take a second drink of more water to clear out whatever was left. Keeping the mixture in the front of the mouth while swishing and swallowing helps keep the taste manageable (even non-existent if done perfectly). The taste can still be similar to just mixing baking soda in a lot of water, but using this method, it would only take around 8 scoops to finish the whole dose. This makes it faster time-wise and less taste compared to the hundreds of sips with the water method, though I still recommend sipping water between doses to help prevent the side effects. I also time my breathing while swallowing the doses. I take two deep breathes and at the end of the exhale of the second breathe is when I swallow the mixture. During exhalation, the heart rate decreases and the part of the nervous system for resting and relaxing is active. I have found the addition of the timed breathing to make it easier to swallow the mixture and mask the taste.

 

  • Check out the video on the methods here, where I show exactly how I do the baking soda shots.I hope this background knowledge and practical methods for baking soda were useful for anyone interested in the topic. Feel free to experiment with other methods yourself and let me know how they go in the comments. I could always use more ideas to make it easier to consume large quantities of baking soda.

 

SUMMARY:

  • Baking soda acts as a buffer and prevents the buildup of lactic acid in the muscles, allowing for more contractions before fatigue
  • Consuming baking soda may offer benefits to exercise performance
  • Baking soda offers similar benefits as beta-alanine but to a higher magnitude and at a fraction of the cost
  • I recommend starting with a dose of 0.2 grams/kg of IDEAL bodyweight to help prevent digestive issues
  • After a week, slowly increase the dose to the full dose of 0.33 grams/kg of IDEAL bodyweight
  • Doses should be consumed 60-90 minutes before exercise
  • Consuming large amounts of baking soda is awful; taste is the biggest hurdle
  • Some methods to help with the taste factor (see video for visual instruction of these):
    • Take tablets/capsules
    • Mix with more water
    • Mix with a non-acidic beverage
    • Add a tablespoon of lemon juice
    • Take shots directly into the mouth and swish with water

 

REFERENCES:

Hobson RM, Saunders B, Ball G, Harris RC, Sale C. “Effects of β-alanine supplementation on exercise performance: a meta-analysis.” Amino Acids. 2012 Jul;43(1):25-37.

Duncan MJ, Weldon A, Price MJ. The effect of sodium bicarbonate ingestion on back squat and bench press exercise to failure. J Strength Cond Res. 2013 Oct 11.

Godek SF, Peduzzi C, Burkholder R, Condon S, Dorshimer G, Bartolozzi AR. “Sweat rates, sweat sodium concentrations, and sodium losses in 3 groups of professional football players.” Journal of athletic training 45.4 (2010): 364.

Luft FC, Zemel MB, Sowers JA, Fineberg NS, Weinberger MH. “Sodium bicarbonate and sodium chloride: effects on blood pressure and electrolyte homeostasis in normal and hypertensive man.” Journal of hypertension 8.7 (1990): 663-670.