How Sodium Bicarbonate May Improve Athletic Performance

otherwise known as sodium bicarbonate (NaHCO₃), is a familiar chemical compound. Sodium bicarbonate is a well-known leavening agent for bread, natural cleaning product, and toothpaste ingredient.

You may have a box stashed in your pantry or sitting in the refrigerator. This common baking ingredient has been widely researched and appears to also help our muscles during intense workouts.1 

What is Sodium Bicarbonate?

Baking soda is actually a popular workout supplement. According to the American College of Sports Medicine, sodium bicarbonate is among the leading ergogenic aids.2 Athletes and individuals participating in vigorous exercise are using baking soda to help delay muscle fatigue and improve performance.

Potential Benefits of Baking Soda Supplementation

Sodium bicarbonate (NaHCO₃) supplementation is especially popular during short bouts of high-intensity exercise. Sprinters, swimmers, and rowers have improved performance by taking baking soda prior to their competitive sport. Additional research has indicated baking soda may be beneficial during challenging workouts lasting 30 to 60 minutes.3 

 Why Do Athletes Take Sports Supplements?

Improved Workout Performance

During high-intensity workouts, our body releases chemicals into the muscle tissue. Metabolic byproducts like lactic acid and hydrogen form in the muscle cells. While most of the byproducts are buffered, some do remain in the muscle cells, creating an acidic environment. Acidity is directly related to pH levels in our bodies. Increased acidity alters pH levels causing our muscles to burn and feel fatigued.4

According to research, taking sodium bicarbonate (NaHCO₃) before exercise helps to flush metabolic byproducts from the muscle tissue.

Published in the International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, “NaHCO3 ingestion has been proposed to enhance performance by increasing extracellular buffering capacity.” This means taking baking soda works on a cellular level in our body creating a better chemical environment for our muscles.5 

 Do Pre-Workout Supplements Improve Your Performance?

Balanced pH Levels

Body functioning is optimal when our pH is balanced or neutral.6 Body acidity and alkalinity are measured using pH, a scale running from 0 to 14. Our body is most acidic at zero and most alkaline at 14. The body works hard to maintain a neutral pH of 7. Baking soda ingestion is believed to have the ability to reduce the acidic environment caused by high-intensity exercise.

When the environment in our body becomes too acidic we can experience adverse health effects. The heart, liver, and kidneys can be overworked which can lead to chronic health conditions. Too much acidity can also contribute to muscle impairment and atrophy (wasting).6

Baking soda has become well-known for balancing acidity in the body and serving as good preventative medicine. Athletes and fitness enthusiasts appreciate the health benefits and use it often to power their workouts.  

Improved Athletic Performance

High-intensity exercise signals our body to release hydrogen ions. Hydrogen is a metabolic waste product causing an acidic environment and decreased athletic performance. Research indicates sodium bicarbonate buffers the acids by binding to them. This binding allows for enhanced energy output during challenging workouts.7

When acid levels are maintained at neutral levels, our muscles operate more efficiently. Energy metabolism is increased and studies indicate our muscles can sustain longer workouts. According to the American College of Sports Medicine, baking soda is an effective buffering agent to maintain healthy pH and improve athletic performance.2 

 How Do I Change My Metabolism?

May Benefit HIIT Training

A study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology examined the effects of sodium bicarbonate ingestion during interval training. The research measured how baking soda altered the acidity (hydrogen ions) in muscle tissue during high-intensity exercise.8 Athletic performance was also evaluated.

Research participants included 16 young, healthy, recreationally active women. Testing protocols included muscle biopsies, blood tests, and pre- and post-exercise testing to determine baseline readings. The women were split into two groups and tested for an 8-week trial period at 3 training sessions per week.

Group 1 was given sodium bicarbonate (NaHCO₃) at a 0.2-gram dose per kilogram of body weight 90 and 30 minutes before high-intensity interval training. Group 2 was given a similar dose of placebo. Interval testing was performed on a stationary bike. Participants completed 2-minute sprint intervals progressing in number over the course of testing.

Research results indicate baking soda significantly reduces hydrogen ions in the blood and at the cellular level in muscle tissue. “Furthermore, NaHCO3 ingestion decreases intracellular hydrogen ions during intense continuous and interval exercise.” Also reported was sodium bicarbonate ingestion increases muscle protein synthesis (growth).

According to research, baking soda supplementation may reduce lactic acid during interval training and improve short-term endurance performance. 

 What is Lactic Acid and How Does It Affect Athletic Performance?

Non-Supportive Findings

Research published in the International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism reported the effects of sodium bicarbonate (NaHCO₃) ingestion and interval training in highly trained rowers. This research also measured how baking soda altered the acidity (hydrogen ions) in muscle tissue during high-intensity exercise.9

Study participants included 12 young, healthy Australian competitive rowers. Strict baseline testing was required as part of the research protocol. The rowers completed two high-intensity interval training (HIIT) sessions weekly and over a four-week period.

The participants were split into two groups taking either sodium bicarbonate (0.3-gram dose per kilogram of body weight) or placebo 90-minutes before HIIT. Blood samples were taken throughout the study to measure bicarbonate and pH levels.

Research results indicated no additional improvement in 2000 meter rowing time with sodium bicarbonate ingestion compared to the placebo. However, a small increase in power output for participants using baking soda was detected.

Because the findings in this study were trivial, researchers suggest regular baking soda ingestion during interval training doesn’t greatly enhance performance that much. 

ACSM’s Review

The American College of Sports Medicine published a review on the ergogenic effects of sodium bicarbonate.2 Ergogenic aids to enhance performance are widespread and baking soda supplementation is one of the most popular.

The review was produced to cover important areas of dosage size, the timing of ingestion, and the type of exercise to benefit from the use of baking soda.

Takeaways from the review:

  • Normal, healthy functioning, resting arterial blood pH measures 7.4 and typically 7.0 in human muscle. Intense workouts may drop arterial blood pH to 7.1 and decrease to 6.8 in muscle tissue.
  • The human body remains in pH balance through internal buffering functions controlling the formation and removal of hydrogen ions. Sodium bicarbonate is shown to buffer and protect the body by binding to the hydrogen ions.
  • A sport-specific study on high-intensity exercise, Lindh, A.M et al., indicated improved swim time trials for competitors ingesting sodium bicarbonate 90 minutes prior to their event.
  • Improved athletic performance was observed by Bishop et al. research and during repeated swim sprint intervals for competitors using sodium bicarbonate as an ergogenic aid.
  • It is recommended coaches and athletes test their responses to buffering agents like baking soda for improved athletic performance prior to competing.
  • Sodium bicarbonate supplementation appears to not be tolerated well by approximately 10% of users.
  • There appears to be an optimal sodium bicarbonate dosing of no more than 0.3 grams per kilogram of body weight to avoid gastrointestinal (GI) upset.
  • Research findings may differ because sodium bicarbonate pre-exercise dose and timing are not equivalent. This would be like comparing apples to oranges.
  • It appears both short-term and long-term high-intensity exercise can benefit from sodium bicarbonate supplementation although continued research is warranted.

The primary findings from this review include that athletes performing high-intensity exercise can benefit from baking soda’s effects on increased energy and endurance; and the optimal dose is 0.3 grams per kilogram of body weight.

Recommended Dosage

Research published in the International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism suggests “the best protocol for bicarbonate loading involves the dose 0.3 g/kg eBM of pure NaHCO3.” This appears to be the optimal amount to balance acidity (pH) in the blood and muscle tissue.5

According to the study, it’s also recommended sodium bicarbonate be taken 120 to 150 minutes before exercise and combined with a small high carbohydrate meal. This reduces the chance of unwanted gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms.

Adverse Effects

Research published in the International Journal of Physiology and Sports Performance indicated sodium bicarbonate may not be beneficial for everyone. Four study participants had to discontinue testing because of severe gastrointestinal (GI) distress.

It was also recommended, “individuals should determine whether they respond well to [sodium bicarbonate] supplementation before a competition.”10

Not everyone is able to use sodium bicarbonate to enhance athletic performance. Approximately 10% of users will experience gastrointestinal (GI) distress. Some athletes have tried to divide the recommended 0.3 grams per kilogram of body weight dose throughout the day to eliminate this problem.

Other athletes have reduced the amount of sodium bicarbonate and were successful using 0.2 grams per kilogram of body weight dose prior to exercise.

Some adverse gastrointestinal effects have been noted when taking baking soda. It’s important to start any new supplement regimen in small doses and work with your care provider to determine safety.