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Should You Use Baking Soda for Sports Performance – with DIGESTION in Mind discusses a seemingly newer trend and supplement option for athletes: taking a dose of baking soda before workouts for better endurance and performance.
Happily, this practice has been studied for over 80 years! So we have a lot of studies on the topic. (source)
But — we also discuss how taking baking soda for sports affects digestion!
If you’ve been working on your digestion for a while, you probably already know that baking soda does not support digestion, in fact, just the opposite. So then, how to safely use it for exercise performance?
In this article we discuss:
- Why baking soda is used to enhance sports performance
- How to use baking soda to enhance sports performance
- When and how to take baking soda in water (dosage and recipe)
- How to protect and support your digestion while including baking soda
- Natural alternatives to baking soda that are gentler on digestion and increase athletic performance
- What our family is doing
Should you use baking soda for sports performance
First of all, don’t add baking soda to the water you plan to drink WHILE you’re exercising — unless:
- you’ve been using it for a while and know how your body responds to it
- and, you plan to exercise for MORE than one hour
If you use it, most research shows it’s most effective when taken 60 to 180 minutes before certain kinds of exercise: those who are doing endurance sports, such as running, wrestling, swimming, cycling and rowing. Not weight lifting necessarily, although sources disagree.
Including baking soda in your water before you exercise has been shown to enhance sports performance and endurance, especially in high intensity sports and activities.
How does baking soda work
Our body before exercise
Different parts of our bodies are regulated to maintain various pH levels. Primarily our kidneys and lungs maintain this balance.
However, high intensity exercise is one external factor that can throw off this balance.
How exercise affects the pH of our bodies
During heavy exercise, when oxygen levels reach a minimum, the body’s cellular energy source, adenosine triphosphate (ATP), needs an anaerobic pathway.
A major byproduct of the anaerobic pathway is hydrogen. Too much hydrogen decreases the pH of muscles, creating an acidic environment.
If you’ve heard of lactic acid build-up, some newer researchers no longer think in these terms, but they do recognize the acidity of the muscles and the pH change after strenuous exercise.
How baking soda affects the pH of our bodies
Also called sodium bicarbonate, it works by decreasing acidity in working muscles — which prevents cramping and other muscular limitations that often present during endurance exercise.
Being an alkaline substance, with a pH of 8.4, means that baking soda in the blood stream allows acid from the muscles to move out, thus returning the cells to their normal pH (closer to 7); OR, some researchers now say baking soda buffers the excess hydrogen, clearing acid out of muscle cells.
By restoring the muscles’ pH, baking soda helps with muscle strength and endurance.
In summary: Baking soda reduces acidity in the entire body, profoundly affecting muscles where most of the acid and hydrogen build-up take place.
What’s the research on baking soda and performance
Studies on baking soda and exercise started in the 1930s. But impressive studies got more athletes’ attention starting in 2008 and 2010 with testing done on swimmers and tennis players.
This impressive study showed its benefits for sprinters, at a dosage of 300 mg/kg body weight. Specifically, results showed increased “average power” with the number of repetitions:
‘Peak power’ output was also greater in the bicarbonate trials with it being significantly higher … during the final ten-second sprint. It was concluded that during exercise consisting of repeated, short-duration sprints, power output was enhanced following the ingestion of sodium bicarbonate …
Another study of middle-distance runners who took baking soda before an 800-meter run showed an improvement, on average, of 2.9 seconds! (source)
Other similar studies exist as well.
Dosage of baking soda
Baking soda should be taken 60 to 90 (or up to 180) minutes before exercise.
Research suggests that the most effective dose is 0.3 grams. But if you’re new to using it, consider starting with a smaller dose first to see how it affects you: 0.1 or 0.2 grams.
Some athletes combine it with creatine. The average recommended dose is: 20 g of creatine + 300 mg of baking soda per kg of body weight. (source)
Body weight in pounds
To figure out baking soda dosage based on body weight in pounds, use this formula:
- Baking soda in grams, so .3 grams x body weight in pounds (example, 175 pounds) = 23.7 grams
- A good starting place if you haven’t taken baking soda for exercise before may be closer to 15 g, stirred into 8 ounces of water.
Make sure you don’t have a reaction before you increase your dose.
Baking soda and water recipe (in teaspoons, too)
Although often given in measurements of grams and milligrams, I think it’s a LOT more helpful for many of us in the U.S. to include a recipe that uses teaspoons and cups.
For a single dose that’s to be taken just once a day — while it should be figured based on body weight, I’ll give you an approximation in teaspoons:
- possible starting dose: 3 teaspoons of baking soda (14.4 g) –> closer to recommended dose for athletes: 4 teaspoons (19.2 g)
- 1 cup of water (200 ml)
Simply stir together so the baking soda dissolves, and drink.
Most athletes benefit from a 20-gram serving.
Some people prefer taking baking soda capsules, which you can find here. Just make sure the brand you choose has only one ingredient: baking soda. Several companies add unnatural fillers.
Potential GI and digestion issues
Few, but some people, especially those with existing GI issues, experience side effects such as vomiting, bloating, diarrhea and gas when taking baking soda for exercise benefits.
As you may already know, baking soda should never be taken with meals high in protein (or fat), because it reduces the acidity of the stomach (a higher pH number), and the stomach needs more acid to digest meat.
When not digesting foods, the proper pH of the stomach is about 1.5 to 3 (very acidic).
During digestion of meats and fats, the stomach’s acidity decreases at first (to about 5), but goes back to around 2 or 3 again as digestive juices are released — which bitters help to stimulate. (I talk more about bitters below.)
Taking baking soda at this point would totally sabotage the process, making the stomach more alkaline, a pH of 5 to 7.
Tips for baking soda and digestion
1. If you struggle with any GI symptoms from taking baking soda water on an empty stomach or right before exercise, you may be able to:
- take baking soda with a carbohydrate-rich meal
- spread small doses throughout the day/sip on it
- or take enteric-coated capsules.
But, don’t neglect eating protein for the sake of taking baking soda. Try to find the right balance to include both, if you find it helps your athletic performance.
2. Take digestive bitters with your meals that contain protein and/or fat. This ensures:
- the pH of your stomach will be correct for the digestion of meals (even though you’re taking baking soda at other times in the day).
Here’s how to make your own EASY and best digestive bitters (takes 5 minutes). Or here‘s the best one to buy.
Time frame of when to space out taking baking soda
Wait 2 to 3 hours after your protein meal before taking your baking soda and then exercising. By this time, the food from your stomach will have moved into your intestines. (If you have slow digestion, you could wait 3 to 4 hours before taking baking soda and exercising.)
This is the strategy we’ll take with my son. It’s hard because he eats super often (growing boy, always hungry!). But, he will typically eat fruit or carbs shortly before training. So that works well if he drinks the baking soda water near that time (but eats protein 2 to 3 hours earlier).
Though sodium bicarbonate’s benefits sound exciting, talk to your doctor to see if it’s a good fit for your body.
Alternatives to baking soda that are gentler on digestion
If you’d like to consider other natural and low cost alternatives to baking soda, here are three:
Beta-Alanine is a non-essential amino acid. It may be a gentler, yet still inexpensive, alternative to baking soda — with none of the GI symptoms. However, there may be other unsafe effects …
Quick features on Beta-Alanine:
- CONS: 1) Causes a tingling, itching sensation as it begins to work. This may be very irritating for some people. This is not understood by the medical community, but given how it works (see below), I think we can easily see why this happens and the potential dangers. In my opinion, B-A related tingling and itching are similar to the “niacin flush” and indicate a histamine reaction, which none of us wants to cultivate regularly. Taking a lower dosage of 800 mg at a time may help prevent this sensation, but may also decrease the supplement’s effectiveness. (source) Divided doses or sustained release products may be good options. B-A does need to build up in the system, so don’t plan to see results immediately. Allow 2 to 6 weeks for results. 2) May elevate blood pressure.
- PROS: Forms Carnosine: Carnosine delays the onset of acid in the muscles and allows for longer workout sessions and improved exercise performance. (source)
- TIPS: Consider taking B-A with meals, as it seems to increase carnosine more when taken with food. (source) Most results have been reported at doses of 2 to 5 grams daily, after 2 to 6 weeks of supplementation.
- HOW IT WORKS: Binds to the histadine in one’s muscles to form carnosine. Histadine is an amino acid and a key component of the body for regulating the pH of the blood, repair, healing and detox of heavy metals (source). While carnosine is a good thing, I’m not sure that binding histadine is the best way to accomplish that end:
Histidine regulates the immune defense in the body, allergic reactions and inflammatory processes, so a deficiency of L-histidine can lead to an increased tendency towards infection and the aggravation of symptoms of allergies.
Find a good Beta-Alanine here.
Or, a great sustained release product here, which I think is a better option — no, or very few, tingles, but still delivers results. (But may still raise blood pressure in some people.)
Personally, I think there need to be some long term studies on the use of B-A to assure me it won’t cause more inflammation and disease in the long run.
2. Cordyceps (my personal choice)
Quick features of Cordyceps for exercise performance:
- Potential CONS: It is a vasodilator, dilating the blood vessels (thereby increasing blood flow and supporting endurance). For some, this can reduce blood pressure too much, resulting in dizziness. While this is not common, consider starting with a lower dosage than is recommended, and increase if it’s right for your body. (Of course, reduced blood pressure is a benefit for some people!)
- PROS: Cordyceps are a natural energy booster. This mushroom-based super food supplement helps to support cardiovascular function. It delivers more blood and oxygen to the muscles faster, which allows more oxygen to reach all the cells in the body resulting in better cell function and performance. In studies, cordyceps have been shown to help athletes exercise longer and with more intensity. (source) Cordyceps are gentle (for most people) and effective.
- TIPS: It’s recommended to take cordyceps about 1 hour before a workout. If well tolerated, athletes typically consume and maintain 2 grams (2000 mg) daily.
- HOW IT WORKS: Cordyceps mushrooms produce their benefits due to a protein they contain: cordycepin. This protein is an adenosine derivative and helps to produce ATP, which we mention above: it’s the body’s cellular energy source. Thus, the energy boost!
- DOSAGE: For athletes, dosage is 1.5 to 3 grams. As mentioned, I think it’s best to start with the smaller amount to be sure there’s no dizziness.
Here’s the Cordyceps powder we use and buy. (Use code BEAUTIFUL10 at checkout for 10% off your entire purchase.) My husband uses cordyceps in the afternoons similar to how some people use coffee, but for a more natural steady pick-me-up. It works well for him. I used cordyceps for years to help restore my body’s core energy.
3. Beet powder
Quick features on beetroot powder and how it works:
Many of beet powder’s benefits comes from its nitrate content. Nitrate occurs in other foods as well, but is very concentrated in beets. Nitrate is converted into nitric oxide when consumed — which increases nitric oxide levels in the body.
Nitric oxide causes increased blood flow, increased oxygen transportation, improved lung function and stronger muscle contraction.
- CONS: Beets are high in oxalic acid. A diet high in oxalates, or regular consumption of beet powder, can lead to many chronic health issues. Long term regular use of beet powder is not something I personally would do. Beet powder is also a vasodilator, so be cautious with reduced blood pressure and potential dizziness. (Of course, reduced blood pressure is a benefit for some people!)
- PROS: 1) Beet powder is a whole food supplement, with just one ingredient: beets. Choose organic, or you’ll get GM. Beet juice and whole cooked beets also have similar benefits. 2) Beet powder can deliver quick results! As the nitric oxide takes effect, this supplement has obvious workout benefits for many people.
Here’s a great (and the best) organic beet powder, grown and processed in the U.S.!
A small group of athletes have discovered the powerful combination of using cordyceps and beet root powder together for their synergistic effect. Together they increase the amount of oxygen in the blood, improve delivery of it to the muscles and boost muscular energy.
Gentle movement that reduces acid in the muscles
Try these methods, which are not supplements, to reduce acid in muscles:
- Decrease exercise intensity
- Take deep breaths during exercise
- Do low-intensity movements, such as yoga, walking, biking or foam rolling
Concluding thoughts and — what our family is doing
My oldest teen athlete is now competing at a higher level and sometimes runs into build-up of acid/hydrogen in his leg muscles. His challenge is what prompted my research on the topic.
Another athlete’s dad is the one who told me about the cordyceps-beet combo he used for himself during his track years. I am more curious about beet alternatives that deliver the same (nitric oxide) effect without the oxalates or extra vitamin A (which also builds up in the system), something like L-arginine.
L-arginine may increase oxygen delivery to muscles and decrease acid build-up. Unfortunately, the studies are not very reassuring.
On the other hand, one study showed that Beta-Alanine’s ability to produce carnosine also elevates nitric oxide levels. And taking Beta-Alanine may produce more carnosine than taking carnosine itself. (source)
Cordyceps (and baking soda) for our family
Is using baking soda to increase performance cheating?
My son isn’t sure he likes the idea of baking soda, both morally and physically. He feels if there’s something like creatine that helps him to reach his training goals and maintain them, then that’s better than a temporary boost for performance that requires daily ongoing use.
However, he concedes that the point of baking soda is not necessarily the improved times, to beat the competition. It’s to remove the limitations that excess acid in the muscles causes. And, there are many methods of addressing this problem that are considered morally sound. Baking soda is just one possible aid.
He also doesn’t like the idea of drinking 3 teaspoons of it! 😉
For now, we’re just trying out cordyceps. We may try baking soda in the future.
While my son’s not so sure about baking soda, I’m not sure I can trust Beta-Alanine’s effect on histadine.
I’ll definitely update this post when we have more personal experience to report back. In the meantime, I’ll keep researching other options as well. (For those doing the VAD diet [with us], we have one more option we’re using. Feel free to email me if you’re doing VAD and would like more information on it.)
I’d love to hear any personal experiences you’ve had with these supplements. Please share below in the Comments.
Other cautions with taking baking soda
- Baking soda not only interferes with how the body digests foods. It also affects how the body absorbs some medications. For this reason, it should not be taken within 2 hours of prescriptions. Once again, baking soda lowers stomach acid levels, which means it interferes with the body’s ability to break down and absorb supplements.
- Large doses can increase blood pH above normal — which may result in muscle spasms and/or disturbance of the heart rhythm.
- Pregnant or breastfeeding women should avoid sodium bicarbonate.
- People with kidney problems, heart disease or a history of electrolyte issues should also avoid this supplement.
- Talk to your doctor. 🙂