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Can NaHCO3 enhance your performance?

Hayley Osborn examines studies on the use of sodium bicarbonate for athletes

Athletes use a variety of nutritional ergogenic aids to enhance performance. Most ergogenic aids can be categorised as a potential energy source, an anabolic enhancer, a cellular component or a recovery aid, Applegate (1999)[1]. This article will discuss research findings and recommendations about the use of sodium bicarbonate (NaHCO3) and provide insight into the benefits and problems with its use as an ergogenic aid.

What is sodium bicarbonate?

Sodium bicarbonate is an alkalising agent that reduces the acidity of the blood by the process of buffering. Buffering results in acid being drawn out from the muscle cells into the blood due to a concentration gradient. The result of such a process is reduced levels of acidity in the muscles themselves. The lowered levels of acidity may, therefore, result in delayed fatigue and increased muscle force production, Lambert et al. (1993)[3]. Sodium bicarbonate, however, can be detrimental to performance as it can lead to stomach upsets. These may take the form of pain; cramping diarrhoea and feeling bloated. Frequent use could lead to cardiac arrhythmia's, apathy, irritability and muscle spasms, Applegate (1999)[1]

What role does sodium bicarbonate play in enhancing performance?

A variety of studies have been carried out to try and identify the role of sodium bicarbonate on performance (refer to Table 1).

Table 1

Reference Duration Mode Dose Effect
Lavender et al. (1989) [4] Ten 10 second sprints Running Greater average power output (p<0.05) in 8 of the sprints and higher peak power.
McNaughton et al. (1991) [8] 2 x 6-minute tests Rowing Rowed significantly further (P<0.05) after ingestion. Increased power output too.
McNaughton et al. (1991) [8] 60 seconds Cycling Increased power output and work (P<0.01)
McNaughton et al. (1992) [5] 10,30,120,240 secs Exercise No effect on 10, 30sec. Work periods 120 and 240 performance increased (P<0.05)
McNaughton et al. (1992) [6] 60 seconds Cycling 0.1g, 0.2g, 0.3g, 0.4g, 0.5g.kgm Increased work, (p<0.05) in 0.2g, 0.3g, 0.4g and (p<0.05). Most work undertaken in Highest peak power occurred at
Kozak et al. (1994) [2] Repeated 1-minute intervals Cycling No effect
McNaughton et al. (1999) [9] 1-hour maximal cycling Cycling More work completed experimental group (P<0.01)
McNaughton et al. (1999) [7] 60 seconds Cycling More work completed (P<0.05). Peak power higher after supplementation
McNaughton et al. (2001) [10] 90 seconds Cycling Increased work output
Stephens et al. (2002) [11] 30 minutes Running No effect


The main differences in the studies were in the amount of sodium bicarbonate ingested, the control substances used alongside bicarbonate and the duration of the exercise. Large individual differences exist as far as response to supplementation is concerned, e.g. sprinters build up more acid in their muscles than endurance athletes. Hence, it is likely that they will benefit more from the buffering ability of bicarbonate than endurance athletes. It has been suggested that the more highly trained athletes are less likely to benefit from the use of bicarbonate because their bodies natural buffering systems are already so well developed, however, this is just speculation at present.

Studies using a dosage of (grams per kilogram body mass) seemed to show an improvement in performance whereas those utilising or less appeared to show no improvement in performance. Studies using control substances such as calcium carbonate and sodium chloride found a benefit in performance when used in conjunction with sodium bicarbonate, whereas studies utilising other control substances, or a higher amount of sodium was inconclusive.

Protocols that showed a benefit to performance were those that tended to exhaust subjects in 1 to 7 minutes using repeated exercise bouts or single intervals. The benefit of these protocols was likely to have been due to the energy system being utilised at the time; (refer to Table 1). Stephens et al. (2002)[11] showed no benefits from the use of bicarbonate. The protocol used, however, was based on an endurance run compared to that Lavender et al. (1989)[4] who based their study on intervals and found a benefit. It must be noted that not all of the anaerobic based studies showed a benefit with bicarbonate; however, this relates to the need for the precise selection of the control substances used and specific ingestion amounts.

To conclude on the use of such a substance, it must be noted that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) does not explicitly ban the use of sodium bicarbonate or other buffering agents. The use of such a substance may, however, be considered as a violation of the IOC doping rule which states that 'athletes shall not use any physiological substance in an attempt to artificially enhance performance', McNaughton et al. (1999)[9].


  1. APPLEGATE, E (1999) Effective nutritional ergogenic aids. International journal of nutrition. 9 (2), p. 229-239
  2. KOZAK-COLLINS, K. et al. (1994) Sodium bicarbonate ingestion does not improve performance in women cyclists. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 26 (12), p. 1510-1515.
  3. LAMBERT, C. et al. (1993) Influence of sodium bicarbonate ingestion on plasma ammonia accumulation during incremental exercise in man. European journal of applied physiology, 66, p. 49-54.
  4. LAVENDER, G. and BIRD, S (1989) Effect of sodium bicarbonate ingestion upon repeated sprints. British journal of sports medicine, 23, p. 41-5.
  5. McNAUGHTON, L. (1992) Sodium bicarbonate ingestion and its effects on anaerobic exercise of different duration's. Journal of sport sciences, 10, p. 425-435.
  6. McNAUGHTON, L. (1992) Bicarbonate ingestion: Effects of dosage on 60secs-cycle ergometry. Journal of sports sciences, 10, p. 415-423.
  7. McNAUGHTON, L. et al. (1999) Effects of chronic bicarbonate ingestion on the performance of high-intensity work. European journal of applied physiology, 80, p. 333-336.
  8. McNaughton, L.R. and Cedaro, R. (1991) The effect of sodium bicarbonate on rowing ergometer performance in elite rowers. The Australian journal of science and medicine in sport, 23 (3) 66-69.
  9. McNAUGHTON, L. et al. (1999) Sodium bicarbonate can be used as an ergogenic aid in high-intensity, competitive cycle ergometry of 1-hour duration. European journal of applied physiology, 80, p. 64-69.
  10. McNAUGHTON, L. and THOMPSON, D. (2001) Acute versus chronic sodium bicarbonate ingestion and anaerobic work and power output. Journal of sports medicine and physical fitness, 41, p. 456-462.
  11. STEPHENS, T. et al. (2002) Effects of sodium bicarbonate on muscle metabolism during intense endurance cycling. Medicine and science in sport and exercise, 34 (4), p. 614-621.

Article Reference

This article first appeared in:

  • OSBORNE, H. (2004) Can NaHCO3 enhance your performance? Brian Mackenzie's Successful Coaching, (ISSN 1745-7513/ 12 / May), p. 4-5

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • OSBORNE, H. (2004) Can NaHCO3 enhance your performance? [WWW] Available from: [Accessed

About the Author

Hayley Osborne runs her Personal Trainer business near Cambridge and is a qualified gym instructor. She also holds a BSc Honours in Sport and Exercise Science.