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). 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). 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)
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).
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 0.3g.kg.bm (grams per kilogram body mass) seemed to show an improvement in performance whereas those utilising 0.2g.kg.bm 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) 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) 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).
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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.