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Energy Systems


ALKALINE SALT - Sodium bicarbonate (bicarb soda)


Scientific Name:                    Sodium Bicarbonate

Type of Nutrient:                     Alkaline Salt

History:                                    First research regarding performance enhancement over 60 years ago.  Little research however in following 45 years.

How Supplied:                        Powder

Usual Source:                        Baking Soda

Used for:                                 Reducing muscle and blood acidity (Lactic Acid buffer).  Improving anaerobic performance (power and endurance)

Cost Effectiveness:                        * * * * *

Safety:                                    20 grams of Sodium Bicarbonate contains 5 grams of Sodium.  Very unhealthy nutrition.  Ten times more sodium than you need (Recommended Dietary Allowances 10th Edition 1989).  Can send blood pressure sky high.




            If you did chemistry at school, you may recall that strong acids such as hydrochloric acid had the capacity to severely burn your skin.  If such an accident occurred, the immediate response was to wash the acid off, preferably with a neutralising solution.

            It probably is of little surprise to you that certain cells in your stomach produce hydrochloric acid to aid in the digestion of dietary protein.  Also, many physiological reactions in your body result in the formation of acids that could have serious consequences if not neutralised.  For example, uncontrolled diabetes can lead to the formation of excessive amounts of acids from fat metabolism, which may lead to a series of events involving acidosis, diabetic coma, and death (rather serious, don’t you think?).  In sports, lactic acid is related to the onset of fatigue in anaerobic events.



            You might also recall that the substance which neutralises an acid is known as a base.  Fortunately, your body produces bases that help to neutralise or buffer acids.  These buffers that neutralise acids are often called alkaline.  Much of your body’s protein may serve as an alkaline base.  For example, haemoglobin in the red blood cells is a protein that is an excellent buffer for certain acids in the blood.

            Your body must maintain a certain balance of acids and bases.  This is known as the ‘acid-base balance’.

            This balance may be represented by the pH, which represents the concentration of hydrogen ions in a solution.  The more hydrogen ions in a solution, the more acidic it is.  Water, which is neutral, has a pH of 7.  Acidic solutions have a lower pH and basic solutions have a higher pH than 7.

            Different parts of the body may vary in their acid-base balance because some enzymes function better in a basic environment.  For example, gastric juices in your stomach are acidic (and may burn your oesophagus when you burp and get heartburn) and those in your intestines are alkaline.  Of importance to us in this article is the pH of the blood and muscle cells.

            Our blood has a pH of between 7.3-7.4, slightly alkaline appearing to be an optimal level.  Serious disturbances in normal physiological functioning, particularly in the brain, could result should any deviation arise above or below this range for a long period of time.  The diabetic coma resulting from acidosis (pH too low) is due to its effect on the brain.

            Certain protein in your body cells and blood, your lungs (blowing off acid in the form of excess carbon dioxide) and your kidneys (which excrete acid salts) are amongst the numerous systems controlling the acid-base balance in your blood.  Additionally, the blood contains a number of alkaline salts (notably sodium bicarbonate) which can be used to rapidly buffer acids secreted into the blood.



            The pH in the muscle cells is slightly alkaline while at rest.  Normally, it is at this level that enzymes that produce energy via the lactic acid and oxygen energy systems perform at their optimum.  Experts believe that if the concentration of hydrogen ions and acidity increases in the muscle cell, then the optimal functioning of these enzymes will be disturbed and energy production will decrease.  Fatigue may result because of increased acid production within the muscle cell when the lactic acid energy system is used during high intensity exercise.

            During rest and exercise, proteins within the muscle cell help to buffer metabolic acids.  But beyond the initial buffering in the cell, during exercise, the lactic acid produced appears to be buffered almost entirely by the sodium bicarbonate in the blood.

            Your body produces and uses plain old baking soda to protect its blood from acidity (Danforth WH. Control of Energy Metabolism, New York:  Academic Press, 1965:287-298).  Armed with this knowledge, for more than 40 years, coaches have sought to use bicarbonate supplements to reduce muscle acidity and improve performance.  (Miller R, et al J Clin Invest 1988; 81:1190-1196).

            Only a few top coaches have mastered its use through trial and error - and kept the results to themselves.  Only in the last decade has intensive research put this information into scientific journals.  The secrets of bicarbonate loading - how much to take, when to take, and what kinds of performance benefit are now available.

            The underlying factor is that ingestion of salts during exercise is to facilitate the removal of hydrogen ions from the muscle cell so as to help maintain the muscle cell near its optimal pH for enzyme functions and energy production.

            Dr GW Mainwood and colleagues in 1980 discovered that the less acidic blood becomes when filled with bicarbonate, the more it creates what is called a pH gradient between muscle and blood, which pulls acid out of the muscle (Mainwood GW et al Canadian Journal of Pharmacology 1980;58:624-632)

            Muscle biopsy’s on athletes have shown that after bicarbonate loading, the less acidic your blood pH, the less acidic your muscle pH.  (Sutton JR et al Clin Sci 1981;61:331-338).

            Several different terms such as buffer boosting, soda doping or soda loading have been used to relate alkaline salts as an ergogenic aid.  The term soda is derived from baking soda (sodium bicarbonate), the most commonly used alkaline salt for ergogenic purposes.  Others, including sodium citrate and potassium citrate can also be used.

            Athletes who rely heavily on the use of the lactic acid energy system, such as bodybuilders, during exercise get the most benefits from alkaline salts in contrast to endurance athletes who find them not beneficial since purely aerobic athletic events do not produce lactate rapidly in the muscle cell.

            Over a period of 50 years, research conducted in the USA and Germany relating to alkaline salts revealed significant physiological improvement with anaerobic exercise, treadmill and bicycle ergometer exercise tests to exhaustion.  However, only a few publications and studies were known to support the ergogenic effect.  Results of studies revealed no beneficial effects of alkaline salts upon performance in a 400 metre swim and a 1.5 mile run on a treadmill to exhaustion.



            Alkaline salts as a means of reducing acidity in the muscle cell and improving anaerobic exercise have had remarkable research interest in the last 15 years.  Various experimental designs have been used involving differences in the exercise-testing procedures, salts administered and the physiological or performance measures recorded.  Exercise tasks used in most studies are those that would stress anaerobic energy production via the lactic acid energy system with intermittent bouts of exercise and rest so as to see if salt could facilitate recovery.

            Investigators researching the effects of bicarb soda ingestion looked at a number of different measurements.  This includes blood pH, blood lactate, the amount of work produced in a set time such as 30-120 seconds, the power produced in five seconds, the exercise time to the point of exhaustion and perceived exertion.  Maximal exercise bouts were usually about 30-120 seconds long.  Other studies used exercise tasks that were aerobic in nature in the early stages and increased gradually in intensity to become more anaerobic.  Other types of salts were also given, some were alkaline.

            The placebo was a neutral salt that would not change the acid base level but in some studies, acid salts were given to increase the acidity of the blood.  Different alkaline salts and different dosages were used in some studies but the most commonly used was 200-300mg of sodium bicarbonate per kg of body weight.  For a person of 80kg, this would amount to about five level teaspoons of baking soda.

            A study done in 1993 looked at the effect of sodium bicarbonate ingestion (300mg/kg body weight) on isokinetic leg extension/flexion exercises.  Sodium bicarbonate ingestion increased the blood pH level prior to exercise indicating metabolic alkalosis while post exercise, the blood pH decreased significantly indicating that metabolic acidosis had occurred.  The exercise consisted of leg extension/flexion with the first set consisting of four reps at a speed of 60 degrees/second.  Consequently, the second set consisted of 60 reps at a speed of 240 degrees/second;  this set lasted about 85 seconds.

            More work was performed by subjects using sodium bicarbonate when compared to the placebo/control conditions.  Hence, sodium bicarbonate ingestion enhances isokinetic leg extension/flexion exercise lasting approximately 1.5 minutes.



            The effects of these studies are generally in agreement.  When workload was increased to above 80 per cent of maximal oxygen uptake, which makes it partly anaerobic for most people, the perceived effort was less when bi-carb was taken, indicating that the perceived workload was less strenuous.



            Improvements have been noted from  studies of the amount of work accomplished in 30-120 seconds, exercise test to exhaustion of up to 10 minutes in duration and performance on anaerobic task after prolonged aerobic exercise.  One well designed study by Dr D Wilkes and colleagues at York University, Toronto, reported a 2.9 seconds faster running time over a distance of 800 metres.

            300mg/kg bodyweight of Sodium bicarbonate or placebo were taken over a 2-hour period, up to 30 minutes before an 800 metre race,  (Wilkes D et al Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 1983;15(4):277-280).  2.9 seconds average improvement translates to a distance of 19 metres.  In an 800 metre race, that’s the difference between winning and coming no-where.

            Dr David Costill and colleagues at the Human Performance Laboratory at Ball State University, Indiana gave athletes a lower dose of sodium bicarbonate (200mg/kg bodyweight).

            The athletes then did five, one minute sprints on an ergometer bicycle, the last one to absolute exhaustion.  The Soda loading improved the time to exhaustion of the last sprint by an incredible 42%  (Costill DL et al Int J Sports Med  1984;5:225-231).

            Other studies have also reported increased endurance, and increased power output after soda loading in maximal short term exercise.  (Sutton JR et al Clin Sci 1981; 61:331-338.  Rupp JC et al Med and Sci in Sports and Exer 1983; 15-115,  McKenzie DC, et al J Sports Sciences 1986; 4:35-38).

            Contrary to these results, an equal amount of studies have revealed no significant improvements in these areas but generally they have used lower doses of bicarbonate, or have used exercise duration greater than 5 minutes.  (Inbar O et al J Sports Sciences 1983; 1:95-104,  Horswill CA et al Med and Sci In Sports and Exer 1988; 20(6):556-569.  George KP et al ERGONOMICS 1983;31(11): 1639-1645).  However, an important note is that no study reported a decrease in physical performance.

            The evidence indicates that both dose and exercise duration are critical.

            A fairly recent study done here in Australia at the Tasmanian Institute of Technology (McNaughton LR, Cedaro R The Aust Journal of Sci and Med in Sport 1991; 23(3): 66-69) gave elite class rowers 300mg/kg bodyweight of bicarbonate or placebo.  Ninety-five minutes later, subjects made a maximal effort for  six minutes on a rowing ergometer.  Compared with placebo, the subjects rowed almost 50 metres further in the same time when receiving sodium bicarbonate.

            That was greater than the difference between first and last at the 1991 WORLD ROWING CHAMPIONSHIPS.



            Because about half of the studies have revealed positive results, the other half no improvement, and no studies have found a decrease in performance, logic suggests bi-carb soda may be helpful to some individuals if used properly.  Since bi-carb induces a metabolic alkalosis, it would make sense that people who perform activities that produce dramatic drops in pH would benefit from its ingestion.  Soda loading works best as an ergogenic aid only at high doses (300mg/kg bodyweight) and only for short, almost maximal exercise (30 seconds to 6 minutes).

            This would include anaerobic activities such as the 400 or 800 metre run, and if the type of weight training you do involves high volume, low weight, high reps, and short intervals, then performance could be enhanced.

            There is no longer any doubt that in short events, sodium bicarbonate can provide a winning edge.

            Bi-carb would appear to help athletes using lactic acids energy system in sports demanding all out effort for periods of about 30 seconds to six minutes although the lactic acid energy system may also be involved in activities of lesser and greater time periods than this range.

            Potassium phosphate, citrate, carnosine, and creatine monohydrate may also be used.  Creatine monohydrate is currently one of the hottest food supplements with some solid research to prove its efficiency.  Much of the increased power evident when athletes load creatine monohydrate may be partially due to its intramuscular buffering capabilities.

            Sodium bi-carb has certainly a price advantage over the other lactic acid buffers mentioned but can cause fluid retention because of its high sodium content.  This is of major concern around contest time for bodybuilders.  However, in off-season, it is not of such importance.  

Ironpower has combined sodium bicarbonate, creatine monohydrate and potassium phosphate into a super lactic acid buffering formula called PowerStack. Click here to read more on PowerStack.



            However, there is one big problem.  Many of the subjects in the research studies experienced some form of gastro intestinal distress, about 60 minutes after ingesting the bicarbonate solution.  This includes belching and diarrhoea.  One investigator noted that several of his subjects had what he termed “explosive diarrhoea” (uncomfortable but not life threatening!).  Such conditions could be debilitating to athletic performance.  Two ways to solve the problem:


            1.   Take the bicarb every 20 minutes in divided doses, beginning three hours before the event, and ending one hour before the start.

            2.   Drink freely up to 30 minutes before the event.

            Practise it well in training before you ever do it in competition.  Furthermore, excessive consumption of alkaline salts may lead to the development of alkalosis (pH too high) with symptoms such as irritability, delirium and muscle spasms.

            However, everyone is different.  One man’s meat may be another man’s poison.  Soda loading is definitely worth trying.  You can judge for yourself the effect on your personal performance.


            An adequate dose would be about 300mg per kg of body weight mixed with around 400ml of liquid, eg a 90kg bodybuilder would take 27 grams on an empty stomach approximately 30-60 minutes before exercise.  The bi-carb can be mixed with water or other beverages.

            In a nutshell, the theory behind soda loading is that by neutralising the acid (lactic) produced by muscle cells during anaerobic exercise, the pH level of the working muscle will be kept in an optimal range for peak performance longer.

            If gastro troubles are experienced, then the bicarb could be taken on future occasions as such:


3 hours  before event 4 grams bicarb soda  
2 hrs 40 min before event 4 grams bicarb soda  
2 hrs 20 min  before event 4 grams bicarb soda  
2 hrs before event 4 grams bicarb soda  
1 hr 40 min before event 4 grams bicarb soda  
1 hr 20 min before event 4 grams bicarb soda  
1 hr before event 3 grams bicarb soda