Bicarbonate Soda and Buffering

Bicarbonate Soda and Buffering
by Peter Crombie

As the track season approaches the volume of athletes using the track increases significantly, particularly at peak training times.  Below are 2 x articles in respect to sodium bi-carbonate.

It is a proven and legal way to improve performance. The events most suited are Bicarb Soda400M/800M/1500M.

The main side effects are an upset stomach for some people but if you are keen then you can overcome that.

Some people do not get any apparent results, or maybe they do not persevere enough?

The dose would be 3 slightly rounded teaspoons for Paula, 4x for Janelle and 5x for PC. The best time is 1 hour before training. You can have with copious amounts of water or sip for an hour or so prior to training. This is my preferred method.

I have used it once in competition in 1995 at the world titles and did my best ever performance. I have since done the odd limited trial for training but have not persevered.

I will discuss further with you before you trial this. If you do decide to give it a go then I would recommend it before a few specified training sessions that I set up. Even though I did it straight up for a world final in the 400m it is preferred that you trial it to see how you react to any possible side effects.

Le coach


…Performance-enhancing drugs usually bring to mind designer steroids and human growth hormones.

Yet some athletes rely on more rudimentary – and legal – means to boost their race times, including using a substance usually tucked away in a kitchen cupboard.

For years, keen runners have sworn that taking a spoonful of bicarbonate of soda(baking soda) helps them to keep going for longer.

For years, experts doubted that there was anything other than a placebo effect to these claims until they subjected the substance to rigorous examination.

Most exercise scientists investigating the trend for “soda-doping” among athletes and gym-goers have shown that it offers significant benefits for endurance and speed.

At Loughborough University, for instance, physiologists reporting in the June issue of the International Journal of Sports Medicine showed that swimmers who took baking soda about one hour before a 200m event were able to shave a significant time off their usual performances.

Dr Jonathan Folland, who led the study, says that it is not uncommon for top swimmers to take sodium bicarbonate (another name for the substance) before a competition to give them an edge. Indeed, he showed that of nine swimmers tested, eight recorded their fastest times after ingesting a supplement of the common baking ingredient.

Another small study by Dr Ronald Deitrick,of the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), showed that competitive runners also benefited.

Dr Deitrick who presented his findings at the ACSM annual conference, gave 800m runners either a placebo or a sodium bicarbonate capsule, which they took with water.

Although a few of the runners had minor gastrointestinal problems after swallowing the capsules, a greater number benefited significantly.

Helpful for speed-based events just last week, an Australian sports scientist said that the use of legal performance-enhancing substances could become a major issue of the Beijing Olympics. “Beijing will probably be remembered for the abuse of legal aids,” said Robin Parisotto on Australian radio.

And Dr Deitrick believes that bicarbonate of soda can significantly improve performance. “If you took out the participants who experienced negative side-effects…you’d see an average improvement in running times of about 2.2 seconds,” Dr Deitrick says. “For a relatively short running distance, that’s very significant. ”But how does something so seemingly innocuous have such a dramatic effect?  During prolonged or intense exercise muscles produce large amounts of waste products, such as lactic acid, that lead to soreness, stiffness and fatigue. Because sodium bicarbonate naturally reduces acids, it acts as a buffer against these performance-limiting by-products.

Current research suggests that it is particularly helpful in speed-based events, including sprints, football and other fast-moving games, and middle-distance (up to 10km) running, swimming and cycling. “Essentially, sodium bicarbonate bicarbonate is an alkali substance that increases the pH of the blood,” Dr Folland says. “This seems to reduce and offset the acidity produced in the muscles during intense, anaerobic exercise that produces lactic acid most quickly, such as fast running or swimming.” In Dr Folland’s study, swimmers who took the sodium bicarbonate knocked 1.5 seconds off their time for 200m, a difference that may seem insignificant to recreational swimmers but which is substantial at elite level. “At the last Olympics, the top four swimmers in the men’s 200m freestyle were separated by just 1.4 seconds,,” Dr Folland says. “So in theory, it could be the difference between winning a medal and not.” Not that he recommends that we all rush down to our nearest supermarket with £2 to buy a packet.

While manufacturers may come up with a drink or capsule containing sodium bicarbonate, it is unpleasing to many palates. For optimum effects it should be taken with water, ideally before exercise, on an empty stomach. Most people take about 20g, although it can cause problems. “It is not dangerous, but it tastes appalling and can make you want to retch,” Dr Folland says. “It can make some people nauseous when it hits their stomach and a few suffer an upset stomach or diarrhoea when they take it.” Some scientists want it banned from sport Anyone can try it, he says, but only those who are serious enough to monitor their times and progress in sports such as running, swimming or cycling may notice the few seconds advantage it might provide. “The increments of improvement are relatively small to the average person, although significant to someone who competes,” Dr Folland says. “I certainly wouldn’t advocate using it if you do aerobics a few times a week.” But some experts, including Dr Deitrick, claim that its effects are so powerful that it shouldn’t have a place in competitive sport. “It comes down to whether or not the athlete has a competitive advantage by taking an aid,” he says. “And in the case of sodium bicarbonate, I believe the answer is yes. It violates the spirit of fair play by artificially enhancing performance.”Dr Folland, however, says that baking soda is unlikely to be listed on banned lists. “There are always going to be ethical arguments, but if sports drinks and carbohydrate loading, both of which can enhance performance, are allowed, there should be no issue with sodium bicarbonate,” he says. “If you are serious about exercise and can stomach it, it may help.



Several studies, including some conducted at the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS), have shown that caffeine can trigger the release of body fats into the bloodstream during activity. This means fat is burned during exercise rather than carbohydrate, the body’s primary choice of fuel, and that endurance capacities are improved. A study at the University of South Carolina found that drinking one or two cups of coffee up to an hour before a gym session can delay or prevent post-exercise tiredness by up to 60 per cent. It can also help recovery.

Last month, Australian researchers reporting in the Journal of Applied Physiology showed that glycogen, the muscles’ main source of fuel during exercise, is replenished more quickly when athletes have both carbohydrate and caffeine after a workout. Chocolate milk A 2006 study published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism looked at a group of cyclists who rode until their muscles were depleted of energy, then rested for four hours before cycling again to exhaustion.

During rest they were given either chocolate milk, which has an optimal ratio of 4:1 for carbohydrates to protein, an isotonic sports drink or a high protein sports drink.

Researchers say the protein and carbohydrate ratio in the milk complement each other perfectly. Carbohydrates replace the energy lost during exercise, but can’t rebuild muscle.

On the other hand, protein can help to repair the muscles, but can’t refuel them. Chocolate milk is thought to be better for recovery than plain milk because of its extra sugars.

In the trial, the cyclists who had chocolate milk rode about 50 per cent longer than those who drank the protein drink and about as long as those who drank the isotonic preparation.

Michael Phelps, the multi-gold medallist, is said to drink chocolate milk between swimming events.


A Chinese mushroom, the Cordyceps, has proven performance-enhancing effects. Scientists carrying out clinical trials on CordyMax an over-the- counter supplement containing Cordyceps extract, reported that of the 131 non-athletes who took it for 12 weeks, most experienced an average reduction of 29seconds in the time it took them to walk a mile.

Honey Three separate studies at the University of Memphis have shown that honey boosts performance.  Nine cyclists were given one of three supplements in gel form – honey, glucose or a flavoured, calorie-free placebo – each week over three weeks. They were put through a weekly 64km time trial and given 15g of one of the gels with 250ml of water before every 16km.

The glucose and honey produced a statistically significant reduction in the time to finish, and a significant increase in the athletes’ average power.

Cherry juice A 2006 study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine looked at gym-goers who were given either a placebo or the juice of 50 to 60 cherries, twice a day for eight days. Halfway through the trial they did 40 bicep curls with one arm, using the heaviest weight they could. They then switched drinks and repeated the process with the opposite arm. There was less reduction in strength and less pain with the cherry juice, reported researchers at the University of Vermont.


Bicarbonate of soda, or baking soda, forms a slightly alkaline solution when it is mixed with water. It has a range of uses, as granny knows perfectly well. Baking It acts as a raising agent by releasing carbon dioxide. Cleaning Sprinkled on a damp cloth it can clean countertops, ovens, hobs and baths. Teeth Brushing with it once a week may help to keep teeth pearly white. Cystitis A teaspoon mixed in half a pint of water may ease symptoms. Nasty smells To banish fridge pongs, leave a couple of teaspoons in an open bowl on one of the shelves. Peta Bee is the Medical Journalists’ Association Freelance Journalist of the Year …

Sodium Bicarbonate

Alun Williams examines the benefits and side effects of using Sodium Bicarbonate to improve performance.

Bicarbonate has been researched by sports scientists for some time, producing inconsistent results, though some studies have suggested it has great potential for enhancing anaerobic performance. Perhaps the one major confounding factor is the relatively common side effect of stomach problems. I will come back to this later, but, first, what is the rationale behind the use of bicarbonate by athletes?

Underlying theory Energy production via anaerobic glycolysis, which is particularly important for events lasting between 30 seconds and 15 minutes, increases the acidity inside the muscle cells and very soon after does the same to the blood. It is this increase in acidity within the muscle cells that is a major factor in producing fatigue in such events. If there was some way to reduce the acidity within the muscle cells, one could theoretically delay fatigue and thus continue exercising at a very high intensity for longer. Sodium bicarbonate is an alkalising agent and therefore reduces the acidity of the blood (known as a buffering action), but cannot enter the muscle cells to reduce the acidity there. However, by buffering acidity in the blood, bicarbonate may be able to draw more of the acid produced within the muscle cells out into the blood and thus reduce the level of acidity within the muscle cells themselves. This could delay the onset of fatigue.

Who might benefit?

The specific athletes who might stand to benefit from bicarbonate supplementation will typically compete in events that last between 1 and 7 minutes, i.e. 400m to 1500m running, 100m to 400m swimming, most rowing competitions, and many teams sports with their repeated nature of high intensity exercise which stresses the anaerobic glycolysis system significantly and produces a lot of acidity.

Research is saying it works.

Bird and colleagues (Journal of Sports Sciences, 1995, vol. 13, no.5, pp 399-403) persuaded 12 middle and long distance runners to compete in a total of six 1500m races. The three different conditions were: after bicarbonate ingestion, after placebo ingestion and after ingestion of neither of these. The bicarbonate ingestion trial produced race times (about 4:14 minutes) mainly between 3 and 5 seconds faster than the other two conditions.

Hausswirth and colleagues (European Journal of Applied Physiology and occupational Physiology, 1995, vol. 71, no. 4, pp 362-368) found that eight subjects were able to improve local muscle endurance of the quadriceps during a sustained contraction at 35% of maximal force after ingestion of sodium citrate (sodium citrate raises blood bicarbonate by a similar amount as sodium bicarbonate itself).

Callier and colleagues (Cinesiologie, 1994, vol. 33, pp. 45-50) had 12 male subjects perform five 1 minute bouts of cycling with 2 minute rest intervals at an intensity equivalent to 100% VO2max after placebo or citrate ingestion. The fifth bout of cycling was in fact longer than one minute and continued until exhaustion. Citrate ingestion delayed fatigue in the fifth exercise period, adding an average of 20 seconds to exercise capacity that was determined largely by anaerobic function.

Some research suggests it does not work.

Cox and Jenkins (Journal of Sports Sciences, 1994, vol. 12, pp 469-475) used eight moderately active male subjects to evaluate the effects of sodium citrate ingestion on repeated 60 second sprints on a cycle ergometer. Despite changes in blood bicarbonate and lactate measures which suggested that the supplementation was working correctly, performance (work done cycling) was no different between supplementation and placebo trials.

Kozak, Collins and colleagues (Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 1994, vol. 26, no. 12, pp. 1510-1515) also found no significant improvement in performance, although their raw data did suggest some improvement which may have been significant if a larger sample size had been used. After ingestion of sodium bicarbonate or a placebo, seven competitive female cyclists performed intermittent exercise of one minute at 95% VO2max, the next minute at just 60 watts, until exhaustion after an average of nine bouts at each intensity. Once again, blood measures of bicarbonate and “buffering capacity” had increased but had not been reflected sufficiently in the all important performance measure.

Stomach irritation

One possible reason why there has been such conflicting research both recently and earlier is the fact that many subjects suffer short term stomach complaints after ingesting sodium bicarbonate. These may take the form of pain, cramping, diarrhoea or a feeling of being bloated. So it is hardly surprising that individuals who feel nauseous do not go out and perform better than they normally do. Thus, some potential benefits of supplementation may be neutralised by the effects of nausea in some subjects, and when the effects are averaged in the scientific trials, ergogenic effects are hidden.

A practical approach

Before using either bicarbonate or citrate supplements, it is wise to check with the governing body of your sport that the substance is not contrary to doping regulations. All major organisations at present do not prohibit such use, and this is unlikely to change, but it makes sense to check.

The most important practical point is the need to experiment with the supplement during training. Typically, an 800m runner, for example, may perform a time trial (this should really be with competition to ensure maximum effort) on a particular day after a couple of days of light training. A further couple of days later, after only more light training, the athlete can repeat the time trial in a similar environment after bicarbonate supplementation.

The exact protocol would be to ingest 0.3g of sodium bicarbonate per kg body weight approximately one to two hours before the time trial. That is, for a 66 kg runner, consume 20g of sodium carbonate (about four teaspoons) and, yes, the commonly found bicarbonate of soda is exactly the substance needed. This experimenting, if repeated several times, should reveal whether bicarbonate supplementation is likely to produce any benefit and whether the athlete concerned is susceptible to stomach upsets.

It is likely that large individual differences do exist as far as response to supplementation is concerned. It has been suggested that the more highly trained athletes are less likely to benefit from it because their body’s natural buffering systems are already so well developed, but so far this is just speculation. It has also been shown that sprinters build up more acidity within their muscles than endurance runners in response to the same exercise, and so may be more likely to benefit from the buffering effect. From the scientific research, it appears that the size of the dose is quite important, and that taking only 0.2g per kg is less likely to be beneficial than 0.3g per kg, although no evidence exists suggesting that an even greater dose is better still.

As for the side effects, the athlete who suffers must try to eliminate them. Drinking up to a litre of water with the dose is often effective and should be carried out as standard. Breaking up the bicarbonate dose into, say, four equal portions taken over the course of an hour may also help. Finally, some researchers have reported that using citrate instead of bicarbonate reduces the incidence of stomach irritation, although the report referred to earlier by Cox and Jenkins unfortunately observed that nausea was experienced by seven out of the eight subjects following citrate consumption, and that five of those seven subjects vomited during exercise. Only one subject vomited during exercise after taking the placebo.

Buffering at altitude?

From the scientific evidence available, it appears that bicarbonate or citrate supplementation does improve buffering capacity, and thus clearly has the potential to enhance anaerobic performance.

However, the responses are likely to vary between individuals, as will the susceptibility to side effects. For a competitive athlete in an appropriate sport, experimenting at a personal level should establish whether the supplement is beneficial. As for the scientists, they need to establish whether supplementation is particularly suited to certain types of events more than others.

In addition, the potential of regular bicarbonate supplementation to increase training load as well as one off performance capability deserves some research attention, as does its potential for athletes who train or compete at altitude, where natural buffering capacity is reduced.


Article Reference

This article first appeared in:

  • WILLIAMS, A. (2004) Sodium Bicarbonate. Brian Mackenzie’s Successful Coaching, (ISSN 1745-7513/ 9 / February), p. 5-7

The reference for this page is:

WILLIAMS, A. (2004) Sodium Bicarbonate [WWW] Available from: [Accessed 23/11/2011]