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Bicarbonate to Boost Running?

January 20, 2022

Bicarbonate to Boost Running?

Can you believe that Bicarbonate loading in athletes has been practiced for over 70yrs, which is amazing considering many people have no idea about it!!

Also….can you believe that the household product Bicarbonate of Soda appears to be, or certainly was, the most common form!!

Early studies suggested Sodium Bicarbonate (to give Bicarbonate of Soda its proper name!!) could improve performance by up to 3%…which is significant! This led to it being widely researched as a potential ergogenic aid in sport and exercise during the 70s and 80s.  It is now thought to be one of the most researched ergogenic supplements.

So, today we are going to delve into some of the research to outline:

  1. What Sodium Bicarbonate is and how it works
  2. The potential benefits and drawbacks of SB Supplementation for a runner
  3. A supplementation Protocol: How much, how often and when to take SB Supplementation….if at all!!

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Bicarbonate to Boost Running?


What is Bicarbonate?

Bicarbonate is an endogenously produced extracellular anion. In other words, the body produces bicarbonate internally, most of which is found in the fluid surrounding cells rather than the fluid inside cells. The fact that it is an anion means it is a chemical with a negative charge.

Bicarbonate is the second-most abundant anion in the blood (chloride being the most abundant) and Its principal function is to maintain the body’s acid–base (pH) balance by being part of various buffer systems.

Bicarbonate anions are produced as the result of a chemical reaction that starts with the carbon dioxide (CO2) and water (H2O) molecules. Carbon dioxide is produced in large amounts in tissues that have a high metabolic rate, in other words, at the end of aerobic metabolism.

C02 is then converted into bicarbonate in the cytoplasm (liquid part) of red blood cells. A small amount of CO2 can be dissolved in body fluids; but over 90 percent of the CO2 produced is converted into bicarbonate ions.

Bicarbonate is then transported in the blood to be utilized or taken to the lungs. On reaching the lungs the reactions reverse direction, and CO2 is regenerated from the bicarbonate to be exhaled as metabolic waste.

In sport, the buffering capabilities of Bicarbonate is linked to anaerobic metabolism (or anaerobic glycolysis as it is widely known).

Anaerobic glycolysis is the transformation of glucose to lactate to produce energy when limited amounts of oxygen (O2) are available, so basically, when carrying out prolonged periods of intense sport, that is, for more than one minute and up to approximately 7 minutes.

During high rates of anaerobic glycolysis muscle may produce excessive amounts of Hydrogen and Lactate ions leading to metabolic disturbances and ultimately fatigue. The extracellular Bicarbonate steps in to facilitate the removal of these acids ie buffering their effects. The idea is that this could delay the onset of muscular fatigue during prolonged anaerobic metabolism.


The Benefits and Drawbacks of Sodium Bicarbonate Supplementation

The body can produce bicarbonate by itself to help maintain Blood pH balance, however intense exercise sustained over a period of time may lead to the body’s capacity to produce Bicarbonate being overwhelmed. Sodium bicarbonate in supplement form may support the buffering system therefore delay the onset of muscle fatigue brought on by acid build up, principally Hydrogen ions and lactate, which are by-products of anaerobic respiration.

The Benefits:

  1. Delayed onset of muscular fatigue
  2. Mitochondrial protection
  3. Improved mitochondrial function
  4. Increased lactate threshold
  5. Possible reduction in muscle protein damage
  6. Improved overall sports performance in both single and multiple bout exercise
  7. Improved performance in both male and female athletes

The Drawbacks:

  1. Gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms:
  • Less severe – bloating and belching
  • More severe – nausea, vomiting, stomach pain, diarrhoea

These symptoms appear to be associated with a build-up CO2 in the digestive tract as well as sodium bicarbonate’s ability to neutralize gastric acid, thus increasing the risk of bacteria and other pathogens causing illness.

  1. Chronic intake of sodium bicarbonate could lead to an Increased sodium load on the body over time. This could affect the health of the renal and cardiovascular systems.




A Sodium Bicarbonate Supplement Protocol: How Much, How Often and When to take it

A lower dose of 0.2-0.3g/Kg of body weight (BW), as a single dose (this equates to approximately 4-5 teaspoons of bicarbonate of soda)

A higher dose of 0.4-0.5g/Kg BW as a single does not appear to provide any additional performance benefits but is associated with a higher incidence AND severity of gastrointestinal symptoms

0.2g/Kg BW is suggested to be the minimum dose required to provide performance enhancing effects when given as a single dose

0.3g/Kg BW is thought to be the optimal dose for ergogenic effects

A multi-day protocol of 0.3g/Kg BW of Sodium Bicarbonate per day divided into smaller doses taken at different points during the day (for example 0.1g-0.2g/Kg BW taken at breakfast, lunch and dinner) for between 3 to 7 days

Consider starting with a lower dose of sodium bicarbonate and then building up to help minimize the risk of gastrointestinal side effects

Take the supplements with a small carbohydrate rich meal approximately 120-150mins before exercise as gastrointestinal symptoms are thought to peak around 90mins post-ingestion. Having it with a small carbohydrate rich meal is also thought to reduce gastrointestinal symptoms

Supplements can be purchased in various forms including:

  • Powder
  • Tablet
  • Capsule

Enteric coated capsules are the recommended form because the enteric coating means the capsules bypass the stomach acid, which potentially reduces or completely avoids any gastric symptoms. BUT the side effects within the small intestines, including diarrhoea, cannot be avoided.

Female Factors

Bicarbonate to Boost Running?

The difference in performance effects of Sodium Bicarbonate appears to be gender specific. Studies have found that females respond to sodium bicarbonate to a lesser extent than males. This appears to be due to differences in muscle anatomy and physiology.

For example:

  • Females have smaller type II muscle fibers than men and type II fibers rely predominantly on the glycolytic energy system
  • Males have greater glycolytic capacity – in other words, the ability to produce energy anaerobically, that is, in times of insufficient O2 availability
  • Females’ pH drops to a lesser extent that in males during the same type of exercise

BUT it is important to note that none of the studies took the female menstrual cycle into account when carrying out the research. So, could it be the menstrual cycle that leads to reduced athletic performance rather than the Sodium Bicarbonate supplementation? A question that requires answering through research.


Bicarbonate to Boost Running?

  1. Sodium bicarbonate (SB) is produced by the body as a buffer in many body systems, however it is also taken externally as an ergogenic aid in sport and exercise
  2. As an ergogenic aid, sodium bicarbonate buffers the acidic effects of hydrogen and lactate, both of which are produced during anaerobic respiration
  3. The performance enhancing effects are most acute in athletes performing high intensity exercise between 1 and 7 minutes long although it is thought that exercise performed for a longer time (30-60 minutes) at just below the anaerobic threshold may also benefit
  4. Although sodium bicarbonate is recognised as an ergogenic aid, it is also known to be ergolytic, this is, it may reduce exercise performance as it can lead to gastrointestinal (GI) distress in some athletes
  5. To try and limit the GI effects of sodium bicarbonate a multi-day protocol is recommended, in other words, taken in small doses alongside a small carbohydrate rich meal and spread throughout the day for approximately 5-7 days
  6. Remember many factors need to be taken into consideration when deciding whether to use SB as an ergogenic aid including:
  • Gender
  • Age
  • Sensitivity to and side effects suffered from SB
  • Responder/non-responder
  1. We recommend you work with a professional to ensure the protocol is suitable for your needs and goals – we can help you
  2. Finally, it is important to PRACTICE PRACTICE PRACTICE in training including simulating race conditions to ensure it is a protocol that is right for you

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The suggestions we make during this episode are for guidance and advice only, and are not a substitute for medical advice or treatment. If you have any concerns regarding your health, please contact your healthcare professional for advice as soon as possible.

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