Baking soda is a household product that most people use as a baking ingredient or multipurpose stain and odor remover.
It’s also quite entertaining to mix it with vinegar in a sealed container. 🙂
Aside from its uses for cooking, cleaning, and entertainment, athletes have begun using baking soda as a supplement.
That’s because baking soda is slightly alkaline (it’s a “base” in chemistry lingo), so theoretically, it can help neutralize the acidic compounds that build up in your muscles when you exercise. This, in turn, should reduce the point at which you fatigue.
Is this true, though?
How much do baking soda supplements actually affect performance?
And is it safe to snarf large amounts of the stuff?
All good questions—keep reading to learn the answers, according to science!
Table of Contents
Baking soda is the common name for sodium bicarbonate (aka bicarb), a white, odorless powder composed of sodium and bicarbonate ions.
When people talk about a “baking soda supplement” (or a “sodium bicarbonate supplement”), they’re not referring to a sports supplement in the traditional sense.
That is, baking soda isn’t (currently) sold as a fitness supplement. If you want a baking soda supplement, you buy and take plain old baking soda—the kind you find in the baking aisle of your local grocery store.
We use the pH scale to measure how acidic or alkaline (basic) something is. We class anything with a pH of 7 as neutral (neither acidic nor alkaline), anything lower than 7 as acidic, and anything higher than 7 as alkaline.
Typically, your body does an excellent job of maintaining this balance, though it can become upset by some health conditions or, more importantly for us, when you work out hard enough for your muscles to rely on anaerobic metabolism.
At rest and during light-to-moderate exercise, your body is able to generate all of the energy it needs using your aerobic energy system, which relies on a steady supply of oxygen. As you increase the intensity, though, you reach a point where your muscles’ need for oxygen outstrips your body’s ability to provide it, and so your muscle must rely on a different energy system to make up for the deficit.
Specifically, it cranks up your anaerobic energy system, which is also sometimes referred to as your glycolytic system (since it primarily uses a form of stored carbohydrate in your muscles called glycogen). “An-” means without and “aerobic” means relating to oxygen, so “anaerobic” metabolism refers to the creation of energy in your muscle cells without the presence of oxygen.
While anaerobic metabolism can produce energy faster than aerobic metabolism, it also produces a lot of “metabolic byproducts” that build up in your muscles and cause fatigue (typically after about 2 minutes).
You can think of the anaerobic system like afterburners in a jet engine—it provides a quick but unsustainable boost in performance that also produces a lot of “exhaust” in the process.
Most of this “exhaust” is in the form of hydrogen ions, which lowers the pH of your muscles, creating an acidic environment. This is one of the reasons your muscles burn when you do intense exercise such as weightlifting, cycle sprints, or jump rope.
This is where baking soda enters the picture.
Baking soda is alkaline with a pH of 8.4, so theoretically, eating it could “buffer” the hydrogen ions produced during anaerobic exercise, allowing you to redline your muscles a bit longer before you hit the wall.
That’s the idea, anyway, but what does science say?
Scientists have been studying how baking soda affects athletic performance for almost 100 years, so instead of reviewing every study on this topic, we’ll look at how baking soda affects sports and weightlifting performance in particular.
Most studies investigating baking soda’s effect on sports performance involve cycling, running, rowing, swimming, and combat sports. Let’s consider each separately:
In an early study conducted by scientists at the University of Tasmania, researchers found that taking baking soda was no more effective than a placebo at improving performance on cycling bouts lasting 10-to-30 seconds. This dovetails with the results from similar studies, showing cyclists who take baking soda before completing a 30-second cycling sprint perform no better than those who take a placebo.
However, if the ride lasted 2 or 4 minutes, cyclists who took baking soda could do more total work (measured in kilojoules, or kJ) than those who took a placebo (~74 kJ vs. ~68 kJ in the 2-minute task and ~122 kJ vs. ~113 kJ in the 4-minute task).
Later research involving a 4-kilometer time trial (lasting ~6 minutes) found that taking baking soda reduced the time to finish by 5-to-8 seconds (~2%), while in a study conducted by scientists at the Institute of Human Movement Sciences, researchers found cyclists who supplemented with baking soda took ~24% longer to reach exhaustion during a 12-minute cycling trial than those who took a placebo.
Studies involving cycling interval training generally show that baking soda improves performance, especially during the latter stages of the interval workout and when the rest periods between intervals are short. This is especially relevant to cycling, where most races are won or lost in the final push to the finish line after several hours of riding.
For example, in one study, cyclists completed four 1-minute sprints interspersed with 1-minute rest periods, followed by one final sprint to exhaustion. Those who supplemented with baking soda lasted ~47 seconds longer during the final sprint than those who took a placebo (~160 seconds vs. ~113 seconds).
Overall, baking soda reliably boosts cycling performance during intervals lasting 1-to-12 minutes (and works particularly well during interval workouts where the intervals fall within this range).
Preliminary research published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that runners who supplemented with baking soda completed an 800-meter run 2.9 seconds (1.8%) faster than runners who took a placebo.
Likewise, studies show that runners require less time to complete 400- and 1500-meter runs when they supplement with baking soda. Specifically, taking baking soda improves 400-meter running time by ~1.5 seconds (1.1%) and 1500-meter running time by ~3 seconds (2.9%).
Baking soda also appears to delay fatigue in runners. For instance, in one study conducted by scientists at VU Amsterdam, runners who took baking soda ran 6% longer before reaching exhaustion (~82 seconds vs. ~77 seconds) during an incline treadmill running workout than those who took a placebo.
As with cycling, baking soda seems most effective during interval workouts, especially toward the end of the run. For example, in a study conducted by scientists at the University of Hull, researchers found that sprinters who took baking soda covered more distance across 3 all-out 30-seconds sprints than when they took a placebo, but only because they ran further during the third and final sprint.
Finally, research involving the “Yo-Yo intermittent recovery test” (an endurance running task that requires participants to run two 20-meter intervals at progressively faster speeds with 10-second rests between runs) shows supplementing with baking soda boosts performance.
This is important for people who play sports because the Yo-Yo test predicts how well athletes will perform in sports that require intermittent sprints, such as basketball, football, hockey, soccer, cricket, badminton, and rugby.
Overall, research suggests that taking baking soda benefits runners during runs that last 30 seconds or longer.
Since all rowing races are performed over a 2000-meter distance in the Olympic Games and world championships, most studies investigate baking soda’s effects on 2000-meter rowing performance.
While a few studies involving a handful of participants showed that baking soda was a dud for improving rowing performance, more extensive and reliable studies involving more participants show otherwise.
For instance, in one study conducted by scientists at Nottingham Trent University, researchers found that rowers who supplemented with baking soda shaved ~1 second off their 2000-meter time.
A 2019 meta-analysis of 17 studies published in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance also found that baking soda supplementation improved 2000-meter rowing performance by ~1.4%.
While there isn’t as much research on how baking soda improves rowing performance, what little we do have generally shows it helps.
Most studies on swimming have too few participants to get a reliable indication of how baking soda affects performance. To counter this, researchers at Victoria University conducted a meta-analysis to see if pooling results would offer more insight.
Their results showed that supplementing with baking soda didn’t aid swimming performance in 100-yard and 100-meter swimming tests lasting 50-to-60 seconds. However, baking soda did boost performance in 200- and 400-meter swim tests lasting ~2-to-5 minutes.
Thus, baking soda supplements likely boosts performance in longer-distance swimming races.
Combat sports require fighters to perform lots of short, intense actions (punching, kicking, throwing, and clinching an opponent, for example), which is why scientists have studied them in the context of baking soda supplementation.
Three studies on judokas show that taking baking soda increases the number of throws an athlete can perform during the “Special Judo Fitness Test” (a test involving three 15-to-30-second periods during which a judoka must complete as many throws as possible) by ~2 throws (6%).
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Research consistently shows that taking baking soda increases muscle endurance (you can perform more reps per set than you would be able to otherwise).
While regularly doing more reps per set should result in more muscle gain over time than doing fewer, there are a few important caveats to consider.
For example, in one study, weightlifters had to maintain an isometric contraction (basically hold a weight with their muscles contracted) at 20, 50, and 80% of their maximum isometric strength. In this study, taking baking soda only improved the time the weightlifters could hold the lightest weight, probably because they couldn’t hold the other weights long enough to experience any benefit (in the tests that involved holding weights equal to 50 and 80% of their maximum isometric strength, the weightlifters only held the weights for 58 and 20 seconds, respectively) .
A similar study showed that baking soda benefitted weightlifters who had to hold an isometric contraction for 85 seconds. Based on the results of these two studies, it’s likely that baking soda only boosts endurance during sets that last longer than one minute.
Baking soda’s ability to aid muscle endurance might also hinge on how close to failure (the point at which you can’t complete a rep despite giving maximum effort) you train.
For instance, baking soda doesn’t offer much benefit in studies that have weightlifters train shy of failure. In studies where weightlifters take multiple sets to failure, however, baking soda boosts performance.
Since training to failure isn’t necessary for building muscle and may actually hinder strength gain, it’s difficult to know whether baking soda would boost the performance of weightlifters who perform most of their sets in the 4-to-12 rep range (which shouldn’t take more than a minute) and rarely train to failure.
When it comes to strength, baking soda appears to be even less of a boon. A 2020 meta-analysis of 11 studies published in Sports Medicine (Auckland, N.Z.) found that baking soda was no more effective at improving strength than a placebo.
That said, while baking soda may not increase strength per se, it might prevent the decline in strength you experience as you tire.
One study conducted by scientists at the University of Brighton showed that basketball players who supplemented with baking soda and performed leg extensions before a game and again at the end of each quarter experienced only a 9% reduction in strength between the first and final buzzer. Players who did the same and took a placebo saw their strength dip by 15%.
This is pertinent to weightlifters because research shows that the more you can maintain your strength set-to-set, the more strength you’ll gain over time. Basically, it may improve your stamina throughout your workout.
Despite positively affecting athletic performance, many athletes are dissuaded from using baking soda as a supplement because of its side effects.
While consuming large amounts of baking soda is safe from a health standpoint, the buildup of CO2 in the gut following baking soda supplementation may cause bloating, stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain.
These side effects are dose-dependent, which means their incidence and severity increase as the dose increases.
The good news is you can minimize or avoid these symptoms by consuming baking soda in smaller doses throughout the day, ideally with food, and about three hours before your workout (more on the specifics soon). Taking it in capsule form may help, too.
One of the criticisms of research on baking soda is that it’s particularly susceptible to the placebo effect, a phenomenon in which people benefit from an inert treatment purely because they believe it’s helping them.
The primary reason for this is that people typically know when they’ve taken baking soda because it makes them feel bloated, and when they know they’ve taken something that they expect to improve their performance, they tend to perform better.
In one study, researchers counteracted this by giving participants a placebo that didn’t affect performance but caused similar side effects to baking soda. In this study, baking soda improved cycling performance by 17.5%, while a placebo that upset the participants’ stomachs increased performance by 9.5%.
Even when side effects are undetectable, the placebo effect is prevalent in baking soda research. For instance, in another study, the researchers told participants that they were always taking baking soda pills when they were actually taking a placebo half the time. Whether they took a placebo or baking soda, their running performance increased to a similar degree—1.5% and 1.7%, respectively.
When the researchers reversed the experiment and told the participants they were always taking an inert pill even though half the time they were taking baking soda, the participants’ performance didn’t improve.
Studies like these, and more like them, are what led researchers of a large review conducted by scientists at the University of São Paulo to estimate that around 30% of the performance-enhancing benefits of “buffering agents” (substances like baking soda that neutralize the acid in muscles) could be attributed to the placebo effect.
This doesn’t necessarily invalidate studies showing baking soda boosts performance, but it’s worth keeping in mind when weighing its importance in your supplement regimen, especially if you experience side effects.
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There are two ways to take baking soda as a supplement: In single or multiple doses.
The difference is that in a single-dose protocol, you take a single dose shortly before training, and in a multiple-dose protocol, you take multiple doses for several days leading up to an important workout or competition.
The optimal dose for a single-dose protocol is 0.3 grams of baking soda per kilo of body weight taken 1-to-3 hours before exercise. Taking more than this won’t improve performance further and increases the risk of experiencing side effects.
For a multiple-dose protocol, take 0.4 or 0.5 grams of baking soda per kilo of body weight per day for 3-to-7 days leading up to a key workout or competition. You can take it on the day of competition as well, but it’s best not to if it upsets your stomach.
With this approach, it’s best to take baking soda in small doses throughout the day instead of one large dose (0.1-to-0.2 grams of baking soda per kilo of body weight at lunch and dinner, for example). Multidosing baking soda like this reduces the risk of side effects.
Research also shows baking soda may work synergistically with other supplements to boost your performance.
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Research shows that supplementing with 0.2-to-0.5 grams (16-to-41 grams for a ~180 pound man) of baking soda per kilo of body weight improves muscular endurance during high-intensity exercise lasting between 30 seconds and 12 minutes.
The benefits seem small—a few seconds in most cases—but this may be the difference between finishing first and finishing as “first loser,” which is paramount if you’re a competitive athlete.
Thus, provided you can mitigate the side effects and maintain the knotty dosing protocol, baking soda is a cheap, accessible supplement that may well give you a competitive edge.
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