Sodium Bicarbonate Supplementation

Sodium Bicarbonate: Reducing Fatigue in Combat Sports?

Sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) is primarily used for cooking and usually appears in powder form, but it is also taken as a sports supplement which can potentially reduce fatigue in athletes. In an industry full of hyped supplements with false claims, is it possible that a more effective supplement than the ones you’re paying good money for is sitting right under your nose?

Actually, sodium bicarbonate has been studied as an ergogenic aid for around 70 years, but there is still an uncertainty as to its exact mechanism of action, and whether it produces a significant ergogenic effect due to many conflicting studies.

From the evidence presented, it is possible that ingestion of sodium bicarbonate may prolong fatigue in combat sports athletes, and allow them to reproduce powerful efforts for longer.

Although little research has focused on the effects of sodium bicarbonate supplementation in combat sports, we can look at other high-intensity, intermittent protocols using this substance and make logical comparisons to our own sports.

 

A Major Cause of Fatigue in Combat Sports

Acidosis - A major cause of fatigue in combat sports

There are several causes of fatigue in combat sports. Some of them include muscle glycogen depletion, muscle phosphocreatine depletion, increased extracellular K+ concentration, dehydration, hydroelectrolytic imbalance, and muscle acidosis (3).

One of these main causes of fatigue in combat sports is muscle acidosis (5).

We are constantly producing lactate, but our bodies are efficient at removing it when we are resting. When we exercise, our bodies require more energy than normal to fuel our muscles.

As high-intensity exercise progresses, the blood becomes more and more acidic. An increased level of acidity in the blood is known as “acidosis”.

When an ATP molecule is broken down, a hydrogen ion is released in the process, but when we perform high-intensity work our metabolism isn’t able to keep up with the ever-growing number of hydrogen ions in our body. So, it’s actually the accumulation of hydrogen ions that makes the surrounding environment acidic, and causes our muscles to burn (6).

Combat sports in general are characterised by intermittent, high-intensity bouts, and an important part of the energy supply comes from the breakdown of carbohydrate (glycolysis).

Acidosis limits the activity of the glycolytic energy production system so we can’t fuel our muscles as efficiently as we’d like to.

The muscle fibres’ acidification inhibits the degradation of new glycogen molecules as glycolytic enzymes decrease. In addition, a low pH (low PH means more acidic) leads to calcium loss in the muscles, and prevents contraction (2).

This increase acidity is thought to hinder both metabolic and contractile processes of muscles through the lowering of muscle cell pH levels (7, 8), which may ultimately contribute to muscle fatigue and, therefore, impair exercise performance.

So although producing lactate is a good sign (we wouldn’t be able to produce that series of powerful strikes without it), when lactate production outweighs lactate removal, we become fatigued and our performance levels drop. Our body’s natural buffers can only do so much before they become overwhelmed (1).

 

Sodium Bicarbonate Mechanism of ActionSodium Bicarbonate Mechanism of Action

Sodium bicarbonate’s proposed mechanism of action is to reduce acidity in the blood by acting as a buffer.

Buffer systems reduce the blood’s pH through their ability to neutralize acids or bases (2).

There is strong evidence (4) that sodium bicarbinate acts as an extracellular buffer to counter the acidosis caused by the increased hydrogen ion concentration during exercise, and could effectively reduce fatigue (9).

Ingesting sodium bicarbonate boosts the body’s buffering capacity, allowing more lactate to be produced AND removed before the acidity levels become so high that the muscles fatigue. This results in an increased ability for athletes to increase the duration of their power and strength task (1).

For this reason, athletes can attempt to block acidity and prolong exercise capacity by drinking sodium bicarbonate.

 

The Effects of Sodium Bicarbonate on High-Intensity PerformanceSodium Bicarbonate Mechanism of Action

  • Researchers (10) have determined that 0.3g/kg of body weight sodium bicarbonate ingestion prolonged fatigue during repeated sprints, seeing an 11.5% increase in maximum power during sprint 2 which remained largely unchanged during subsequent sprints.

 

  • 30-s maximal efforts with three minutes recovery between each effort saw a 4m/s average speed increase and an extra 2 metres in total distance covered in the sodium bicarbonate group, when compared to the control group (11).

 

  • 300mg/kg sodium carbonate ingestion prior to a short repeated sprint test in college-aged females has been shown to increase work output by 5% (15).

 

  • A meta-analysis of 38 studies showed that acute bicarbonate loading increases high-intensity, short-duration exercise mean power output by 1.7% (4).

 

  • 100mg/200mg/300mg/kg bodyweight of sodium carbonate supplementation have all been shown to be effective for increasing blood-buffering capacity, although 100mg/kg sodium bicarbonate increased the bodily buffering capacity to a lesser degree than the 200mg and 300mg/kg. The 200mg/kg dosage is best ingested 40 to 50 minutes before exercise and the 300mg/kg dosage 60 minutes before exercise (13).

 

  • Positive effects seem to result from increases in serum and extracellular bicarbonate levels, which increase acid buffering capacity and attenuate the development of metabolic acidosis during intense exercise (16, 17, 10, 18).

 

  • Sodium bicarbonate supplementation of 250mg/kg bodyweight is ineffective in increasing short‐term maximal exercise capacity using cycle ergometers (19).

 

  • Despite notably enhanced blood-buffering capacity, sodium bicarbonate has been shown to have no effect on the total work done, critical power, or the overall performance during 3 min of all-out cycling

 

Conclusion and Recommendations
Sodium Bicarbonate Practical Applications for Combat Sports

Although the evidence is not conclusive, sodium bicarbonate generally seems to reduce fatigue during high intensity, intermittent exercise, and in a limited number of studies, improve maximal power, too. This is of great benefit to combat sports athletes.

Gastrointestinal disturbances are common-place, so the side affects may well outweigh the benefit, but this depends on the individuals symptoms.

Trial and error is needed to ascertain what reaction one may experience from sodium bicarbonate supplementation and shouldn’t be taken for competition on the first time of using it.

 

Dosage/Timing

For acute loading, a dose of 200-300 mg/kg of sodium bicarbonate 60-90 minutes prior to training is optimal.

Alternatively, the athlete may take 500mg/kg divided into three doses during the day.

Take half the amount of the recommended dose when you try sodium bicarbonate for the first time in case of gastrointestinal issues.

Sip the solution slowly over a few minutes to reduce gastrointestinal disturbances

Trial and error needs to be exorcised before taking sodium bicarbonate for sports performance purposes.

 

Side Effects

Several studies (22, 231412) reported multiple forms of gastrointestinal disturbances including wind, vomiting and diarrhea in participats as a result of sodium bicarbonate ingestion.

While the reason for this is not clear, ingestion of hypertonic solutions causes an intraluminal osmotic load and water shift from plasma and extracellular fluid to the intestinal lumen. This would be expected to contribute to osmotic diarrhea and/or gastrointestinal distress.

Likelihood of symptoms are reduced by taking the solution in divided doses throughout the day.

About Aaron Jahn

Aaron is an active muay Thai fighter and coach from the UK. He holds a BSc (hons) degree in Strength & Conditioning and is currently studying a Sports Therapy Master's degree in Leeds, UK. Aaron has fought over 20 times in Thailand and has spent years training at different muay Thai camps all over the country.

4 comments

  1. Have you tried multiple dosis during a day?
    When the enhancing effects dissapear, a few hours after i took the first dosis, does the performance decrease with it? I ask that because sometimes we compete in amateur tournaments, where you dont exactly know when you will fight.
    And have you tried it yourself? If it really works, it would be the cheapest supplement!

    • Tournaments are definitely tricky when it comes to nutrition and supplements. My advice would be to try and top up on sodium bicarbonate when you are eating as you’d probably have some idea of when your next fight will be if you’re willing to eat at that time.

      After 90 minutes post-supplementation the effects of the sodium bicarbonate will start to fade so you should probably think about topping up every hour to ensure you get the benefits of the supplement during your fight. That is in the perfect world though, and your body may not react pleasantly to doing it this way! So you’ll need to do a lot of trial and error to find out which intervals you are OK with. If you get gastro-intestinal disturbances then you’ll need to space the supplementation out more.

      DO NOT try this at a tournament before practicing in training!

      Good luck.

  2. Hey Aaron, top article mate. I’m a bit intellectually challenged after 32 yrs of Muay Thai so in simpleton terms how much sodium bicarbonate should I take on a daily basis – I weigh 90 kgs. BTW, I don’t compete any more, just train Muay Thai regularly. All the best 🙂

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