Many athletes use altitude training or baking soda to improve performance. But what happens when you combine the two? In a recent study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, researchers used both these performance enhancement tools to see what would happen.
Why Baking Soda and High Altitude?
The higher the altitude, the thinner the air becomes, and thus the less oxygen you inhale. Training in these conditions has been used for decades, rightly or wrongly, as a training stimulus to improve athletic function.
Besides oxygen, another limiting factor for exercise is metabolic acidosis. That’s just a fancy way of saying that some of the byproducts of intense exercise are acidic. So acidic, in fact, that they would be dangerous if the body had no coping mechanisms.
The body can cope with acidosis, however. Believe it or not, just exhaling helps to curb acidosis. Your body can also eliminate its largest acid storage supplies. That what’s happening when you throw up, and it’s partly why you get sick when you exercise too hard. Hopefully, before that happens, alkaline substances in the body can be used to combat acidosis.
Fortunately, you can consume alkaline substances as supplements.Sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) is one such alkaline substance that can be used to combat acidosis. As a performance-enhancing substance, it has long been used to extend an athlete’s ability for anaerobic exercise.
Because acidosis is particularly pronounced in high altitude training, the researchers of the new Journal study wondered if baking soda could make the altitude training even more intense. Higher intensity could potentially make altitude training more effective.
Putting It to the Test
Participants in the study performed an intense interval cycling test in four different, randomly assigned conditions:
- Condition 1: The participants breathed a normal amount of oxygen (20.93% of air) and consuming the baking soda (at 0.3 grams per kilogram of bodyweight).
- Condition 2: The participants breathed the normal oxygen, but took a placebo.
- Condition 3: This test was conducted in oxygen-poor air to simulate high altitude (14.7% of air). The participants took the same amount of baking soda as the first group.
- Condition 4: The final condition was with the oxygen-thin air and a placebo.
Did It Work?
The lack of oxygen did indeed decrease performance. The placebo group with oxygen-poor air lasted a little over two minutes, whereas the placebo with normal oxygen lasted about three minutes. As was also expected, the baking soda increased performance in the normal oxygen group by about fifteen seconds. This wasn’t as big of a difference as the oxygen versus low-oxygen group, but it was still substantial.
The interesting and unexpected result was that baking soda didn’t do much to help in the low-oxygen scenario. In fact, performance was lowest in that group, although not significantly lower than the low-oxygen and no baking soda condition.
So there you have it. Reduced performance at altitude is an even more substantial detriment than acidosis. Even the alkalizing effects of baking soda do not help at altitude. For now, spending time at altitude will be the best for those needing to compete in those conditions. At low altitudes, however, baking soda does seem to improve anaerobic performance.
1. Samantha Teh, et. al., “The differential effect of metabolic alkalosis and hypoxia on high intensity cycling performance,” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, DOI: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000000489
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