Getting an edge with baking soda

“Put some fizz in your game?”

That  small headline in the June issue of the University of California, Berkeley, Wellness Letter caught my  eye. It was a sidebar to a longer article on the many uses of baking soda, also known as sodium bicarbonate. I’ve used baking soda as a way to deodorize the refrigerator and clean out drains. I’ve even used it as toothpaste. My mother kept in the house for all kinds of things. It’s as wholesome and familiar a household product as Campbell Soup and Pepto-Bismol.

Never once had I thought of baking soda as a performance-enhancing  agent right up there with steroids. Yet some athletes and cultists have been experimenting with it for years.

“Some athletes consume sodium bicarbonate hoping to neutralize the lactic acid that builds up in blood and muscle during intense exercise and thus causes fatigue and impairs performance,” the Wellness Letter article said.  “Researchers have studied this proposed benefit of sodium bicarbonate for decades, for sprints as well as endurance events, with conflicting results.”

The bottom line, according to the article, is that any beneficial effect on performance is minimal and side effects can range from gastrointestinal distress to stomach rupture.

Ouch! That’s not for me. However, I was intrigued by the connection to lactic acid. I play basketball four or five times a week and am hooked on a lengthy warm-up routine to get the rust out. Like many aging baby boomers, I’d like to find a shortcut. In the old – very old — days, I could just get on the court and start popping jump shots. Maybe a little baking soda would do the trick for a few cents a day. Was there any credibility to the baking soda theory?   

I headed for Google, plugged in baking soda, sodium bicarbonate and lactic acid, and up turned 71,500 hits in one-tenth of a second. Having been a career journalist, I assume some credibility from major newspapers. Here are some thoughts from a 2008 article in the Sunday Times of London by Peta Bee:

“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,” Bee said. “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 200 meter event were able to shave a significant time off their usual performances.”

Further along in the article, Bee wrote: “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 10 kilometers) running, swimming and cycling.”

Dr. Jonathan Folland, who led the study, said swimmers who took sodium bicarbonate knocked 1.5 seconds off their time for 200 meters, a difference that may seem insignificant to recreational swimmers but which is substantial at the elite level. “The increments of improvement are relatively small to the average person, although significant to someone who competes,” Folland said in the article. “I certainly wouldn’t advocate using it if you do aerobics a few times a week.”

For optimum effects it should be taken with water, ideally before exercise, on an empty stomach. Most people take about 20 grams, the article said. That’s about five teaspoons, according to Yahoo!Answers, and you might need a strong stomach.

I checked out some other sites and found a lot of information pro and con, enthusiastic recommendations and dire warnings. I don’t like putting strange substances in my body, so I won’t be stocking up on baking soda. But still, I never would have thought mom’s cure for household ills had another life in the veiled world of cultists and elite athletes looking for an edge.

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