25 July 2008

Baking soda to improve performance?

Can baking soda really improve an athletes performance? A study has shown that it may indeed give swimmers the edge, but FitnessDoc says it's really not worth it.

Can baking soda really improve an athlete's performance? A study has shown that it may indeed give swimmers the edge, but FitnessDoc says it's really not worth it.

British researchers found that when they gave nine swimmers a sodium bicarbonate supplement about one hour before a 200-meter swim, the athletes were able to shave some time off their usual performance.

The findings, published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine, offer evidence to support what some elite athletes are already doing. "It is not uncommon for top-level swimmers to take sodium bicarbonate prior to competition," said Dr Jonathan P. Folland, the senior researcher on the study.

However, Health24's FitnessDoc, Ross Tucker said that while this is a practice that's been in use since the 1980s, the negatives far outweigh the positives and strongly advised against it.

Who uses it and why?
Sodium bicarbonate naturally reduces acids and is an ingredient in some antacids used to treat heartburn and indigestion. The reasoning behind its use in sports is that, during short bursts of intense exercise, the muscles can begin to produce large amounts of lactic acid, which then contributes to fatigue. Sodium bicarbonate acts as a "buffer" against these acids. "Essentially sodium bicarbonate is an alkali that increases the pH of the blood," explained Folland, of Loughborough University in the UK. "This seems to reduce and offset the acidity produced in the muscles during intense exercise."

How the study was done
For the current study, Folland and his colleagues tested nine competitive swimmers' performance times under three conditions: normal supplement-free conditions; 60 to 90 minutes after taking sodium bicarbonate capsules; and 60 to 90 minutes after taking calcium carbonate capsules, which served as a placebo.

Overall, the researchers found, eight of the nine swimmers logged their fastest times after taking the sodium bicarbonate supplement.

On average, the swimmers shaved 1.5 seconds off of their performance time, Folland's team found. While that might seem insignificant, the researchers point out, it is actually substantial at the elite level.

They note that at the Athens Olympics, the top four finishers in the men's 200-meter freestyle were separated by 1.4 seconds.

What the expert says
The downside of sodium bicarbonate is its potential for side effects, especially at high doses. These include gastrointestinal woes like cramps, nausea and diarrhoea. And while this may sound like a small price to pay if you can shave a few seconds off your time, Tucker reiterated that the payoff really isn't worth it.

"Tests on whether this works are usually carried out on average athletes who have room for improvement. Elite athletes would not use this as the downside negative effects are larger than any minor benefit they would get," he said.

(Reuters Health, July 2008)

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