If you have a box of this fizz-producing, salty powder sitting in your fridge right now, it’s possible you’ve been sitting on an underrated pre-workout supplement. Consuming baking soda, pre-workout, might sound like a folksy, jacked grandmother’s homespun tip for a great CrossFit workout but, surprisingly, there’s science to back it up.
Baking soda—mixed up in water and downed like a (kind of gross) shake—could have real applications for athletic performance, especially sprints, high-intensity interval training, and other workouts that require serious anaerobic output. Here’s the lowdown on how it could work and whether it’s a worthwhile option for you.
Can I use baking soda as a workout supplement?
Dirt cheap and easy to find in any grocery store, baking soda—also called sodium bicarbonate—is described by the American College of Sports Medicine as one of the leading ergogenic aids, which is a clinical way of saying that it has the potential to enhance performance. That has a lot to do with the fact that it acts as a “buffer” that helps neutralize acid in the body.
High-intensity exercise relies heavily on anaerobic glycolysis for energy production—this is a process that rapidly provides energy, but can also cause pH to drop and acidity to increase, says Eric Trexler, director of education at the online coaching platform Stronger By Science, whose research focuses on pre-workout nutrition. “This exercise-induced drop in pH is called metabolic acidosis, and it can interfere with a number of metabolic processes and is linked to muscle fatigue,” he says. This is a big cause of the burning sensation you can get in your muscles during tough workouts.
“Though [sodium bicarbonate] formed naturally in the body, when taken as a supplement, baking soda acts as an alkalinizing agent, meaning that it can counteract the acidic environment that builds up during high-intensity exercise,” adds Daniel Preiato, a New York-based registered dietitian, strength coach, and founder of the nutrition coaching service Be Elite Nutrition.
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There’s a lot of “woo woo” pseudoscience out there about how having a more “alkaline diet” is good for you. There’s not a ton of evidence for that claim, but intense workouts do indeed appear to make the body more acidic and taking some baking soda an hour or two beforehand out may counteract that effect, make a more alkaline environment, and help you perform better.
“Ingestion of baking soda increases blood bicarbonate levels, which delays fatigue during high-intensity exercise bouts lasting one to seven minutes in duration, in addition to repeated sprint tasks and long-duration tasks that include intermittent sprinting,” Trexler says.
Considering that intramuscular pH tends to build up most rapidly during high-intensity exercise, Preiato tells me that “baking soda is most beneficial in applications such as sprints, medium rep range resistance training, and certain CrossFit workouts that require high-intensity intervals, to name a few.”
And there’s some research out there to support this. Some studies have shown sprinters improving power, rowers and swimmers increasing endurance, and both tennis players and boxers improving accuracy and endurance. However, there’s not a lot of evidence right now that it works for regular, low-rep, long rest-style strength training—but the scientific community hasn’t been examining the possibility much, either.
Should I combine baking soda with creatine?
Just when you thought taking baking soda was the weirdest supplement advice you’d hear, it turns out you may be able to further improve the benefits by combining it with creatine. Now, along with its muscle-swelling effects, creatine is well known as a supplement for improving power output. Combining it with baking soda (preferably with beakers and test tubes while cackling through a thunderstorm) could result in a potent concoction that improves your endurance.
That may not just be because you’re taking one supplement for power and one for endurance; the two appear to act synergistically. “A small 2013 study done in trained male sprinters concluded that, ‘combining creatine and sodium bicarbonate increased peak and mean power and had the greatest attenuation of decline in relative peak power over six repeat sprints,’” Preiato says. "Meaning if you are already taking creatine, it would not hurt, and may be beneficial to supplement with baking soda in addition.”
In that study, the increase in peak power was almost twice as high among people who combined the two supplements when compared with the creatine group. Now, earlier research found combining the two was better for improved swimming performance, but the authors didn’t compare one or the other alone, and a study performed in 2015 found there was “no meaningful additive effect” of combining the two. So this suggestion isn’t ironclad, but there doesn’t seem to be a reason to avoid combining them.
How much baking soda do I need?
Most of the studies use around 200 to 500 milligrams of sodium bicarbonate per kilogram of bodyweight. The higher dose might be more effective, but it’s a lot more likely to produce digestive issues, which are outlined below. So, for example, if you weigh 175 pounds, that's 80 kilograms. If you're taking the standard 300-milligrams-per-kilogram dose, that brings you to 24 grams—or the amount you'd find in four teaspoons or 1.25 tablespoons of baking soda.
Some studies have found that consuming 300 milligrams per kilo as much as 2.5 hours before exercise still improved performance, so you probably don’t need to shotgun "bicarb" and immediately start your box jumps. “The recommended starting dose is 300 milligrams per kilo, 90 minutes prior to exercise to ameliorate GI symptoms and still receive benefits,” Preiato says.
Some research has found that for a few days beforehand, taking 300 to 500 milligrams per kilo over the course of the day still resulted in better endurance than folks not supplementing, but the data is a little less concrete than it is for day-of-workout supplementation. (Those studies were on cyclists and triathletes, and they didn’t take any baking soda on the day their performance was tested to ensure they were benefitting from the chronic supplementation.)
What are the risks of taking baking soda as a pre-workout supplement?
That said, baking soda is a type of sodium, so people who have high blood pressure or have been advised to limit sodium may want to talk to a physician before mixing it with anything they normally take.
“Baking soda is widely regarded as safe when ingested in recommended dosages, but gastrointestinal side effects including diarrhea, bloating, and nausea are quite common,” adds Trexler. “In addition, baking soda doses large enough to improve performance come with a very high dose of sodium. While some people aren’t particularly sensitive to high sodium intakes, others may experience blood pressure elevations in response to such a high dose of sodium.”
Baking soda is a kind of sodium so you may want to be careful with the stuff if you’re hypertensive, but besides that, the main potential issue with this very old-school supplement is indigestion. That’s why it’s a good idea, if you’re going to try this out, to start with lower doses and work your way up to the 300mg/kg mark, which is generally seen as the minimum for performance. Happy fizzing!
A version of this article originally appeared on BarBend.com.