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Baking soda may help your game - if it doesn't make you sick

Got an important athletic competition coming up? Apparently you can boost your performance with the aid of a household product that is probably stashed in your kitchen cupboard: baking soda.

Sports-medicine researchers have known for years that consuming baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) can ease the muscle fatigue that sets in with strenuous physical exertion. But it never really caught on with many athletes and weekend warriors, probably because it tastes so awful.

Even so, a new study by researchers at the National Taiwan College of Physical Education may rekindle some interest in the white powder. Tennis players given the supplement avoided the normal decline in their performance, such as the accuracy and consistency of their strokes, that often results from prolonged play, according to the findings published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition.

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Previous studies have shown that baking soda can enhance endurance in other activities, including certain running, swimming, rowing and biking competitions as well as various ball sports.

So, how does sodium bicarbonate help to keep up your performance? Chen-kang Chang, senior author of the study and director of college's sport science research centre, said it essentially reduces the acidity of your blood.

Vigorous activity will lead to a build-up of lactic acid and hydrogen ions in the muscles, producing a sense of fatigue, Dr. Chang explained.

Sodium bicarbonate is an alkalizing agent. That means consuming baking soda will neutralize, or remove, hydrogen ions from the blood, making it less acidic. As the low-acid blood circulates through the body, it draws hydrogen ions out of the muscles and into the bloodstream. "As a result, the fatigue in muscle is reduced," Dr. Chang said.

He estimates that a dose of baking sodium may improve performance by as much as 5 per cent. In a tight competition, that could mean the difference between winning and losing.

However, you have to down a lot of baking soda. "The effective dose is 0.3 grams of bicarbonate per kilogram of body weight," Dr. Chang said. "If you weigh 70 kilograms, you would need 21 grams of baking soda. That is about four to five tablespoons.

"We put all that baking soda in 250 millilitres of water," he said, adding that many people find the mixture just too concentrated to stomach. Indeed, its salty taste can be a turnoff. What's more, some people suffer gastrointestinal distress, including diarrhea, stomach pain and vomiting - all conditions that certainly won't help your game.

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So Dr. Chang recommends starting with 500 millilitres of water. If the taste is still unacceptable, add more water. It should be consumed about an hour before the sporting event.

Dr. Chang noted that people have different levels of tolerance for the ghastly concoction. "Try it ... and see how your body responds during exercise," he urges. "If all goes well, then start using it before important competitions."

And if it doesn't work, there is no lasting harm from consuming baking soda, unlike with the controversial use of performance-enhancing drugs.

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