If you want to up your exercise game, look no further than your kitchen cupboard.
A new study has found that an ingredient more commonly used for cooking (and cleaning) can help you keep the energy up when our muscles fatigue from acid build-up during intense exercise.
In the double-blind randomised cross-over study study, researchers from Germany’s Institute of Sport wanted to explore whether using bicarb soda (believed to be an alkalising agent that neutralises acidity – known as buffering) could assist athletes to run farther, faster.
After drinking either sodium bicarbonate (0.3g/kg) or placebo (4g NaCl) in 700ml of water one and a half hours earlier, 18 trained runners completed two time-to-exhaustion tests and two constant load tests (a 35 minute run at 95 per cent followed by exercise till exhaustion).
While time to exhaustion in the prolonged running exercises was not significantly different in either group, the bicarb soda runners displayed “significantly enhanced” maximal performance.
“In this test, they kept making it harder and harder until the athletes couldn’t do any more,” explains Professor Jon Buckley, director of the Alliance for Research in Exercise, Nutrition and Activity (ARENA) at the University of South Australia.
“At the very end of that test there was an advantage in the group that got the bicarbonate – they were able to tolerate much high levels of lactic acid and so that’s why they were able to perform better. The bicarbonate buffers the acidity of the acid – you can accumulate more before it stops you.”
The effect, however, only applies to shorter, sharper periods of exercise that lasts between between 30 seconds and 15 minutes.
“With the endurance tests they performed it didn’t show any performance effect. It supports all the previous studies but shows it’s not going to be particularly useful for endurance athletes.”
Bicarb “loading” by athletes has been around for about 70 years and is listed on the AIS group A supplements page, says Dr Joanna McMillan.
“These are approved supplements that have been shown in scientific trials to provide a performance benefit,” explains McMillan, a dietitian and sport’s nutritionist. “So I guess this study adds to this body of evidence and is showing use in a group of athletes who may not have traditionally thought to benefit.”
There is reason it is not commonly used, however.
“The main problem with it is the gastrointestinal side-effects. The bloating etcetera that you can get can be quite uncomfortable,” warns Buckley.
“I remember years ago the South Australian Sport’s Institute were trying it in their rowers but they were having gastrointestinal effects so it defeats the purpose. If you can tolerate it there is good evidence that it is fine for high-intensity, short-duration exercise.”
Getting the dose right to get benefits without wind pain is a matter of self-experimentation, he adds.
“But the dose you could tolerate might not give you any advantage,” Buckley explains, adding: “It’s not going to hurt them, it might just make them a bit uncomfortable.”
As various sport’s institutes explore legal methods to give athletes an edge, researchers have tried everything from chocolate milk to bovine colostrum. Common ingredients in your kitchen however cut the mustard equally as well, if not better.
Many athletes are playing with protein manipulation to maintain their muscle mass and don’t accumulate too much body fat, while a diet full of antioxidant-rich fruit and vegetables will help with “some aspects” of athletic performance including reduced muscle damage, immune dysfunction and fatigue.
Nitrate, found in green leafy vegetables and beetroot, is another kitchen trick.
“Beetroot is full of nitrate. Antioxidants and nitrate are beneficial for performance and there’s good evidence around that.
“Many athletes are using beetroot juice now – it is a concentrated form of nitrate which dilates your blood vessels and gets more blood flowing to the muscle and therefore improves performance,” Buckley says. “Tart cherry juice – there’s also evidence for that.”
McMillan agrees that there is “good evidence” for beetroot juice although “concentrated juice shots probably needed to get enough”.
“In terms of recovery high antioxidant foods and drinks might help – maybe where cherries come in,” she adds. “But otherwise it’s back to good old carbs – they are without doubt the endurance athlete’s best bet for performance and recovery, particularly if training again within 24 hours.”
And there’s not an expensive supplement in sight.
“There are more people now looking at foods as opposed to supplements to see if you can increase your intake of certain foods whether that will be beneficial. These are all small, marginal gains,” Buckley says. “Nothing benefits more than a good training program. But I guess people are always looking for that extra lift.”