Scientists in Leuven, Belgium could have proven that something you may have been regularly using a lot during lockdown to bake banana bread could actually prove useful at the sharp end of a bike race.
Sodium bicarbonate has long been discussed within nutrition and science circles around its potential to be a useful performance aid. Plenty of previous studies have shown that the correct amounts can improve physical performance, especially in middle-distance running.
However, the use of sodium bicarbonate has never been tested within a replicated cycling race effort, with the aim of this new study to perform a high-intensity cycling effort at the end of a three hour simulated race.
Previous studies have also never looked at the effects that sodium bicarbonate ingestion midway through physical activity can also have on performance.
Taking place at the respected Bakala Academy in Leuven, the testing protocol saw 11 trained male cyclists complete a three hour simulated cycling race culminating with a 90 second all-out sprint at the end.
During this testing protocol half of the group ingested 300mg per kilogram of body weight of sodium bicarbonate, 150mg per kg before the test and 150mg per kg during the three hour simulated bike race.
For a 70kg rider this would equate to digesting around four to five teaspoons of sodium bicarbonate across these two periods.
The other half of the group carried out the same testing protocol but ingested a placebo instead, but none of the participants were aware of who was the placebo group and who was the sodium bicarbonate group.
Results showed that despite there being no significant difference between maximal power across the placebo and bicarbonate groups. There was a three per cent increase in average power output over the 90 seconds sprint in favour of the bicarbonate group, averaging over 17 watts higher output overall.
The use of sodium bicarbonate is not illegal within professional sport and isn’t listed as a banned substance on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s prohibited list.
The science behind using bicarbonate in a sporting context is around its ability when absorbed into the blood to lower the blood acidity level which consequently raises the blood’s pH level. This then acts as a buffer for the blood against increasing lactate levels which are commonplace during anaerobic and high-intensity exercises such as all-out prolonged efforts ilike long sprint at the end of a race.
The authors of this study have recommended that coaches and athletes should test the supplementation protocol in training sessions before applying it to competition.
Even though this study suggests that raiding your baking cupboard could be the way to go for an added kick at the end of the race. It may be best to wait for the time being as previous studies have shown misuse of sodium bicarbonate can lead to stomach issues, which as we know in cycling is never a recipe for success.
Read the full study here (opens in new tab).
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Paul Knott is a fitness and features writer, who has also presented Cycling Weekly videos as well as contributing to the print magazine as well as online articles. In 2020 he published his first book, The Official Tour de France Road Cycling Training Guide (Welbeck), a guide designed to help readers improve their cycling performance via cherrypicking from the strategies adopted by the pros.
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