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In the quest for enhanced performance, could a bicarb and caffeine cocktail be the answer? We investigate...

Slow the burn

In the quest for enhanced performance, could a bicarb and caffeine cocktail be the answer? We investigate…

If you’re out on the road and lack the energy needed for your legs to carry you over the next hill there are a few (legal) ergogenic aids you can use, some of which you’re likely to find in your kitchen cupboard.

At the top end of a sport, even a one-percent boost in performance can separate the winner from the loser. For the rest of us, it can mean the difference between a personal best or another tough day at the office.

It should come as no surprise then that athletes at all levels are constantly looking for that edge. In that regard the most popular substance used by top endurance athletes the world over for its ability
to aid performance is arguably caffeine, which is used for its ability to increase energy and decrease fatigue.

Caffeine, a xanthine structure found in coffee, also has value when it comes to athletic performance because it can increase mental focus and fine motor skills. It also offers various benefits in sporting codes associated with quick bursts of speed and intensity. Caffeine also spares muscle glycogen by helping the body use both subcutaneous and intramuscular fat more efficiently for fuel. It is therefore also often considered an effective fat loss aid.

These benefits are corroborated by a mountain of scientific research. One such study, a systematic review (Effect of caffeine on sport-specific endurance performance) by Ganio, et al. published in 2009 in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, confirmed that caffeine consumption taken 15 to 60 minutes prior to exercise had a positive impact during exercise.

The rise of bicarb

However, there is another substance that seems to be growing in prominence. While it is not a new aid by any means, sodium bicarbonate (NaHCO3), commonly known as baking soda in its commercially available form, is becoming more commonplace at endurance events of all levels.

Many endurance athletes have been experimenting with this ergogenic aid for decades as means to combat the rate-limiting effects that a build up of acidity in the blood causes due to an accumulation of hydrogen ions during prolonged intense exercise.

Produced by the kidneys and in the intestinal tract, bicarb’s function is to neutralise these hydrogen ions thereby reducing acidity in the blood. Bicarb can, therefore, help to prolong time to exhaustion and promotes greater work output when your body would normally slow down due to what athletes call “the burn”.

Numerous studies have also been conducted to investigate the exact effect that bicarb has on an array of different sporting codes. Some have shown significant benefits in swimming, cycling, and repeated sprints, and others show no benefits, specifically in elite rowers. Bicarb also appears to assist tennis players by reducing the loss of swing accuracy that comes with increased fatigue and boxers benefitted by maintaining their punch accuracy. Limited research exists on its effect on weightlifters, though.

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