Between protein powder, pre-workout supplements, and electrolyte packets, it's pretty common to see people mixing up powders in the locker room at your gym. But if you happen to come across people pouring a box of baking soda into water, that might have you a little perplexed — or maybe even intrigued.
This practice of drinking baking soda before a workout is commonly referred to as "soda loading." Baking soda is a chemical compound called sodium bicarbonate, that's often used to help make baked goods leaven or rise, and neutralize household odors. But some bodybuilders and hardcore exercisers will drink dissolved baking soda before a workout, because they believe that it will somehow enhance their performance. The theory states that sodium bicarbonate basically blocks lactic acid, which is the compound that contributes to muscle soreness. People do all kinds of whacky things like this to hack their bodies at the gym, but is drinking baking soda really a good idea?
"Training smarter and more consistently and eating a healthful diet would give most people far more improvement in exercise performance than taking baking soda," says Ted Weiss, PhD, professor in the department of nutrition and dietetics at Saint Louis University, who has studied baking soda's effects on muscles and performance. That said, some research suggests that consuming baking soda may improve performance during specific, high-intensity, short burst-type exercises, like sprinting, he says.
Before you go raiding your kitchen cabinets, keep in mind that the amount of baking soda that you'd need to consume (300 milligrams per kilogram of bodyweight) in order to reap the benefits during exercise can be dangerous, and lead to some uncomfortable side effects, Dr. Weiss says. For example, if you were to drink or eat large quantities of baking soda, you'd most likely experience diarrhea, vomiting, or both, he says. That much baking soda contains 7,000 milligrams of sodium, which is three times the daily recommended values, he says. And if that's not enough to dissuade you, sodium and bicarbonate are electrolytes that can "have effects on electrical activity in cells, including the heart," which could cause arrhythmias, he says.
While these side effects sound scary, Dr. Weiss says that consuming baking soda in safe and limited doses may not be harmful, and could be somewhat effective. If you're a competitive sprinter, and you took the appropriate precautions with dosage to prevent cardiac health issues, then using baking soda could make sense because it improves your speed, he says. (But even Dr. Weiss, who is a competitive biker and scientist, doesn't soda load.) For the rest of us, baking soda is just one other nasty powder concoction that you don't need to drink.