Monday, February 20, 2012

Beta Alanine and Baking Soda (NaHCO3), a Synergistic Duo for 4-min All-Out Sprints Even in Highly Trained Athletes?

Image 1: I guess many of the competitive track cyclists will be taking beta alanine either on its own, or as part of one of the thousands of proprietary blends in the squillion ergogenic supps you can chose from at your favorite supplement store. I am yet pretty sure that only very few of them have heard that a much more efficient ergogenic aid may be lying around unnoticed in their kitchen.
If you had to compile a list of proven (and I am not talking about the way "proven" is used by the supplement industry!) ergogenic aids and ordered them by the number of publications, carbohydrates (all types) and protein (including BCAAs and EAAs) would be at the top of the list... from then, things get somewhat more complicated, but I would guess that creatine could actually have the potential to make it to the third place - it would by all means be within the top 5. Whether this is true for beta alanine, which probably would be the #4 on the list of an increasing number of physical culturists, appears yet questionable, to say the least. After all, the number of pertinent publications is, contrary to what common wisdom suggests, not exactly "extensive", to say the least. And the total effect size of 2.85% for bouts of exercise lasting 60-240s (for <60s beta alanine had no effect), which has been calculated by Hobson et al. in a recently published review of the available literature on that subject (Hobson. 2011), is not nearly as earth-shattering as headlines like "the next creatine" would make you believe.

Beta alanine, baking soda or both? What maximizes 4-min all-out cycling performance?

Against that background and in view of the results of a recently published study by researchers from the School of Human Life Sciences at the University of Tasmania in Australia (Bellinger. 2012), it could thusly (once more) be advisable that you initially resort to the stuff that is already sitting in your kitchen cabinet, before you spend extra bucks on expensive supplements... I guess, you are now asking yourselves what the hack this idiot is talking about now, so I guess, I best let you know what you have to look for: Baking soda! As a (hopefully) faithful student of the SuppVersity, you will be aware that I am a huge fan of this cheap, readily available and - potential diarrhea aside - side-effect free alkalanizer (cf. "Baking Soda for Stressed White Blood Cells" and "Sodium Bicarbonate, An Ergogenic Aid from Your Kitchen Cupboard").
Image 2: "Cholesterol is the devil and sodium is his little brother!" Everyone who still believes everything the medical orthodoxy says, please raise your hands!
A note on the dangers of "salt": Firstly, baking soda is "only" ~28% sodium, which means that for every 4 grams you ingest you get roughly 1 g of sodium. Secondly, it is arguable how much of the sodium is effectively taken up and will be floating around in your blood. As T. Lakhanisky points out in his dossier for the Belgian government: "The uptake of sodium, via exposure to sodium carbonate, is much less than the uptake of sodium via food. Therefore, sodium carbonate is not expected to be systemically available in the body." (Lakhanisky. 2002) And thirdly, there is more and more evidence that suggests that the chloride rather than the sodium content of common table salt (NaCl = NatriumChloride) is the root cause of "sodium induced hypertension" in "sodium sensitive" individuals / animal models. Only recently, a study by Schmidlin et al. showed that chloride loading induced hypertension in the stroke-prone spontaneously hypertensive rat despite profound sodium depletion (Schmidlin. 2010). So, if you asked me, rather than pointing at salt as the #2 on the list of greatest evils (obviously cholesterol is still #1, here) the medical orthodoxy would be better advised to address the imbalances between sodium and potassium, which are so characteristic of the western diet, instead of painting yet another black and white picture where sodium is the bad guy and potassium the dangerous mineral that cannot be sold OTC in dosages >80mg.... but hey, this would be the topic for a whole new blogpost and as gross as it may sound, the chance that you get diarrhea from the baking soda is probably 1000x higher than the remote possibility of increases in blood pressure. A 1990 study by Luft et al. even found that the blood pressure of 10 mildly hypertensive and normal subjects decreased by 5mmHg after 7 days in the course of which they drank 3 liters of sodium bicarbonate containing water per day (Luft. 1990)
To elucidate the individual and synergistic effects of sodium bicarbonate and / or beta alanine on the cycling performance of 14 highly trained cyclist (age: 25.4y; weight: 71.1kg; VO2Max = 66.6 ml/kg), Bellinger and his colleagues provided their subjects in a double-blind manner with a daily dose of 65mg/kg beta alanine or placebo in capsule form (in a previous study a similar dosing regimen elicited a 57% increase in skeletal muscle carnosine). The subjects had to consume the capsules in four equal doses spread across the day to make sure that the well-known tingling would betray which of the subjects was in the active arm of the study and which received the placebo (interestingly, this still happened in two of the subjects). After the initial 28-day supplementation period in the course of which the subjects had to follow a standardized HIT training program (2 sessions per week: 8x 90%VO2Max for 2.5min followed by 3min recovery at 40%, each) in addition to their regular training which had to be accurately logged, so that the researchers would be able to identify potential confounding factors which could influence the individual results in the two subsequent performance trials. 

Training log, diet log, wash-out periods - all in the name of science

Moreover, the subjects were asked to record their dietary intake in the 24h before the first performance trial, so that they could replicate the latter on the subsequent 2nd trial, which took place after a 2-day washout period, so that the subjects which had received the active sodium bicarbonate treatment (0.3g/kg NaHCO3 with 10ml/kg water to wash the capsules down) in the first trial would not derive any remaining benefit from that in the second trial, where the subjects that had previously been assigned to the placebo group, received the NaCHO3-filled capsules, while the others swallowed a placebo 90 minutes before they performed a single 4-min maximal bout of cycling on identical air-braked, front access cycle ergometers.
Figure 1: Absolute (left) and relative (right) increase in average power and total work during 4-min all out sprints on a cycle ergometer in response to chronic (28-day) beta alanine, acute (90min pre) baking soda, or combined supplementation (data adapted from Bellinger. 2012)
From the results in figure 1 it is easy to say that beta alanine alone had did not exert statistically significant ergogenic effects during the 4-min all-out cycling bout in this group of highly trained athletes - a finding, by the way, of which the researchers state that it "is consistent with previous literature investigating the effects of β-alanine supplementation on maximal exercise efforts in trained populations". The increases in average power (p = 0.036) and total work (p = 0.044), on the other hand, were likewise not earth-shattering, but statistically significant and could well make the difference between victory and defeat in one of the track cycling races during the upcoming Olympic games in London.

Sodium bicarbonate only for track cyclists? And what about beta alanine?

While obviously the fewest of you will be professional track cyclists, some of you may perform other sports which require intermediate all-out sprints in the 2-6 minute range - you, and everyone who is doing some sort of "sprinting" exercise as part of his / her high intensity (interval) cardio training, once in a while could thusly very well benefit from the ph-buffering effects of baking soda - probably even more so than from beta alanine, of which I am still surprised that people are taking it chronically. After all, the wash-out period for beta alanine is >15 weeks and does not appear to depend on either the amount or intensity of exercise that is performed (Baguet. 2009; Stellingwerff. 2011). It would thusly be prudent to load up on carnosine by supplementing ~800mg of beta alanine for 6 weeks once in a while to maximize the intra-muscular buffer-capacity and to use a whopping dose of 0.3g/kg sodium bicarbonate, whenever you feel that you need a small, but statistical significant performance boost or just want to make sure not to get over-acidic during your workouts.