Baking soda and other tips for Olympians — or everyday athletes

College of Health Solutions research looks at GI tract connection to athletic performance

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Photo by Andrea Piacquadio via Pexels.

By Aidan Hansen

As athletes from around the world prepare for the 2024 Olympic games in Paris this summer, two College of Health Solutions professors recently shared research that could help those athletes, or anyone else taking part in strenuous activity, perform better.

College of Health Solutions researchers presented on various topics at the American College of Sports Medicine 2024 Annual Meeting in Boston, Massachusetts, this summer.

Assistant Professor Floris Wardenaar weighed in on gastrointestinal issues, while Associate Professor Jason Siegler presented on sodium bicarbonate’s (baking soda) use for athletic performance.

The information they shared could be crucial to an athlete's success. 

Wardenaar’s presentation included data from his 2023 journal article on a study that focused on team sports. 

According to the study, between 30% and 90% of all athletes suffer from gastrointestinal, or GI, complaints, with 52% of athletes in the study experiencing GI complaints during exercise. While extensive research has gone into endurance athletes who suffer from GI complaints and the main causes when exercising aerobically, the same can not be said for athletes on team sports, which tax the anaerobic system.

This system is used for short bursts of energy to break down glucose that does not use oxygen, while the aerobic system uses oxygen to produce reactions in cells to produce energy. Anaerobic exercises have generally not received the same attention level as aerobic exercises.

GI complaints have also been found to harm athlete performance; in a 2000 study observing triathlon athletes, nearly 93% of all participants had GI complaints and 7% of the participants dropped out of the triathlon due to GI complaints. 

The problem with a GI complaint is that it's hard to understand the root cause, but bringing awareness to the issue can help an athlete get it resolved sooner, and increased awareness can benefit all athletes.

“What happens is that people may report GI complaints to some extent, but they can be completely different,” Wardenaar said. “So that already shows how complex the situation is.”

Wardenaar’s study did show that those who took protein and amino acid supplements regularly had more complaints overall, especially when it came to acid reflux, bloating, rumbling, diarrhea and passing gas. 

Endurance athletes — distance runners and cyclists, for example — are more likely to have GI complaints compared to athletes on team-based sports, but according to the study, moderate and severe complaints remained consistent with endurance and team sports.

Another concern for Olympic athletes and GI complaints is that common bacteria colonies differ between countries; thus, the athletes’ gut may not be used to this when traveling to Paris. In this case, athletes — especially those from non-Western cultures — may need to be careful in making their food choices.

“It may be a difficult time for them based on those different bacterial cultures as well. And there's not much that you can do there, the only thing that you can do is be careful,” Wardenaar said.

Wardenaar says that the best thing that an Olympic athlete can do to be prepared for the food and bacteria in another country is to wash their hands frequently. It is also important to make sure that what is being consumed has been cooked and sourced properly. 

Sodium bicarbonate and athletic performance

For the upcoming Olympics, getting the edge on the competition is the name of the game and athletes will use whatever methods they can to improve efficiency and take home the gold.

Siegler is a part of Professionals in Nutrition for Exercise and Sport, a sports nutrition group that partnered with the American College of Sports Medicine meeting to present on the potential benefit of a new sodium bicarbonate product for Olympic marathon runners and other endurance athletes.

This product, sold by the company Maurten, is called the bicarb system. This product uses a hydrogel combined with sodium bicarbonate.

The theoretical application of this supplement relates to the kidney’s natural production of bicarbonate to balance the body’s pH levels. By overloading the system with sodium bicarbonate, this increases blood buffering capacity, making the body more alkaline temporarily. This can give athletes who do prolonged bouts of high-intensity exercise the ability to reduce the amount of stress on the kidneys and improve performance.

“The idea is that if you're exercising at a really high rate, then that extra buffering can allow the energy systems responsible for providing energy to continue at that rate for longer than it normally would,” Siegler said. 

However, one of the side effects of ingesting sodium bicarbonate is, when it reacts with stomach acid, it can lead to bloating and GI complaints. These complaints can harm performance and is why the Maurten-developed product keeps sodium bicarbonate away from stomach acid.

“This hydrogel product captures that bicarbonate and doesn't allow it to get broken up in the stomach, and it goes down into the intestines where it gets absorbed,” Siegler said.

According to Siegler, four to five hours after ingesting sodium bicarbonate, the effect wears off, bringing the body’s pH back to normal levels.

This knowledge can help Olympic athletes who use sodium bicarbonate for two reasons: Sodium bicarbonate is one of the few legal supplements that the Olympic Rules Committee allows in competition, and with expected high temperatures during the 2024 Paris Olympics, it could mean the difference between a gold medal and going home empty-handed.

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