guest article by Molly Breslin
Want to improve your race performance by 1 to 3% but invest very little time, effort and money? That sounds like a gimmick on an infomercial. And 1 to 3% isn’t really a whole lot – or is it? If you are a male 30-34 Ironman athlete competing at the 2014 world championships that actually amounts to quite a bit. Let’s say you’re the 10th place finisher in that age division: a 1% gain would take you from 10th to 4th place; a 2% gain would put you on the podium in the number two spot; a 3% gain would put you on the top step of that age-group podium. Not only would your race results be better but your overall enjoyment of the race may be enhanced as well.
Now that your interest is piqued you are perhaps wondering how much money and time you would actually have to invest to achieve these gains. What would you say if I told you it was only a few minutes per week and could cost as little as $20.00 for your entire season of training and racing? Ready to buy? All right then – run or bike down to the grocery store and pick up some generic sodium bicarbonate in the baking aisle – it’s in that iconic yellow box labeled baking soda.
Let’s take an in-depth look at exactly what sodium bicarbonate is and how it works with our physiology to enhance training and racing performance. Sodium bicarbonate is an alkaline salt. Alkaline means it is a substance that possesses a pH (see below) on the basic side (8.4 to be exact where 7.0 is neutral). A salt is a chemical compound which has a hydrogen ion replaced by cation, which in this case is sodium. The chemical nomenclature for baking soda is NaHCO3. Sodium bicarbonate acts to buffer acids produced by the body during physical exertion. One of these acids is well known to us as lactic acid and another less familiar one is carbonic acid.
Now is good time to review what pH is. Many of us use this term without understanding exactly what it means and how it impacts us as athletes. pH is simply a numerical expression of the acidity or alkalinity of a solution on a logarithmic scale on which 7 is neutral, lower values being more acidic, and higher values more alkaline. The pH is equal to -log10 c, where c is the hydrogen ion concentration in moles per liter. More simply put, the concentration of hydrogen ions in your blood (and body tissues) is inversely proportional to the numerical pH value. For example, if your pH is low then your hydrogen ion concentration is high and conversely, if your pH is high then your hydrogen ion concentration is low. So, more hydrogen ions = more acidity. Human beings function optimally at a relatively alkaline (or basic) pH. The average pH of our blood is between 7.35-7.45. The normal, if not optimal functioning of every system in our body is dependent upon the pH being in this range. Normalcy of pH also regulates electrolyte concentrations and that will be discussed in part 2 of this article series.
Our bodies produce sodium bicarbonate (in the kidneys) constantly to keep our pH level in this very tight range of 7.35-7.45. As athletes we produce two main types of acid. The first of these is lactic acid which is a bi-product of anaerobic glycolysis. Anaerobic glycolysis is the breakdown of glucose without the benefit of oxygen to enhance the process. This occurs when we have exceeded a level of exertion that allows our body’s cardiorespiratory systems to provide adequate oxygen to our working muscle cells. The second form of acid is carbonic acid. Hard working cells produce carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide combines with water (H2O) to form carbonic acid (H2CO3). Both of these acids serve to lower our blood pH levels resulting in a relative acidosis that cause our intracellular machinery to falter and fail. Our muscle cell mitochondria are exquisitely sensitive to lowering of blood pH (see http://home.trainingpeaks.com/blog/article/the-power-and-importance-of-mitochondria).
Theoretically, supplementation with sodium bicarbonate should delay the onset of fatigue and ultimately muscular (skeletal and cardiac) “failure” by assisting the body in maintaining a normal pH during high intensity exertion. Delaying onset of intracellular acidosis during exercise assists in maintaining a more homeostatic cellular environment that allows for optimal functioning and performance. Sodium bicarbonate as an ergogenic aid has been studied extensively over the past 60 years. It is a challenging topic of investigation because so many other variables are at play in the final determination of athletic performance, and none of these can be completely controlled for. However, Matson and Tran applied a meta-analytic technique to the results of 29 of the best-conducted studies on the topic. Their statistical comparison of these scientific inquiries indicates that not only does sodium bicarbonate enhance athletic performance, it improves exercise time to exhaustion by a mean of 27 percent. (Matson, L., and Tran, Z.V. 1993. Effect of sodium bicarbonate ingestion on anaerobic performance: A meta-analytic review. International Journal of Sport Nutrition 3:2-28.)
Jackson Hole, Wyoming is where I work and play. My life has been spent working in a variety of professions and locations, from framing houses in Alaska to volunteering in medical clinics in the Himalaya and Africa. Besides coaching, I am a practicing nurse anesthetist who has worked in over 45 hospitals across the country, from New Jersey to Hawaii. I studied economics and business administration at Ursinus College and biology at Temple University. After working in sales management and marketing in the greater New York/Philadelphia area, I returned to nursing school at Pennsylvania State University and spent the next eight years working in critical care neonatology and pediatrics at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. During this time I did my biomedical graduate work at University of Pennsylvania and then completed a Masters of Science in Anesthesiology at Saint Joseph’s University and clinical anesthesia training with the University of Pennsylvania Health System.
I’ve earned a professional certification in Sports Nutrition and Nutrition for Optimal Health and Wellness from San Diego State University. I am a Level I USA Triathlon Coach and a certified Health and Wellness Coach for Wellcoaches (an affiliate of the American College of Sports Medicine and Harvard University School of Medicine). Besides coaching individual athletes, I have coached a women’s developmental running group through Runner’s World in Emmaus/Allentown, Pennsylvania. I also maintain certifications in TRX Suspension Training and Schwinn Indoor Cycling.
Adult-onset asthma introduced me to exercise as a way to control my breathing difficulties. Very quickly I found myself hooked on triathlon and progressed from a wheezing, almost dead-last finish at my very first race to frequenting the steps of the podium and earning the Wyoming State Triathlon Champion title as well as a national recognition as one of the Top 50 Amateur Triathletes in the Best of the US Triathlon competition. Realization that I could not have accomplished these goals without good coaching, as well as my love of teaching and mentoring led me into a career of coaching. I continue to practice in the medical profession part-time and continue to race, affording me the experience and the wisdom to successfully coach busy professionals as well as coach athletes with medical challenges.
It is my belief that coaching should be tailored to the individual and be part of a balanced life. 22Tri provides highly specialized individual training plans and coaching for each athlete. I also provide group clinics on all aspects of triathlon as well as running and swimming and co-manage a women’s cycling group. I have extensive knowledge and experience with high altitude training and racing environments and welcome the opportunity to work with athletes with health challenges.
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