Buffering the burn: B-alanine and sodium bicarbonate. What and why?
The fire that ignites in your muscles as you smash your legs in an all-out sprint, fight for just one more rep in that AMRAP, or plough through to a PB on the rower. Imagine if you could reduce that burn … could you move that little bit faster, push your performance that little bit further, and cut an even bigger margin on that PB?
This is the theory behind so-called ‘buffering’ supplements like B-alanine and sodium bicarbonate. But do they really work? And if so, how and when seems to be the best time to use them?
Feeling the burn …
When you exercise at high intensity, acid (hydrogen) ions accumulate in your muscles as a by-product of the rapid production of energy needed to fuel the high intensity. Acid accumulation = fiery burn = eventually a drop in the exercise intensity you can sustain (and so, performance), to enable the body to clear the acid build-up.
The more highly trained you are, the more efficient your energy systems become and the higher exercise intensity you can sustain for longer before you begin to accumulate acid to such a level that it inhibits performance.
But what if you could delay that acid accumulation even further … could you further improve performance?? This is the idea behind buffering supplements.
How do buffers help …
A buffer is essentially something that can help the body ‘buffer’ the accumulation of acid ions. A buffering supplement is a supplement that you can take with the aim of delaying acid accumulation and thus improving performance. The two buffering supplements that have the most research behind them are sodium bicarbonate and B-alanine.
Sodium bicarbonate is a so-called ‘extracellular’ buffer. It raises the pH of the extracellular fluid outside the muscle cell (i.e. makes it less acidic) (Lancha et al 2015; Katz et al 1984; Mainwood et al 1975). This means there is a bigger difference between the less acidic extracellular fluid (higher pH) and the acidic muscle cell (lower pH), and this causes a more rapid exit of the acid ions from the muscle cell to remove this difference and make the pH inside and outside the muscle cell the same. More rapid exit of acid ions from the muscle cell = less acid ions in the muscle cell = less burn! Does it really work? It seems that it can improve performance of short term high intensity exercise by ~2%, although it should be noted that not everyone seems to respond to supplementation with performance improvement all the time (Carr, Hopkins and Gore 2011). The idea of ‘non-responders’ to supplements is a detailed topic for another time but it can occur for many reasons e.g. the individual does not metabolise the supplement in a way that means it can work, or the issue the supplement is designed to help is not the issue that is limiting the individual’s performance.
B-alanine is the rate limiting precursor for the synthesis of a compound called carnosine, and it is by increasing the amount of carnosine in muscle that B-alanine appears to work – resulting in performance improvement of up to 3% in continuous and intermittent high intensity exercise lasting less than 10 minutes (although, like sodium bicarbonate, not everyone responds and not all of the time) (Saunders et al 2017; Lancha et al 2015; Chung et al 2012; Baguet et al 2010). In other words, it is carnosine that buffers the acid ions. Carnosine also has other potentially performance enhancing benefits, and so B-alanine may be more than just a ‘buffering supplement’. For example, there is some evidence that carnosine reduces neuromuscular fatigue, and through its involvement in calcium metabolism may also aid muscle contraction.
In both cases, the effects appear to be smaller in trained individuals (Bellinger 2014). This may be because they have already augmented their buffering capacity through training to a level that these buffers can offer less additional benefit. Or it could be for another as yet undiscovered reason!
What doses are taken?
Research indicates that sodium bicarbonate is most likely to be effective if taken either in a single acute or split dose of 0.2-0.3g/kg bodyweight 60-150 min prior to exercise (Lambert et al 1993; Siegler et al 2012; Carr, Hopkins and Gore 2011). Intakes <0.1g/kg have not shown any benefit, and >0.3g/kg are reported to have unpleasant gastro side effects (which may inhibit performance!); if individuals suffer gastro issues even at 0.2-0.3g/kg bodyweight dose, taking the supplement with a small carbohydrate rich meal may help (Carr et al 2011).
For B-alanine, research indicates that the most likely effective dose is ~65mg/kg bodyweight in a split dose daily for 10-12 weeks (Saunders et al 2017). It is worth noting that B-alanine is often in pre-workout drinks, however it is this cumulative effect over time that gives the performance benefit rather than the acute dosing before a workout! As well as potential gastro issues, as with sodium bicarbonate (again, taking with a small carbohydrate rich meal may reduce this unpleasant side effect), B-alanine can also cause skin rashes and transient paraesthesia (Maughan et al 2018).
Note – further research is needed to determine whether taking both is more or is less effective than taking one.
In summary …
Sodium bicarbonate and B-alanine are two supplements that may help some individuals improve high intensity exercise performance, through buffering the accumulation of acid ions in the muscles. But it might not work for everyone, and maybe not all of the time. Simple as that!
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