Ride Science: The White Powder That Gets Rid Of Leg Burn
Sodium Bicarbonate is a substance that we naturally produce and store in our bodies. It’s a buffer: helping to offset the acidifying effects of intense physical activity. Here’s how it works, and how drinking a small amount of it before training might make your cycling experience more pleasurable.
When you jump on your bike and go charging up a mountain, your body burns sugars to generate that energy. I won’t put you through the same pain I experienced in trying to understand all the chemistry that goes on, but the long and the short of it is that you end up with lots of hydrogen ions floating about in your blood, and hydrogen ions are bad. They’re acidic, and they make your legs burn. To stop your legs burning, your body has to bind these hydrogen ions to bicarbonate ions.
The trouble is that, though your mind knows that you’re about to go charging up a mountain, your body doesn’t. So your body can’t prepare itself. This is where sodium bicarbonate comes in.
Taking a teaspoon of sodium bicarbonate in a glass of water one hour before you go riding will ensure that, when you hit that hill, your body has plenty of extra bicarbonate ions hanging around, and is therefore in an abnormally alkaline state. Normally, pushing your body’s pH around might not be the smartest idea, but by alkalising your body right before you do a bunch of acidifying exercise, you’re actually helping your body to stay neutral.
In Real Life
In real life, what happens is this. You put a teaspoon of sodium bicarbonate in a glass of water and stir it so it dissolves. It tastes like piss. You force it down.
For about 40 minutes, you don’t quite feel normal. Perhaps a little tired, and slightly nauseous. After an hour, that goes away and you get on your bike. At first it all feels normal. Until you get to a climb.
Here’s what I notice on the climbs:
– My maximum sustainable power isn’t any different.
– My perceived level of pain and discomfort is MUCH lower.
And here’s the bonus:
– On the way back down the hill, I feel incredible. My bike handling is spot on, and I hardly feel the effects of the effort I’ve just done.
What’s Going On?
What’s going on is that the extra bicarbonate ions in your blood are acting as a vehicle, quickly neutralising hydrogen ions and transporting them to your lungs, to be exhaled. This doesn’t allow your muscles to produce more power, but it does make the work less painful. It may also improve your ability to repeat physical efforts.
Another thing that’s going on is that your nervous system is functioning better. Nerve cells transport messages more efficiently when our bodies are slightly alkaline. To the average person: when your body is acidic, you may feel drowsy; when your body is alkaline, you may feel very conscious and alert.
Remember, folks, I’m not a doctor. The quantities of sodium bicarbonate I’ve recommended (one teaspoon, one hour before a ride) are small, and are unlikely to have any major side effects. Consuming sodium bicarbonate in larger quantities or in very high concentrations may have uncomfortable, or even dangerous side effects.