Survival in sport and life comes down to our body’s ability to maintain a narrow range of acidity and alkalinity in the body, in technical terms a pH value of 7.0 when measured in blood and bodily fluids. Fortunately, our body, primarily the lungs & kidneys, does a good job at maintaining pH balance by producing endogenous compounds called buffers when we become either too acidic - pH < 7.0 - or alkaline - pH >7.0. That’s a good thing. Because when your body is in either direction, it will impact your performance, recovery and overall health.
You see, during intense exercise, the breakdown of sugars from muscles for fuel leads to lactic acid build-up and a decrease in pH called metabolic acidosis. Some athletes feel the “burn” of the workout; others experience nausea, headaches, dizziness, muscle pain, and fatigue. Acidosis affects your body’s ability to transfer energy, contract muscles, increase muscle mass, support bone and worst of all, increase cortisol level, the stress hormone that when elevated breaks down the body and your health. When the body needs to, it will also release calcium from bones and glutamine from muscles to assist in buffering. This can also lead to decreased bone and muscle mass.
When the body is acidic, it requires a great deal of energy to restore normal pH levels. This places a greater energy demand on the body and uses valuable fuel that should be used for training and performance. Therefore, to perform optimally in life, you need to keep your PH balance in check. Exhaling during exercise is one way your body releases carbon dioxide, excess hydrogen, the element responsible for acidity, and bring the body back to a neutral pH. Diet is another way to get your body back on track.
The Buffered Diet
Eating a buffering diet means getting enough fruits and vegetables, alkalizing foods instead of meat, eggs, fish, dairy products, grains, nuts, legumes, and highly processed foods which are acid-forming. When metabolized, these foods produce acid precursors, which eventually lead to acid formation.
If you don’t love fruits and veggies, here are a few simple buffering tips:
Match it up—1 fruit or veggie as a side to each main meal or snack, i.e. low fat cheese stick and apple.
Go fresh! Avoid highly processed foods such as chips, baked goods, frozen meals, canned soups, etc.
Replace some of your animal protein main courses like burgers and meatballs with veggie versions, beans, nuts or seeds which are less acid-forming.
Try a new grain like buckwheat, quinoa, etc.
To Buffer or Not
The jury is still out on whether exogenous supplemental buffering agents like sodium bicarbonate can enhance performance. The idea is that an increase in sodium bicarbonate will result in an increased buffering capacity during exercise, leading to longer pH maintenance, a decrease in acidosis symptoms and fatigue and an increase in performance.
While no improvements seen in heavy resistance training or longer bouts of exercise, studies have shown that buffering supplements may improve performance in:
Short-term, high-intensity events, such as track, cycling, rowing, swimming, and some team sports
Single 1-2 minute maximal effort exercise bouts
Repeated all-out bouts lasting less than 1 minute
The drawbacks of supplementation are two-fold. Sodium bicarbonate has the potential for nasty side effects, such as nausea, cramping, or diarrhea and the long term health risks have not been determined. Therefore, diet may be your healthiest buffering bet!
Lisa Dorfman, MS, RD, CSSD, LMHC, The Running Nutritionist® is Director of Sports Nutrition and Performance—UM and adjunct professor– Dept of Exercise and Sport Science, consultant to the US Olympic and Paralympics Sailing Teams and professional athletes worldwide. Lisa is a former pro triathlete & competitor in over 34 marathons (PR 2:52:32), Ironman USA, and the 2004 Long Distance Duathlon World Championships for Team USA. Lisa has been featured on Dateline, 20/20, CNN, ESPN, Fox, MSNBC, Designing Spaces, E and local & international news & appears in dozens of publications monthly. Lisa’s books and programs including her latest Performance Nutrition for Football (Momentum Media, 2010) is available worldwide, and at www.primeathlete.com.