Tri Talk Triathlon Podcast, Episode 68a

How elementary school model volcanoes are like racing physiology, and the first time iocaine powder has been mentioned in connection with performance enhancing substances. It’s the supplemental supplement episode, today on Tri Talk.

Welcome to Tri Talk your podcast source for triathlon tips, training, news and more. My goal at Tri Talk is to help you swim, bike, and run faster, to meet your personal triathlon goals. Whether you are an elite or amateur triathlete, we cover sprint distance to Ironman distance. I’m your host, David Warden, and this is supplemental Tri Talk Episode 68a.

This episode is a short continuation of Episode 68, where I’ll discuss two additional supplements that could improve your performance. Glycerol and Sodium Bicarbonate have solid data supporting potential performance improvement, and it may be worth your while to try them out.

Let’s get onto the good stuff! Remember as a kid when you used to take baking soda and add vinegar to make those spectacular volcanoes or homemade rockets? The knowledge of an acid-base reaction has been well known for hundreds of years, and although the vinegar baking soda is technically not a pure acid-base reaction, rather a more complex multi-step reaction, the concept is the same. When an acid and a base come together, they neutralize each other, or at least reduce the acidity or alkalinity of the other substance.

Several decades ago, when physiologists began to believe that lactic acid was a primary contributor to muscle fatigue, their natural reaction was to see if increasing the alkalinity of the blood would improve performance by helping to neutralize the lactic acid buildup in the muscles. As a result, testing on taking in some sort of base prior to exercise has been going on for decades. The two primary solutions tested have been sodium bicarbonate, or baking soda, and sodium citrate.

In 1993, the International Journal of Sports Medicine reviewed the results of 29 studies, and concluded that sodium bicarbonate did result in a 1-3% performance improvement. That is an excellent result. However, they could only statistically show improvement in events lasting from 1-10 minutes.

This makes it difficult to apply to triathlon, where even the fastest triathlete at the shortest distance will be going for about an hour. One application might be to still use sodium bicarbonate, but only plan on it being effective during the last 10 minutes of an event when you are going well above lactate threshold. This is a real stretch of the method of use for this, and I would think it unlikely to work that way.


However, there is some basis for the use of another base: sodium citrate. It is believed that this form of the base is more readily absorbed into the system, and can therefore be more effective in buffering that lactic acid.

Also from the International Journal of Sports Medicine in 1996, the use of sodium citrate was used by 8 trained cyclists over a 30K time trial, or about 45 minutes of hard cycling. The cyclists using the sodium citrate had their time trial improve by over 90 seconds.

This gives a little more hope for at least the short distance triathletes for some use of sodium citrate to improve performance, or maybe at least for your next 10k run.

If you choose to use sodium bicarbonate or citrate, the application would be 0.3-0.5 g/kg 60-90 minutes before racing. By the way, that is a lot of baking soda, several tablespoons for an average male. One o the side effects of sodium bicarbonate is that it can lead to stomach issues, so like any other supplement, never try it on race morning, it should be used in training several times with race intensity sessions to verify that it will not have side effects.

Also, this concept of having an environment in the body that buffers lactic acid also led me to consider what we can do without ingesting some sort of base before racing. I am reminded of the chart in the Triathlete’s Training Bible that lists the acidity and alkalinity of certain foods. In general, fruits and vegetables have a very high alkaline level, and dairy, meats, and grains have a high acid level, with diary off the charts in levels of acidity.

Instead of ingesting a supplement to decrease acidity levels in the blood, what about adopting a diet that naturally acts as an acid buffer. Perhaps even the week of your A race, switching to a very high alkaline diet by eating lot’s of fruits and vegetables, and taking in reduced dairy and meats. Could this be a way to naturally increase your lactic threshold, through a diet change?

I really have no data to back this up, it is just a theory. It reminds me of the book Andromeda Strain, by Michael Crichton, where a disease from outer space wipes out an entire town, and the only two survivors are an old alcoholic and a screaming baby. The team of scientists finally realizes that the reason the old man and baby survived was that their Ph was on either end of the acid-base spectrum, and the disease could not grow in a highly acidic or alkaline environment. Great book. If Michael Crichton says that blood Ph can ward off alien disease, I think my theory on blood Ph and performance has merit!

Moving on. I was moderating a webinar that TrainingBible coach Tom Rodgers was giving in April, and he mentioned a substance I have never heard of before called glycerol. Glycerol is a chemical compound also commonly called glycerin or glycerine. It is odorless, tasteless, and dissolves instantly in liquid. See! It’s just like iocaine powder from the Princess Bride! Except, glycerol won’t immediately kill you. The concept of glycerol is that it helps maintain fluids in the body, and could be beneficial for either long or exceptionally hot endurance events.

At Central Queensland University in Australia, researchers took well trained 10 triatheltes and tested the effects of glycerol. These were solid age groupers with a best Olympic distance time of about 2:10. So not pros, but solid triathlon performance. Each triathletes performed 2 Olympic distance triathlons 2 weeks apart. The difference between the two events was the temperature. One was done at 30.5C and the other at 25.4C, or 87F and 78F. Half of the group took in a glycerol/Gatorade mixture, and the other half took in just Gatorade.

The group that took in Glycerol was definitely slower on the hot day. They averaged 1:47 slower over the Oly course on the hot day of 30.5C compared to the warm day of 25.4. But the group that did not take in Glycerol had a considerable decrease in performance on the hot day, with the Gatorade only group slowing down by almost 12 minutes compared to their warm-day performance. So in this case, glycerol does not actually make you any faster, it simply helps you possibly not get as slow in the heat.

Another study took cyclists and had them cycle to exhaustion on 42C, which is 107F. Honestly, do you think that a cyclist would ever cycle in 107F? I recognize that they would cycle in an environment where the ambient temperature was 107F, but with any wind they would certainly be cooled somewhat by the “wind chill” factor. I’m not going to share the performance results of this cycling time to exhaustion test between the glycerol and non-glycerol group, because I think the 107F is simply unrealistic for a triathlete. But, from this study, what I did find interesting was the fluid measurements that were taken. The glycerol group had 1.4 liters more fluids in their system that their non-glycerol counterparts. 670 mL of that was from a decrease in urine volume. For athletes with a small bladder, like me, the possibility of producing less urine actually is more appealing to me than the total fluids retained.

I question the effectiveness of glycerol over a clean heat acclimation training protocol. For example, if the 10 triathletes in the first study had performed a 10-day heat acclimation training regimen, would they have lost the same 2-12 minutes on the hot day? Would heat acclimation training provide the same physiological response as glycerol? I think it would actually be better than the supplement.

However, there are obviously times where an athlete will be competing in a hot environment, and had no opportunity to train in a hot environment. For these athletes, glycerol may be an alternative.

Also, for every study I found that supported the use of glycerol, I found one that refuted the use of glycerol. None of the studies concluded that glycerol reduced performance, but many said there was no effect. Since there are other studies that do show effectiveness, it certainly seems like something to try if you are an athlete who struggles in the heat.

The application of glycerol would be 1.0-1.2 grams per kilogram taken with a carbohydrate solution, and finished an hour before exercise. If you choose to take this supplement, I do have concerns about hyponatremia. You will be retaining many more fluids than normal, and the risk of drinking too much becomes high. Only drink when thirsty when taking this product, and don’t try to drink to a certain goal amount.

Again, I have more faith in training in the heat to combat heat related performance issue on race day, but glycerol might be the alternative for athletes who can’t.

That’s all for this episode. I’ll be back in July for Episode 69. For those of you participating in the upcoming Ironman Vineman, Rhode Island, Austria, Lake Placid, and Switzerland, best of luck in those upcoming events. I’ll see you next time.