By John Howard and Gina Poertner, CHES
As masters athletes and coaches, we are constantly on the lookout for new sports related research. The research is pertinent to all endurance athletes, but particularly important to senior or masters-aged athletes in cycling and multi-sport because the body’s ability to neutralize hydrogen ions diminishes with age. Check out this BBC story ran during the Olympics for a brief primer.
Hydrogen ions are a by-product (waste) of cellular energy production from metabolizing fats, proteins, and carbohydrates that we take in as food, and from the high levels of mental and physical stress athletes are under when training and competing. Hydroxyl ions are the cells’ front door in removing this waste product. Hydrogen (H+) and hydroxide (OH-) bind together to form water (H2O) and are then eliminated from the cells.
The more time you spend training and elevating the heart rate, the more hydrogen ions build up. Some hydroxyl ions should get into your body through foods and drinks that are alkaline. However, most of the alkalinity from food or drinks is neutralized in the stomach by hydrochloric acid. Also, with less and less mineral content in our soils, there is less and less mineral content in our food.
Processed foods also are generally void of any kind of alkalinity. In fact, most of the foods and drinks we consume contain preservatives and are highly acid-producing. This is particularly true of most sports foods and drinks, which leads to a distinct lack of hydroxyl ion availability for most athletes. Therefore, hydrogen ions get a chance to accumulate. Hydrogen ion accumulation is typically controlled by normal body functions. Your body has several buffer systems to maintain proper pH balance, but the over-utilization of these buffers lead to a reduction in fitness in some other aspect like thinning bones, muscle wasting, or the development of kidney stones. In short, to maintain proper pH balance system-wide, your body puts the brakes on your output and reduces athletic performance. You lose.
The body’s pH balance is important to survival. So important that we will reach a state of muscular failure and literally become unable to continue an effort due to pain or weakness in order to prevent us from going into a full blown state of acidosis. Muscular pain and burn when working out is the body’s way of preventing us from elevating our cellular hydrogen ion levels too high. This hydrogen ion threshold or “acidosis threshold” is like a self-imposed governor of sorts, a major factor in sports performance. Most of us have already been there, and can relate to weakness, soreness, dehydration and lack of concentration or coordination which are all symptoms of entering this state of exercise-induced metabolic acidosis. When your body has become weakened and your coordination is reduced, you also become much more susceptible to crashes, and subsequent injury.
There are several ways to increase levels of hydroxyl ions to maintain proper pH balance. One of the best ways is eating particular foods which can keep our bodies in better balance. Citrus fruits, cantaloupe, and a variety of other whole foods can reverse the acidic condition of our bodies. Note that just because a food is acidic in its natural state does not mean that it produces acidity in the body. Lemons are very alkalizing to the cells although the juice is acidic. It is the food’s effect in the body that is important, not necessarily the food’s pH. Tomatoes are another acidic food that is quite alkalizing after ingestion.
Look into research for yourself on topics such as alkaline diets, meditation and therapy that can lower acidic and mental stress. Many of our JHPS athletes use alkaline mineral supplements in addition to nutrition for reducing acid in the body. These contain magnesium hydroxide, calcium carbonate and potassium hydroxide. There is a growing body of research focused on combating the build-up of hydrogen ions in the cells. The same research will reveal the names of several companies that make or claim to make supplements that deliver hydroxyl ions. The longest running player in the field is Acid Check. This product is being touted for good health, acid reduction and usually complete elimination of cramping as well as an excellent recovery aid after a hard workout or race.
If you are like many of our clients who are trying to take their performance to the next level consider paying attention to your body’s pH balance as the next logical step.
John Howard is one of the pioneers and true legends of American bike racing, with palmares including: 3-time Olympian, Ironman world champion, bicycle landspeed record, USA Cycling Hall of Fame, and elite and masters national champion. John is also an active cycling coach and the author of Mastering Cycling. Check out more information about John and his coaching at www.fittesystem.com and www.johnhowardsports.com.
Gina Poertner, CHES is the owner and physiologist at Life Balance Sports, focusing on cycling, triathlon, and running. As FiTTE System Practitioner and Instructor for John Howard Performance Sports, she specializes in bicycle fitting and positioning. Find out more about Gina and her coaching programs at www.lifebalancesports.com.