Popular culture is rife with contradictions and health claims that may or may not be grounded in scientific evidence. On a daily basis, people are inundated with exaggerated declarations, unregulated statements, and even completely false claims that may lead them into spending hard earned money on products that turn to waste within their bodies. The benefits of drinking alkaline water are a contested subject with athletes as well as researchers falling on both sides of the argument. On YouTube and around the Internet, you can find videos and sales pitches of all kinds, many with athletes claiming alkaline water has helped them improve their performance speed and strength, recovery, as well as other auxiliary benefits such as vasculature and skin condition. But by examining alkaline water superficially, it is natural to assume with even a grain of skepticism that it could not possibly have all of these positive effects on athletic performance.
Interestingly, the research I found on the topic was fairly split, although most cursory internet searches revealed a prevailing attitude that science has yet to prove alkaline water holds any benefit for the athlete whatsoever. The majority of this opinion seems to be grounded in tests performed on animals and plants given alkaline ionized water in the late 1990s and early 2000s, with results ranging from decreased myocardial function, decreased red blood cell production rate, as well as protein and enzyme degradation (1,2). However, further human research seems to suggest a correlation with some improvements in performance and health, though certainly not to the extent suggested by some athletes or health companies. In two separate trials, one with healthy young adults and the other with a group of 24 highly trained cross country skiers, the experimental group showed improvements over the control group who was given a placebo in multiple categories, including increases in blood and urine pH, decreased blood and urine osmolality, and decreased urine output (3). More importantly for the sports performance coach, the trials with the skiers showed lower cardiorespiratory stress, improved acid buffering, and lower blood lactate responses when supplementing with alkaline water, similar to the results seen when supplementing sodium bicarbonate, a widely accepted hydrogen ion buffering supplement. Specifically, the alkaline supplement they used in the tests is called Alka-Myte and it contains no ingredients that are illegal based on the U.S. and World anti-doping agencies. Furthermore, it is recognized as a new Dietary Ingredient by the FDA, adding to its legitimacy (4).
Based on the recent research conducted, I do not see a problem recommending that an athlete drink alkaline water, though I would certainly explain that it is not a ‘miracle drug’ as some companies would like them to believe and would most likely only have a limited direct effect on their performance, if any effect at all. I would also only give this recommendation if an athlete inquired about alkaline water on his or her own, because the depth of research on the supplement is not quite robust enough to prescribe it with 100% confidence in its effectiveness as an ergogenic aid, whereas the benefits of hydrating with normal drinking water are proven and plentiful.
Watanabe T, Kishikawa Y, Shirai W. Influence of alkaline ionized water on rat erythrocyte hexokinase activity and myocardium. Journal of Toxicology Sciences. May 1997:22(2):141-52.
Watanabe T, Kishikawa Y. Degradation of myocardiac myosin and creatine kinase in rats given alkaline ionized water. Journal of Veterinary Medical Sciences. Feb 1998:60(2):245-50.
Heil DP. Acid-base balance and hydration status following consumption of mineral-based alkaline bottled water. Journal of the International Society for Sports Nutrition. Sep 2010:13(7):29.
Heil DP, Jacobson EA, Howe SM. Influence of an alkalizing supplement on markers of endurance performance using a double-blind placebo-controlled design. Journal of the International Society for Sports Nutrition. Mar 2012:9:8.