Don’t Feel the Burn

Don’t Feel the Burn

Of the many Mount Sugarloafs strewn around North America (and perhaps further), there’s one in Western Massachusetts, a tiny granite lump rising out of the Connecticut River Valley adjacent to South Deerfield. The road that climbs the south summit rises a mere 650 feet, but is brutal in its efficiency. It features but two switchbacks and the grade following that first hairpin reduced many of my friends to walk. One late summer afternoon in the early 1990s, I rode it after work with a friend, a friend who happened to own both the 15-16 and 17-18 time trial records on that butte.

Dear reader, I decided to attack him.

Remember that math mistake that caused the Mars Climate Orbiter to plow into the surface of the planet rather than land gently on it? All because engineers in the U.S. transmitted English measurements, rather than metric.

Attacking my buddy Todd was that order of a mistake. He waited a second or two before putting in an acceleration to reel me in and then pass me. I didn’t yet know my body well enough to understand that I was already past threshold, spending cash I didn’t have.

And then I blew. Boy, did I blow. I sat down with limp thud and the burn spread like a crown fire through my legs, my back, my forearms and—as I would tell him when I struggled into the parking lot at the top—in the backs of my ears. My ears burned!

That’s the day I thought about when I learned of a new product called Topical Edge. Ampersand Biopharmeceuticals is a Southern California-based biotech company that has developed a proprietary cream that can deliver medications through the skin. One of the first products they’ve brought to market is Topical Edge, a cream that delivers sodium bicarbonate directly to muscles.

Studies have shown that sodium bicarbonate can buffer, or break down, lactic acid. Forgive the Biology 101 refresher, but on the off-chance that there are readers who don’t recall all this, here goes: As your muscles fire, they produce lactic acid. Normally, they don’t produce much (like when you’re walking), and your system is able to flush that lactate out of the muscles so they can keep working. However, as your exertion goes up, so does the production of lactate. Your lactate threshold is the heart rate at which you begin producing lactate as fast as your body can flush it away. Any harder than that and the lactate accumulates in the muscles and you start to feel that heinous burn.


Topical Edge has the ability to reduce that burn. Ampersand commissioned a study in which 15 competitive cyclists between 21 and 43 years of age rode a 4km time trial. This was a double-blind study complete with placebo. Post-exercise analysis showed a decrease in lactate levels, typically a drop from 11.2mmol/L to 9.2mmol/L, an impressive 17.8 percent reduction. Average ride time over the 4km trial decreased by 2.4 seconds and average power increased by 7 watts. Bear in mind a 4km time trial is insanely short, less than a six minute effort for these riders.

I gave Topical Edge a try a couple of weeks ago when I rode the three-day cyclocross event here in Santa Rosa called The Ghilotti Cup. In the first race, a 40-minute effort for me, I spent 12 minutes, a whopping 30 percent of the agony, above my threshold. While I’ve had reasonable form of late, I haven’t considered myself race-fit. I hit the highest heart rate I’ve seen since early last summer. Okay, this doesn’t carry the weight of a rigorously controlled double-blind experiment, but I’m satisfied that Topical Edge helped me tease more from myself than I would otherwise have been able to deliver.

Had I been suspicious that the goop didn’t work as advertised, that doubt was laid to rest two days later when I nearly equaled my max heart rate from Friday night and averaged 241 watts for the half hour race. I’d have sworn that the previous two races would have taken too much out of me to manage that. Normally, when I’m fatigued, my legs load up with lactic acid quickly, and while I didn’t have the same snap on Sunday I did Friday night, I could still deliver solid power. After the race was over, I took some time to introduce myself … to myself. Who was that guy?

A box of Topical Edge contains 10 envelopes of cream. They are glued in pairs with just enough contained in each envelope for one leg per workout, or race, for five workouts/races per box. A box goes for $29.99, making this stuff $6/use, but when I think about what I hope to get out of the day when I pin a number on, it’s not a bad investment. I can also think of the occasional training ride when the big Redwoods come out to play and I need every edge I can find just to survive the day. Yeah, I’d drop $6 just to avoid being, uh, dropped.

I checked with Ampersand to see if Topical Edge could coexist with embrocation or if there were any tricks I needed to follow. The advice I received was simply to apply Edge first, then add the embro.

It’s rare that I encounter a product that actually makes a difference in my performance. Skratch Labs drink mix did that for me, as have gels and chews; as I’ve aged, those products have made an even bigger difference for me. Topical Edge was something I I figured would make a difference, but one one radical enough for me to see in my Strava file. Color me surprised.

Final thought: There’s a Sugarloaf here in Sonoma County. It’s even steeper. Consider it a rematch.

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  1. Gabriel Agosto

    Patrick: Didn’t you do Sugarloaf the day after thanksgiving? I was out on a hike and saw a group of CX riders coming down on the other side (led by a local USADA affidavit contributor) but did not see you…..

    1. Author

      I was there that day, but more or less incognito; no RKP kit. But you might also have missed me because I got dropped by the main group which also included the likes of Barry Wicks, Glenn Fant, Yuri Hauswald and Shane Bresnyan. They rode me off their wheels in the first kilometer of the climb.

  2. Andrew

    As near as I can tell, that study wasn’t published in a peer reviewed journal. There are a few references from Schroder and Vallejo in PubMed with regards to exercise science, but they seem to end in 2007.

    My gut reaction, as someone who writes, read and reviews a lot of papers, is that this is BS.

    1. Author

      That study has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal; and they might not even pursue it. For more background, you might give a listen to my interview with Jeff Byers of Topical Edge in episode 44 of the Paceline (which goes live tomorrow).

    2. Jay

      I tend to agree. My thoughts are that NaHCO3 is more hydrophilic than lipophilic and will tend to dissolve into any perspiration that would be produced more so than say to be absorbed through intact skin surface. In addition the study population mentioned is very small, so you would really need a much larger sample with similar results to validate the smaller study. For most studies to be valid the sample size has to be large enough and the results must be reproducible. That said, even if there is a minimal effect on lactate, there can also be a significant placebo effect: If you believe something will improve your performance, then your performance may improve even if there is little or no effect from the performance enhancing product. Just sayin’… I am really not trying to rain on Padraig’s parade, I am just a little bit skeptical.

    1. Author

      It’s a fair question; thanks for asking. As there have been multiple drink mixes on the market that have included sodium bicarbonate with the express purpose of buffering lactic acid and neither the UCI nor WADA ever had any problems with them, my inclination is to say no. That said, one could have a debate, but in my heart, this strikes me as very different from oxygen vector doping, amphetamines or anabolic agents. It’s also, I think, entirely different from riders using things like Tramadol or pot Belge.

    2. Jay

      I would agree with Padraig on this. Firstly, it is not a banned substance. It is very different from the use of epoetin or anabolic steroids as examples. Those actually modify natural biologic processes in an unnatural way. In theory this is not modifying a biologic process, but rather simply attempting to eliminate waste products. I would think of it in terms of being the inverse of hydrating with a sports drink versus simply drinking water. No one thinks twice about whether sports drinks are appropriate or not, they are just accepted.

  3. Andrew

    Call me old fashioned, but it seems to me that if you make “scientific” claims for the efficacy of your therapy/product/intervention, then you have to submit those claims to peer review. I get especially suspicious of claims that are published in an official looking “white paper”, formatted to look like a published journal article, when in fact they are not. I realize that “facts” and “evidence” aren’t especially in vogue these days, however.

    1. Jay

      Without knowing the actual amount of sodium bicarbonate that is contained in this product that would be hard to determine. In addition, the amount that is actually absorbed across the skin barrier can vary widely between individuals. Without any sort of pharmacokinetic studies showing how they measured how much, if any was absorbed. Did they measure bicarbonate levels pre- and post- application? Was decrease in lactate their only measure? Sodium, being the principle ion in extracellular fluid would require that a large amount be absorbed before you would see any noticeable effect. Presuming that you have normal renal function, it is probably not an issue so long as you follow your diet.

  4. Andrew

    I mean, seriously, this is just screaming “bogus”- on the website they put a very official looking superscripted number, as you do when you are referencing a study, and then if you actually take the time to follow the reference link you see they just give their names!! I love it!

    “In a clinical study, subjects who used EDGE experienced no side effects or adverse events7.”
    ” [7] E. Todd Schroeder, PhD and Albert F. Vallejo, PhD, ETScience, LLC, Exercise Testing Specialists, South Pasadena, CA”

    I’ll stop now.

    1. Author

      I’m good with people being skeptical. I was somewhat skeptical, but I kept an open mind. But I have to say, that using terms like “BS” and “bogus” start veering from our guidelines of polite conversation. I’m wondering if you’d be as forceful in your denunciation if you, the manufacturer and I were seated at dinner together, which is the standard by which I hold the comments here.

  5. Andrew

    “Bogus” and “BS” are pretty mild, Patrick. My apologies if these deviated from the forum standards, which I entirely agree with.

    This sort of product, the claims it makes, and the “scientific” way they are presented are in my opinion quite different than the usual “laterally stiff and vertically compliant” stuff we are all used to. You want to tell us that you loved the feel of a bike or the fit of some shorts? Go ahead- it’s a free country and your opinion. If you want to present a product that makes scientific claims, however, you need to expect that those of your readers with some familiarity with the scientific process may hold you and the manufacturers to the usual, reasonable, agreed upon scientific standard. And this fails that test, at present.

    1. Author

      I respect that you think “bogus” and “BS” are mild terms, but what could you possibly say that would be more negative than that without calling the product an actual fraud? And no matter what your training is, you’re not in a position to make such a claim in print, not without leaving yourself open to legal action. From my seat, I don’t see another step in between. Because I’ve worked hard to make this a place of intelligent conversation, I’m keenly aware of how the reputations of the companies I choose to cover are treated. If this were just another cesspool of invective, it wouldn’t matter, but the readership here is taken seriously, as are the things they write.

      Part of what is being criticized here, implicitly, is my judgment as an editor, which is why I’m pushing back. I receive number of press releases each week touting some miracle performance enhancer, and they never pass my sniff test. This one did. And honestly, if all I do is spout random opinions, why would you even read RKP?

      I’m curious what you’ll have to say if they publish a study that certifies a performance gain.

  6. Andrew

    I would say “bravo” to them for publishing such a study. That’s how it works.

    I trust your opinions about bike gear, because you have tremendous personal expertise in this area. This is an effect a medical therapy, which is outside of your realm of expertise. This actual study would also be outside of my realm of professional expertise, which is why I would require that it be reviewed by persons with such expertise, in areas including physiology, pharmacology, pharmacokinetics etc.

    I think we should be careful about throwing around loaded words like “fraud”, but I think companies open themselves up to this sort of suspicion when they put things like this “white paper” up on a website. It is very clearly formatted to look like a published journal article, but it isn’t one. I’m sorry if you don’t like this opinion, but I stand by it.

    We’re going to have to agree to disagree on this.

    1. Author

      Whether we agree or not, I don’t understand how a product can be complete BS until a study is published in a peer-reviewed journal, which is why I have trouble with the intensity of your criticism.

  7. gabe

    The furor over the claimed efficacy of a supplement does seem a bit much, but like a certain guy said, “Extraordinary allegations require extraordinary evidence”. This is to me, ( a stingy, cheap bastard), necessary when a dose costs $6. I hope at least that this product has the standard FDA disclaimer about for dietary supplements.

    In this case, I can be told “I am sorry you don’t believe in miracles”. I am ok with that.

  8. Haggis

    Hi – when I’m not riding I work as an ICU physician. We routinely take care of patients with serious lactic acidosis. Sodium bicarbonate (intravenous or in pill form) is used in certain situations, especially in patients with kidney disease who cannot retain bicarbonate or buffer their blood normally. Similar to the idea presented here, many doctors use the logic that lactic acid is bad and sodium bicarbonate decreases lactic acid, therefore bicarb is good, and using it to lower lactate levels will be helpful. This is a DRASTIC oversimplification of acid-base physiology and probably neither true nor helpful. In this setting (different from a cycling time trial), there is reasonable evidence that bicarb normalizes serum pH…but makes the pH inside your cells worse. What matters to a sick person is how well their cells (heart, blood vessel, kidney, brain, etc) are working, and the same is true for a cyclist riding a time trial. The idea that sodium bicarb will make the lactate go away and make you faster is really, really intuitively appealing…and not supported by strong evidence or rigorous physiology. [I could go on about lactate and physiology but I’ll stop here.]

    If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

  9. LateSleeper

    @Haggis: I have ADPKD, and have had significantly more trouble with cramping as my renal function has decreased. Perhaps sodium bicarbonate could help? I will discuss this with my Nephrologist on next visit. (Wish I could find one who is also an endurance athlete!)

    1. Haggis

      LateSleeper — sorry, that’s well out of my scope. Certainly when patients go on dialysis they can have cramping while on the circuit but I don’t know if that correlates with potassium, fluid shifts, local pH/bicarbonate in the muscle, a hundred other things, or some complicated combination. It would be very common for you to take bicarb supplementation as your GFR decreases completely apart from exercise stuff. But keep exercising no matter what!!

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