This article was written by Kaila Dickey
Beets for athletic performance
Beets are a nitrate-rich food. The abundance of nitrate in this vegetable and its dark leafy green compadres give these foods performance-enhancing superpowers.
Nitrate from beets turns into nitric oxide in the body. Nitric oxide works in a few different ways:
- Promotes cardiovascular health
- Increases overall tolerance for exercise
- Extends an athletes’ time to fatigue
Why do athletes drink beetroot juice?
Nitric oxide is a potent vasodilator (meaning it helps open up the blood vessels). Dilated blood vessels allow more blood to flow throughout the body, delivering oxygen to tissues that need it. This oxygen-rich blood helps aerobic metabolism in cells.
Aerobic metabolism is more efficient than its anaerobic counterpart. The longer endurance athletes can maintain a steady oxygen supply (and stay aerobic), the longer they can push off muscle fatigue and produce energy, in the form of adenosine triphosphate (ATP). ATP is crucial for exercise, as it is the “energy currency” of the cell. It fuels cell metabolism and helps you perform whatever tasks you’re asking your body to do.
One study also showed nitric oxide reduced ATP turnover in the muscles. This means your body can use the energy it generates for longer when the body is starved for oxygen at altitude or when performing intense physical activity.
Are beets good for runners and cyclists?
Nitric oxide appears to target the muscles used when oxygen is unavailable. Sprinting, jumping, (and any other activity that you cannot maintain for more than a few seconds) uses specific muscle fibers that are targets for nitric oxide. Cyclists and runners that used beet supplement were able to perform at better when transitioning from moderate to intense exercise. In practical terms, switching from race pace to a sprint pace to overcome an opponent may benefit from beet supplementation.
Exercise junkies like cyclists, runners, and rowers who love interval training (Orange Theory, anyone?) could all benefit from more beets on their plates.
I’ve heard to not use mouthwash with beet supplementation
Bacteria in the mouth are essential for turning nitrate into a form the body can use. Mouthwash kills the bacteria in the mouth responsible for converting nitrate. Because of this, don’t use mouthwash until after your event or training session. Getting up close and personal with anyone will have to wait. If you want to supplement your diet with nitrate in an effort to elevate your performance, perform first and rinse later.
How much beet supplement should I take?
Appropriate dosing varies. Although some individuals appear to show resistance to nitrate and require larger servings to notice an effect, most can expect to see gains with a half-pound of cooked beets, 500 mL beet juice, or 2.5 ounces beet juice concentrate.
Timing matters. Peak nitrate levels are achieved three to five hours after ingestion. Many research studies recommend eating your beets 90 minutes prior to your training event. Keep in mind, no effects on performance were seen when supplements were taken less than five days in a row. If you want to see faster trial times or be able to endure for longer, you want to supplement at least six days prior to your event, with some studies showing more improvements after 12 days of beet supplementation.
The good news is, this lead time will give you a chance to see which form of beet product your body handles best. Let’s face it, beetroot might not be the pre-event fuel for everyone which is why so many companies have come to your rescue with powders, drinks and concentrates.
Beets might not help elite athletes
One study showing a 1% improvement in running time for untrained or moderately-trained individuals showed no improvement for elite runners. The cardiovascular systems of elite athletes are already fine-tuned to a point that it appears nitrate offers no further benefits. Those of us weekend warriors could see noticeable gains from supplementing– but if we hit the gym to train like it’s our J.O.B…maybe not.
Are real beets better than beet supplements?
Food is usually superior to supplementation because it contains other health-promoting compounds. Beets have antioxidants, betaine, and polyphenols in addition to nitrate. One study showed individuals who ate a balanced diet on top of supplementation performed better.
Nitrate concentration in beet supplements varies as widely as among the vegetables themselves. In fact, a study that analyzed 24 beetroot products in a variety of forms (powders, drinks, and concentrates) highlighted the massive variation across products. This particular study showed the nitrate levels in powders and pre-packaged drinks are low, requiring you to exceed standard serving sizes and spend more, more often to maintain your newfound supplement habit. Beet juice and beet juice concentrate seemed to make the cut, having enough nitrate in a serving to boost performance.
How do beets help with high altitude training?
No oxygen? No problem. Nitric oxide reduces the need for oxygen from the atmosphere because it makes oxygen uptake in the muscles more efficient and appears to use the energy produced more efficiently also. If you plan to compete at altitude, you might strongly consider supplementing with a nitrate-rich food or supplement a couple of weeks before the event.
Do beets cause kidney stones?
If you are prone to kidney stones, beets might not be the performance enhancer for you. Nitrate binds with calcium in the body forming a salt that can cause kidney stones. If you or someone in your family has a history of kidney stones,talk to a dietitian prior to incorporating beet supplements into your pre-fuel routine.
Should I use beet supplements?
It appears for most, beets will help you beet your best. Beets may help you:
- Endure exercise longer
- Assist in high altitude acclimation
- Help you when transitioning from medium to high intensity tasks
- Use energy more efficiently in the muscles
It takes time to translate into these performance gains, so start incorporating them into your meals days before you plan to see benefits. If you aren’t fond of beets and find them comparable to eating a small clump of dirt, try beet juice or beet juice concentrate instead.
Want to learn more about supplements? Check out our supplements for athletes course!
~This is general information only and not nutrition advice. Always consult your healthcare provider before undergoing any dietary or lifestyle change.
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Interested in more reading? Check out these articles!
Masschelein E, Van Thienen R, Wang X, Van Schepdael A, Thomis M, Hespel P. (2012). Dietary nitrate improves muscle but not cerebral oxygenation status during exercise in hypoxia. Journal of Applied Physiology, 113:736-745
Peeling P, Binnie MJ, Goods PSR, Sim M, Burke LM. (2018). Evidence-based supplements for the enhancement of athletic performance. International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 28, 178-187
Woessner M, Smoliga JM, Tarzia B, Stabler T, Van Bruggen M, Allen, JD. (2016). A stepwise reduction in plasma and salivary nitrite with increasing strengths of mouthwash following a dietary nitrate load. Nitric Oxide, 54:1-7