Beets, A Natural Performance Enhancer
For athletes, as well as for the average person, beets are a super food. Why is this you ask? Multiple reasons, lets talk about why. Beets contain high amounts of inorganic nitrate. Nitrate gets converted to nitrite, and finally to nitric oxide.
During exercise, nitric oxide is important for:
- Mitochondrial respiration
- Regulation of blood flow
- Muscle excitation-contraction coupling
- Glucose homeostasis
- Immune function
- And many more functions in the body
In more lay-mans terms, during exercise nitrates, converted to nitric oxide help with:
- Efficiency/Economy=Greater time to exhaustion and reduced energy costs
- Increased Critical Power=Improved performance
- Improvement seen at high altitudes
If an athlete has a high efficiency or economy, they are often a higher performer. If you can sustain a given effort for a prolonged period, you can outlast the competition. Nitrates, have been shown to assist with this. In a 2007 study by Larson et al., cyclists were given .1mmol/kg/day of nitrate in the form of beet root juice. After 3 days of supplementation, they had a reduced oxygen uptake (meaning they were using less oxygen), and a 3-5% reduction in workload over the same intensity. In another study with beet root juice, athletes showed a 16% improvement in their time to exhaustion. Just imagine if you could go longer by 16% over your competitors. In a 2012 study from Cermak et al, they showed that 6 days of beet root juice supplementation improved a 10km cycle TT performance by 2%.
Increased Critical Power:
A lot of work on beets/nitrates in coming out of the University of Exeter in the UK. Several studies from 2010-today have shown that nitrates may increase power for a given Vo2max, which means that you can generate more power at the same output. In a study by Kelly et al., they showed that there was a 1.4% increase in power over 800sec of running. Using a hypothetical athlete that covers 5.6 m/s, they would run a 5000m in 14:40. Using the 1.4% increase, this would equate to 14:26 5000m time. In the track world, this increase is significant. A more recent study looked at trained females, but non elite female athletes. After supplementation, the athletes improved their 5km times from 23:08-20:37.
Athletes are often advised to live high and train low. Even in Portland, OR at the Nike house, the house is put “at altitude” using air thinning technology. This has been shown to cause an increase in red blood cells, allowing the body to carry more oxygen to working muscles. If you don’t have the luxury of living at altitude or at the Nike house, there have been several studies showing a potential benefit to taking nitrates. Nitrates seem to improve exercise tolerance in hypoxia (low oxygen). In 2012, 15 athletes completed exercise tests at sea level, or at 5000m of altitude. They were given 6 days of beet root juice, or a control drink. After the 6 days, muscle oxygenation at 5000m was restored to normal oxygenation levels as if they were at sea level. One caveat to this is, you don’t want to consume beet root juice chronically at altitude as it will hinder the acclimation you are looking for by training at high altitude. Use it just on occasion, to assist with high intense quality workouts.
- In the past 12 studies on nitrates and exercise, all the studies showed a positive effect on time to exhaustion. The average time was 5% longer.
- On time trial performance, 1/2 the studies showed a positive effect on performance, with the average at 1.2% improvement. Now this doesn’t seem like a lot, but in 2013, a meta-analysis was done of the studies. Here is a direct quote: “Across studies measuring time trial performance in trained cohorts, there was a 0.9% improvement following nitrate supplementation. To put this in context, the measured difference between first and fourth place for elite swimming performance has been calculated to be .6% (Trewin et al., 2004) and improvements as little as .3% have been noted to be valuable to track and field athletes (Hopkins, 2005).”
- Nitrate supplementation has shown some initial positive benefits for altitude training, however using it too much can be detrimental to the gains made from acclimation. More research is needed on this topic.
So that leads me to what specific foods, how much, when to take it, interferences to the effects, negative side effects, etc.
I’ve definitely highlighted beet root juice, and indeed beets are a phenomenal food. Let me just emphasize other areas where beets shine quickly (they also fight inflammation, have anti cancer properties and contain high amounts of fiber, Vit. C, potassium and folate). That being said, they really aren’t the only food to consider. Other good choices are:
- Bok Choy
- Even strawberries
As you can see, dark leaf greens and some tubers. The reason that beet root juice is the most common used food though is that it can be juiced very easily and the flavor can be easily hidden. Arugula and Rhubarb have about 3x the amounts of nitrates per fresh cup.
The studies have shown that .1-.2mmol/kg have been the most effective. This translates to:
300-500ml of regular beet juice=10-16oz- this can be a lot of juice to take in, too much for most people (more below on why), and now you can buy beet root juice as a concentrate. You can also eat the leafy greens and tubers as whole food (steamed or raw). This would equate to several cups, also too much for most people to start with.
To start, I would recommend including the foods listed above in your daily diet (just because they are so good for you anyway). If you’d like to try supplementation, try juicing beets, or a concentrate. I’d first try juicing one half of a beet with additional fruit and veggies like carrots and apples. Then, you can try up to one beet with additional fruit and veggies. If eaten raw, I’d also stat with a small amount, possibly a 1/4 cup.
Too much regular (read-not concentrated) beet juice can cause GI distress, and scratchy/irritated throat, start with a small amount.
When to Take It:
Most research shows that 2-3 hours before an athletic event is most beneficial. There have been several studies showing that taking in one dose of a beet root supplement can keep your plasma nitrate levels elevated for 12 hours. Also, taking a dose every day for 15 days does not have a cumulative effect, however it did not decrease plasma levels either, so the economy was retained.
Mouthwash-Nitrate converts to nitrite with saliva and the bacteria in the mouth. If you destroy the bacteria with mouthwash, the potential benefits may not be seen. So save the mouthwash till after exercise.
Negative Side Effects:
- Can cause red or pink urine or stools-totally normal
- Too much beet juice can cause GI distress-people use it to detox with
- Sore throat, trouble swallowing like you have a cold
If these things happen to use, start with a small amount such as 1/2 of a small beet, then gradually add more. Or, start with a concentrated form of beet juice, although fresh/natural is generally cheaper and healthier.
Types of Sports:
This is still up for debate, but good results have been seen in shorter distance events 2-40min, plus team sports that require intermittent bursts of speed. Studied sports include cycling, running, rowing, kayaking and potentially sports like soccer.
Not really relating to athletes, but in 2008, a study was done that showed that beet root juice reduced systolic pressure by 10mmHg. That’s better than some medications.
Today I had an event where I was up at 4am and back by lunch time. So today I actually made it to our neighborhood farmers market. I normally miss it as it closes at 1pm. Today I picked up spinach, beets, apples, nectarines, snow peas and corn. Because I wanted to stock up, I bought a lot of spinach and beets. You’ll remember both of these are high in nitrates. Because Brett might revolt if we eat them at every meal, I decided to wash them, blanch them and freeze them. Well, half of them at least. On my cutting board above I have half of the spinach on the left, and half of the beet greens on the right.
So, if you buy more greens than you need, do just that. Boil them in water for 2 minutes, then immediately put into cold water for 2 min. Drain, dry, and I put into small freezer bags. This way I have frozen spinach and beet greens ready for a smoothie.
With the fresh other spinach, beets and beet greens, we’ll be eating them this week. I’ll use the beet greens in my smoothies, the spinach in my salad and the beets I’m roasting for dinner.
Tonight I used 4 of the large beets, 1 cup of chopped carrots (nitrates) and 2 cups of chopped butternut squash that I needed to use. I’m roasting them at 375 degrees for 45min. To retain the nutrients better, steaming or juicing is a better way to go. I don’t own a juicer, so unfortunately I can’t do that just yet. And the other veggies taste good roasted, so I decided to do that. But let me know if you juice your own beets, how it comes out, and if you feel a positive effect on your performance. I’d love to know. Especially since I’m months away from being able to exercise to test on myself.