In recent years there's been a lot of hype around beets/beet juice and performance enhancement for triathletes and other endurance athletes. But can adding beets to you diet really make you run, cycle or swim faster?
The short answer: maybe.
The Science and Studies Behind the Buzz
Beets contain naturally occurring nitrates, which help raise the body's concentration of nitric oxide, a molecule that improves oxygen uptake and blood flow throughout the body.
A study from the University of Exeter's School of Sport and Health Sciences confirmed the effects of nitrates on athletic performance. The study focused on eight male cyclists consuming two cups of beet juice per day (containing 700 mg of naturally occurring nitrates) for six days. The control group with the placebo drank two cups of black currant juice, which contained minimal nitrates for the same amount of time.
The cyclists completed a series of moderate- to severe-intensity exercise tests on a cycling ergometer during the last three days of the testing period. On day four, they completed two sessions of moderate cycling. On the fifth and sixth days, the cyclists completed one bout of moderate cycling and one bout of intense cycling. In the intense cycling test, the loading was increased by 30 watts per minute until the cyclist fatigued and couldn't continue.
By the end of the test period, the beet juice group was able to cycle an average of 16 percent longer. The men in the beet group also had lower resting blood pressure.
Another study, published in Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, had a group of five fit men and women in their 20s eat one cup of baked beets (or a cranberry relish placebo) before running a 5K treadmill time trial test. The beet group's running velocity increased by 3 percent—or a 41-second faster finishing time.
Is it All Good News?
Despite several studies revealing positive performance effects, two studies on well-trained cyclists found that beet juice had no effect on a 50-mile cycling time trial or a one-hour time trial.
Researcher Robert Kyle Boorsma found no effect of one dose or daily doses of beet juice (for eight days) on 1,500-meter performance in a group of 10 elite middle-distance runners with personal records of about 3:56—or 4:15 per mile.
Before You Experiment with Beets
If you plan to try beets or beet juice to enhance your performance, there are a handful of things to note:
- Start off small. Some people experience gastrointestinal discomfort if they eat too many beets or drink too much beet juice too soon. Start with 1/4 or 1/2 cup of beets or beet juice, and increase the amount as you feel is comfortable.
- Your saliva plays an important role. The nitrates in beets are converted into nitrites by friendly bacteria in our saliva. Drinking beet juice slowly may increase the time nitrates are in contact with these bacteria and increase the conversion to nitrites. (Note that nitrites and nitrates are have different chemical formulas and effects on the body.)
- There are more nitrates in raw beets. Although lightly steaming many vegetables may make some of the nutrients more bioavailable to the body, there are more nitrates in raw beets.
- Beets offer more than nitrates. The red vegetables are rich in potassium, magnesium, fiber, phosphorus, iron and vitamins A, B and C. They are liver detoxifiers, blood purifiers and protectors against various forms of cancer, according to Full Circle.
- Timing matters. Drink beet juice about two to three hours before you train or before the race gun goes off.
- Beets aren't the only vegetables high in nitrates. Rocket arugula spinach, radishes and bok choy are also high-nitrate options. The following recipe incorporate spinach and beets into a refreshing pre-workout drink.
Recipe: Pre-Workout Beet Refresher
1/2 cup (or desired amount) fresh beet juice or Beet Performer
1/2 cup cold unsweetened apple juice
1/2 cup cold water
1/2 cup spinach
1/4 cup fresh mint leaves
4 ice cubes
Put all ingredients in the blender and blend until smooth.
More: 10 Foods to Fuel a 5K
Find more healthy recipes.