By now I’m sure that most of you have heard of “doping with beets” to help extend endurance and improve performance, especially when it comes to running and cycling. As an athlete, we’re always looking for ways to optimize training and performance as long as it’s practical and actually works. We all know there’s no real substitute for putting time and work into training. However, incorporating beets into your diet is a simple, naturally effective way to increase the length of your workouts or find that extra edge in endurance or speed. I want to share with you the latest science behind beets and how to incorporate them into your diet to help increase your athletic performance.
Beetroot is a highly nutrient dense vegetable that is high in folate, manganese, potassium and copper. Vitamins A, B and C; antioxidants beta-carotene and beta-cyanine; fiber, magnesium, phosphorous, and iron are also present.
What gives beetroot its pigment are known as betalains and there are two types. Betacyanins, which are vibrant red/violet in color, and betaxanthins, which are yellow in color. Both forms of betalains contain nitrogen and they work as both antioxidants and anti-inflammatories.
Beets are also naturally high in inorganic nitrates (NO3-), which the body uses to make both nitrite (NO2-) and nitric oxide (NO). Nitrite is known to protect the blood vessels from injury, while nitric oxide expands blood vessels and therefore increases the flow of oxygen to the cells. This, in turn, increases both the power available to the muscles and the length of time that the muscles can exercise without tiring. NO is made naturally within our bodies but we can dramatically increase its availability by eating nitrate rich food. Studies have shown that drinking beet juice decreased oxygen needs by 19 percent and increased exercise endurance time by 17 percent. A more recent study shows that participants were able to maintain a higher power output for the same amount of oxygen consumed. This led to a 2.7% improved performance compared to the placebo (beetroot juice treated to remove the nitrate).
About 1-2 cups of raw beetroot juice provides the amount of nitrate needed for the average person to increase their blood nitrite, which occurs about 2-3 hours after drinking it. For more elite athletes, it’s likely that you’ll need to use beetroot juice for several days in a row to get a meaningful boost in blood nitrite and hence performance. (I usually use beets daily for about two weeks prior to an important race). However, just going out, buying your own beets and putting them in the food processor or blender doesn’t guarantee you’ll get the benefit. The nitrate content of vegetables (including beetroot) varies significantly according to the soil it’s grown in, the time of year, the fertilizer used, and how soon after being picked the beets are juiced. I highly recommend growing your own or buying organic from a local farmer who can tell you more specifics about their crops. There is also bottled beetroot juice available online for those of you who want a known nitrate content. (Personally, I still use whole beets as I didn’t notice a difference with the bottled beet juice).
Another thing to keep in mind is that the nitrates in beets are converted into nitrites by friendly bacteria in our saliva. This conversion is not instantaneous, and the use of mouthwash or toothpaste too soon after drinking beet juice may wash the nitrates out of your saliva. (As a dental hygienist, I recommend brushing before you eat). Drinking beet juice slowly may increase the time nitrates are in contact with these bacteria, increasing the conversion to nitrites.
Like all supplements, individuals will respond differently to the performance enhancing benefits of beet juice. There is always a chance that no performance benefit will be seen, even at the highest dose given. But they could also provide the race winning boost, so go ahead and try adding beets to your diet and see what happens.
Lindsey and Damian’s Pre Race Beet Smoothie
16 oz water
1-2 beets (chopped)
1-2 leaves of kale
1 T chia seeds
1 T flax seed (finely ground)
1 scoop Vega All-In-One Nutritional Shake Powder (Mixed Berry or Vanilla Chia Flavor)
1-2 T goji berries
1 cup fresh or frozen mixed berries
1 T MacroLife Naturals Macrogreens
1 inch slice of fresh ginger
1/4 inch slice fresh turmeric