Endurance athletes are always looking for an extra boost, for something to help them go just a little bit further. It seems like, even in a market bloated by dozens of products claiming to do just that, it might be as simple as eating your vegetables. Of particular interest is the humble beet which has been heavily researched since 2009 for it’s potential use as an performance enhancer for endurance athletes.
In the past few years, beet juice has been the target of several studies that have all revealed an exciting application for what is a usually under-appreciated vegetable. It all started with a 2008 study that found that a single daily glass of beet juice significantly reduced blood pressure. The athletic connection was made by Exeter University in 2009 when eight men were given either beet juice or a placebo of blackcurrent cordial before completing a series of exercise tests, including cycling. The group was able to perform for an extra 92 seconds and started with a lower resting blood pressure when they were given the beet juice.
This was a small study, though, and the results would have to be replicated on a larger scale to really understand what was happening. So, in 2011, Exeter conducted another study with club-level cyclists completing 2.5 mile and 10 mile time-trials. This time, the subjects were always given beet juice but the control was a juice that had the nitrates removed. The subjects were 11 seconds faster over 2.5 miles and 45 seconds faster over 10 miles when they were given the ordinary nitrate-containing juice.
This study not only proved the effectiveness of beet juice in a competition but also helped to isolate the active ingredient: nitrates.
How It Works
Nitrates are generally labeled as a bad thing, having been linked to cancer. But the nitrates found in beets, and many vegetables, come bundled with other compounds that protect us from the negative effects while allowing us to enjoy the positives. Additionally, many researchers now discount the initial studies that accused nitrates of being toxic in the first place, saying that their findings were inaccurate.
More research is needed to fully understand the mechanism at work here but the key seems to be what nitrates become: nitric oxide. This gas not only regulates blood pressure but does so by relaxing and smoothing the walls of your blood vessels, allowing blood to flow more freely.
For an endurance athlete, this means more oxygen fueling your muscles and less waste slowing them down, with less work for your heart.
Does it Have to be Beet Juice?
Although these benefits sound great, it still means that you have to drink beet juice, an unpleasant prospect for many people. However, as we’ve discussed, the active ingredient here is the nitrates which are present in many vegetables. In the studies, beet juice is repeatedly used for the sake of consistency and because it’s nitrate values are stable. Also, beet juice is absorbed quickly and is easy for an athlete to drink immediately before an event.
However, studies do show similar effects from baked beets and beet-enriched breads. While beets have received most of the attention, a diet high in nitrate-rich vegetables has also been shown to lower blood pressure. Other nitrate-rich vegetables include rhubarb, arugula, Swiss chard, spinach and broccoli.
Have you gotten a boost from beet juice? Please share your experience with us in the comments.