Yeap. It’s true. In the sports world there are so many various herbs, foods and supplements touted for their performance enhancing abilities. However, it is rare for something to actually be scientifically studied and found to be legit. Beets have that stamp of science approval.
So why aren’t we all juicing (literally) for the gains? Well let’s explore the topic a little more, particularly the implementation of this practice.
Why are beets beneficial?
Nitrates found in beets are converted in the body to create a vasodilating substance, Nitric Oxide (NO). This helps increase blood flow to working muscles allowing your mitochondria to produce ATP more efficiently. This creates an ‘anti-fatigue’ effect, meaning you can do the same amount of work for longer period with less stress to the body.
What benefits have been found?
Many studies on this have been done. While there are a few that point to no significant gains, many others (enough to say this is truth) show that supplementing with nitrate rich beets will keep fatigue at bay, leading to better endurance performance. That is key. Endurance benefits. Beets will not help you lift more or have better explosive power. The longer you go, the more you’ll see the benefits. Study participants also report feeling less exhaustion and have a lower heart rate, even while doing more work. Research done on 5k runners saw the beet group pull ahead towards the end of the race. Research on cyclists who the same; one study found an 11 second improvement for a 4km TT which increased to a 48 second improvement over a 16.1km TT. Pretty cool. The one area where research is less conclusive is with well-trained athletes. This may be due to elite athletes being a small subject group. It could also be that the studies just are not designed to test these super fit individuals. For example, one study looked at elite runners over a 10km race and found no benefits from the beet group compared to the control. Well, a 10km race for elites is basically the same time spend working out as an untrained runner doing a 5km race, like the study mentioned earlier. Maybe elites need to be performing longer to see benefits. Or of course, maybe the room for improvement at that level is just so slim that beets aren’t enough promote gains.
But beets suck (they don’t), so can I just take a *NO* supplement?
NO! (ha). You can’t. Really. Not just because I’m not a fan of supplements over whole food and not just because I absolutely love beets, but because studies have given athletes beet juice rich in natural nitrate and compared those results with beetles NO supplements. Beets win. Also, as an athlete, you have to be wary about supplements used to enhance performance. Most are not certified or tested and could leave you banned after a drug test. So go the safe and more nutritious route and learn to love beets. Also remember that studies done on beet roots are more likely to not have conflicts of interest as compared to studies completed on a particular supplement.
Are there side effects?
Kind of. As with any food or supplement, you don’t want to go overboard. So keep your intake low and progress as tolerated. Performance may top out around 600mg of nitrate anyway and ingesting seriously high amounts of beets can put strain on the kidneys. But taking in a few cups of beets a day should lead to any issues. Except in the bathroom. If you start a high beet diet, do not be freaked out by the amount of red pigment in restroom visits. It is normal. It is the beets. It is not blood. Do not call your doctor.
Are beets the only source of nitrates?
First, we are talking about nitrates from vegetable sources here. Other sources have not been shown to have the beneficial nitrate -> NO effect. There are other vegetables that contain high levels of nitrates; leafy greens are very high, particularly arugula, spinach and iceberg lettuce. So why can’t you just salad up? Honestly I’m not sure why research has settled on beets over greens. Likely due to the palatability of beets over greens…. But, it could also be that beets supply more natural sugar which would be good for pre-workouts and leave the gut less stressed. I mean think about downing a huge bowl of spinach pre marathon… no thanks! But adding sliced beets to your bagel, well that’s doable. So I suppose if there is just something completely wrong with your taste buds and you can’t become a beet lover, you could experiment with drinking green juices to get your nitrate levels up. If you do this, please let me know how it goes!!
Here’s a look at nitrate levels:
2 c beet juice = 500 mg nitrate
1 c raw spinach = 926 mg nitrate
1/2 c cooked collards= 198 mg nitrate
1 c raw leaf lettuce = 103 mg nitrate
Okay, I’m sold! How many beets do I need to eat?
After reading numerous research designs, the common dosage seems to be around 500 ml of beet juice which is equivalent to roughly 2 cups of juice. Studies using small amounts, like this one which used 140ml of beet juice (~262g whole beet) showed no significant improvements in performance. However, studies vary between using milliliters of juiced beets and grams of whole beets. The amounts do not easily translate. In the aforementioned 5km running study, 200g of whole beets were given to participants. But wait, we just saw 262g of beets have no impact… that’s where the dosage gets lost in translation. There is a big difference going between 140ml of ingestible weight to 200g of ingestible weight. If we reverse the equation for the running study, that 200g of whole beets would juice to just over a quarter cup. How do I know this? Well I weighed and juiced and measured, that’s how. This shows that consuming whole beets can pack a larger punch than juicing the vegetable as much of the nitrate containing compounds are potentially lost in the discarded ‘pulp’ weight. However, that pulp contains all the fiber, so discarding that before a workout might be the best option.