Endurance Athletes: Beetroot Can Improve Your Performance
What if I told you consuming something as simple as a beetroot could possibly help extend endurance and improve performance? The supplement world is a crazy world, and I know you, as an athlete, want to do everything you can to optimize training and performance - as long as it makes sense and actually works. Drinking a glass of beetroot juice or consuming some nice baked beetroot is easy and, in my opinion, delicious. It couldn’t hurt, now could it?
What Is Beetroot and Why Is It So Good
Beetroot is a nutrient dense vegetable that has quite a few health benefits attached to it. Vitamins A, B and C; antioxidants beta-carotene and beta-cyanine; folic acid, magnesium, potassium, phosphorous, iron, and fiber are all present in the beetroot.
The pigments in beetroot are known as betalains and there are two color 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. Beetroot is also jammed packed full of nitrate - this is what will be converted into nitric oxide and that is where we begin.
Nitrate Conversion to Nitric Oxide
Nitric oxide (NO) is a powerful vasodilator and is commonly used in supplements to give bodybuilders the “pump” and help with endurance. Nitric oxide is quickly destroyed in the body, though, and its vasodilator effects are brief. Nitric oxide does a lot of things in the body, but in terms of exercise and performance it is involved in increasing blood flow to the muscles, which makes it easier for your power generators, known as mitochondria, to produce energy. It also maintains blood pressure and controls muscle contraction.
Until recently, the production of nitric oxide was thought to occur only via synthesis from arginine. However a new, less complex pathway for nitric oxide synthesis was discovered where a reaction simply generates nitric oxide from dietary nitrate. The breakdown of nitrate begins in the mouth and symbiotic bacteria reduce the nitrate to nitrite. This nitrite is then swallowed and converted to nitric oxide in the acidic environment of the stomach. It can also be absorbed via the gastrointestinal tract and then re-enter circulation as nitrite. Unlike the production of NO from arginine, the production of NO from nitrate does not require any cofactors and is also independent of oxygen.1,2
Does Nitrate in Beetroot Actually Improve Performance?
There have been quite a few studies done investigating the effects of beetroot on performance and endurance. Most of these studies have involved the use of cyclists. One study using trained cyclists had them consume 500mL of beetroot juice, which equated to 6.2mmols of nitrate 2.5 hours before exercise.3 They then proceeded to do two time trials - a 4km and a 16km ride. In the 4km time trials there was a 2.8% improvement and on the 16kkm time trial there was a 2.7% improvement in time.
What is interesting is that the cyclists exhibited a 7-11% improvement in power output with no increase in oxygen cost of exercise. Simply stated, they all exhibited increased economy. Plasma nitrite levels increased before exercise with the beetroot juice, also. It should also be noted that resting systolic blood pressure also dropped, while having no affect on the diastolic blood pressure.
This study shows that drinking the juice of a beetroot can help improve performance, but what if you ate the beetroot instead of drinking it? In another study researchers looked at five recreationally fit men and six women in their 20s. The study had the subjects eating either 200 grams of baked beetroot or a placebo (cranberry relish) before completing a 5-kilometer treadmill time trial test. The researchers wanted to know if eating 200grams of beetroot (about 2 medium-sized beetroots) before exercise would have any significant improvement on running times. The answer was yes, and they found that the running velocity increased by 3%.4
A 3% increase in running velocity might not seem like much but that equates to around a 41 second faster finishing time, which over a short distance like 5km is a significant time difference. It is, perhaps, even the difference between coming first, second, or third. It was also noted that like in the previous study the participants’ heart rates didn't change even though the velocity of their run increased.
Beetroot Side Effects:
- Beetroot in large doses can in some people cause mild gastrointestinal discomfort.
- The consumption of large quantities of beetroot/juice can cause a pink coloration of urine and stool. Although this is harmless, it can cause distress in some people.
Beetroot Health Benefits:
- An excellent source of iron and folate, both of which are needed by pregnant women.
- Helps lower high blood pressure and elevates low blood pressure.
- Contains betaine, which studies have shown has significant anti-cancer properties and is effective in inhibiting the formation of cancer-causing cells in the body and can also protect against colon and stomach cancer.
- Fiber content helps with bowel movements. Juicing beetroot and drinking it on a regular basis can also relieve chronic constipation.
- Helps detoxify the liver.
- Contains tryptophan, which relaxes the mind and creates a sense of well-being, similar to chocolate
So it would seem that beetroot could be the whole food supplement you just might be looking for and, at the very least, with all the added health benefits associated with beetroot consumption it really couldn't hurt to give it a go. Maybe next time you're running you too might shave 41 seconds off your time.
1. Webb AJ, Patel N, Loukogeorgakis S, et al. Acute blood pressure lowering, vasoprotective, and antiplatelet properties of dietary nitrate via bioconversion to nitrite. Hypertension. 2008;51(3):784-790.
2. Vanhatalo A, Bailey SJ, Blackwell JR, et al. Acute and chronic effects of dietary nitrate supplementation on blood pressure and the physiological responses to moderate-intensity and incremental exercise. Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol. 2010;299(4):R1121-R1131.
3. Lansley, KE, Winyard, Paul G., Bailey, Stephen J., Vanhatalo, Annie, Wilkerson, Daryl P., Blackwell, Jamie R., Gilchrist M., Benjamin, Nigel, and Jones, Andrew M. Acute dietary nitrate supplementation improves cycling time trial performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2011; 43(6): 1125-1131.
4. Murphy, M., Eliot, K., Heuertz, R., Weiss, E. Whole beetroot consumption acutely improves running performance. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2012 Apr;112(4):548-552.
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