BEETS for Performance
Beets = Boosted Performance
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.
I don’t like beets,can I just take a 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.
I did the work for you! I weighed different sized whole beets, then juiced specific weights until I got to the 1 cup (250ml) mark.
Turns out, it takes 468grams (~3.5 cups) of whole beet to = 1 juiced cup.
Finding the right amount is tricky but between 250 -500ml (1-2c ups) beet juice or 468-936grams or (according to standard nutrition data) 3.5-7cups of whole beet seems to be the sweet spot.
Research has yet to find any dose dependent benefits which would suggest an athlete should start at the low end of beet supplementation as increased gains have not been seen with excessive amounts.
Do the beets have to be juiced?
Nope! You can eat your beets and they don’t even have to be raw. Studies that used whole beet showed us that nitrates are not lost in the cooking process. Juicing just seems to be the most efficient way to down ~2 cups of beetroot before a workout. Other ways to get your beet intake could be a nice borsch, roasted salted beets, a beet smoothie, steamed beets with honey and oats… there are lots of options! Of course, something to consider is the studies looked at fasting + pure beetroot consumption. Adding protein, fat, fiber and other nutrition components may delay the onset of nitrate benefit.
When should I eat/drink beets to see gains?
With sports nutrition, timing is everything. It appears that the excess NO is used up during activity and not stored. For this reason, supplementation prior to endurance races is key. The ideal time for peak benefits may be seen 2-3 hours after ingesting beets, sooner with beet juice. When you should consume your beets for optimal performance will depend on how you take in your beets, your metabolism, duration of workout and possibly your fitness level.
1 Serving Beet Boost - 4 beets (this is what I use)
200grams (1.5cup) whole beetroot
1 cup pure beetroot juice
Beet Elite Powder - 6 beets/serving equivalent
Red Ace Shot - 3 Beet/serving equivalent
Whole Foods Beet Powder – 2oz beet/2tsp scoop
While it might be convenient to use a supplement, keep in mind that beets are very affordable food!! An organic beet might run you 40cents while a Red Ace Shot will run you close to $4.
What’s the catch?
Well… many athletes chew gum. Since the breakdown of beets -> nitrate -> NO begins in the mouth, with saliva, it seems that using gum or mouthwash around the time you supplement with beets will alter the saliva/bacteria population and hinder any potential results.
Caffeine intake can also negate the benefits of beets. So much for my beet powder latte… It’s still tasty tho…!
Beet intake might also benefit recreational and beginner athletes more. The reasoning is unclear, but might be due to elites having a better focus on a healthy diet that already includes natural nitrate levels.
Also, when increasing the amount of any one food, there are always dietary concerns. Make sure you aren’t neglecting any other food/food group due to being too full of beets. Another consideration should be opting for organic beets as soil conditions can contribute uptake of harmful pesticides and arsenic.
Try it out! There's really no reason not to. This is an easy way to test potential sports nutrition performance benefits at home.
Wake up, do not brush your teeth or use mouthwash. Forgo the coffee. Consume 200-600g beets or .5 - 2 cups beet juice. Wait 1-2hrs (depending on the length of your workout). Analyze your results. Look at your beet workout compared to a similar non beet workout. Was your heart rate higher? Effort seem harder? Speed or power improved? Try carrying this out for a couple weeks. Then decide if beets are a worthwhile add to your training routine.
More research is needed to determine how the following factors could affect the use of beets for enhancing performance: growing conditions as nitrite levels can vary considerably vegetable to vegetable, impact of mouth bacteria, use of other high nitrite vegetables, dosing effects, and differences between elite level and recreational level athletes.