Like many of you athletes out there, I go to great lengths to take care of my body. I go to the gym, do yoga, cross-train, and get massages. I am also very mindful of what I eat; a plant based, whole grain diet with a minimal amount of processed foods and sugars. So when I come across research showing that beet juice, a delicious and nutritious drink in and of itself, can increase your performance dramatically, I tend to get pretty excited.
A number of studies in the last few years have singled out beets and the nitrates they contain as the reason for all the excitement. A small study in 2009 at England’s Exeter University found that competitive cyclists who drank 16 oz of beet juice right before they got on their bikes were able to ride 16% longer. A larger follow up study in 2011 found that cyclists who drank 16 oz of beet juice for six days were 11 seconds faster over a 2.5 mile course and 45 seconds faster over a 10 mile course. The benefits of beet juice aren’t confined to just cyclists. Last year, marathoner Ryan Hall added beet juice to his training routine and was able to train harder for longer. He finished 4th in the Boston Marathon with the fastest marathon ever by an American and will be contending for a medal this summer in London.
So what is it about beets? The nitrates in beets improve the efficiency with which you can get oxygen to your muscles. Our bodies convert nitrates into nitric oxide, a gas that causes blood vessels to relax and widen, a process known as vasodilation. This allows more oxygen rich blood to flow through the body. And the more oxygen that reaches the muscles, the longer their able to perform at a high intensity. Various banned substances have been used unsuccessfully to trigger vasodilation including erectile dysfunction medication and hyper-tension drugs. And synthetically produced nitrates sold at places like GNC come with some pretty serious risks. A 2010 study found the synthetically produced nitrates to be associated with long term negative effects including cardiovascular collapse, coma, and death. But by simply consuming large amounts of vegetables that are high in nitrates such as spinach, carrots, radishes, and beets you can get the same performance boost (as well as many other health benefits) without the risks.
Before your next work out try starting with 8 oz (two juiced beets), adding 8 oz of apple, orange, or carrot juices to improve the taste. Bottoms up!