Boosting Your Performance with Beets
There are hundreds of supplements claiming to improve athletic performance. And some actually do. In fact, if you’re anything like me, you may even have a pantry overflowing with over-priced plastic jugs full of various powders while canned goods and half-eaten boxes of crackers sit forgotten in their shadows.
But what if I told you that boosting your athletic performance doesn’t have to mean a life full of powdered promises and stale chips? What if it can be as simple as planting a garden or making a trip to the produce isle of your local supermarket?
Because it can.
Beetroot – the wall flower of the superfoods
Almonds. Berries. Kale. When one thinks of superfoods, these are likely some of the things that come to mind. They are superfood celebrities.
And like celebrities, some garner more attention than others for reasons only the media can decipher.
Beetroot is not one of them.
Beetroot, or “beets” as they are more commonly called by us less refined folks, may not be as glamorous as strawberries or feature the luscious curves of walnuts (okay they’re lumpy, work with me here), but they are a nutritional powerhouse full of micronutrients like Vitamin B6, folate, and fiber.
But this is not what makes beets unique. Where they really stand out from their superfood counterparts is their high concentration of inorganic nitrates.
Nitrates – a natural performance booster
During exercise, our bodies require oxygen in the blood to fuel muscles. The more intense the activity, the more oxygen we need. As we begin to exercise to the point that we are consuming more oxygen than we actually have, our performance slows to allow our bodies to catch up on its oxygen levels. It does this by forcing you to breathe heavier and making your heart pump harder.
But it doesn’t end there.
The body also releases nitric oxide, a molecule primarily responsible for regulating tissue lining the walls of the blood vessels. During physical activity, nitric oxide responds by relaxing and broadening these vessels, a process that causes more blood – and oxygen – to circulate through the body. This allows the heart to slow down since the body is getting more oxygen through each beat, prolonging endurance during exercise.
Think of it as a quality-versus-quantity phenomenon. Let me illustrate using a super scientific comparison.
Imagine ordering a cocktail at the bar. When it arrives not only does it come in a juice glass, but it also includes an umbrella and one of those super dinky straws to distract you from the fact that the glass is so damn small. Despite not being entirely sure if that straw is for decoration or function, you use it to sip your drink anyway – a process that takes forever thanks to the straw’s tiny size.
That’s your blood vessels before nitric oxide kicks in.
Now imagine that you change your mind and order a glass of water instead (so boring). Because this is a financially-challenged establishment, they still use the same sized juice glass, but the server hands you a bendy straw to use instead. Before you know it, you’ve guzzled your water in two seconds flat.
That’s your blood vessels after nitric oxide kicks on.
Same glass sizes, but the diameter of the straws effected how fast you could drink what was in them.
That’s what nitric oxide does. It makes your vessels like the bendy straw.
So what if we could do something to make sure our bodies use bendy straws when we exercise?
The deets about beets
Beets are full of naturally occurring (known as inorganic) nitrates. Whether you consume beets in their native beety form or choose to drink it as a juice or powder instead, the affects are the same. Once consumed, a beet’s inorganic nitrates can be used to boost the body’s production of nitric oxide; increasing oxygen levels in the bloodstream and improving our exercise capacity.
In one study, exercise tolerance in cyclists was improved after drinking only one dose of beet juice. In another, athletes were able to run faster and experienced lower levels of perceived exertion thanks to beets. In fact, ultra-marathon runner Chris Carver credits beet juice for his ability to successfully run 148 miles within a 24-hour period; eight more miles than he had accomplished the year before. This is notable because he did not train any differently between races; the only change was that he incorporated beet juice into his diet a week prior to the event.
While I was unable to find any concrete reports on the appropriate dose of beet juice to enhance performance, one study suggests that drinking between 140-280mL of beet juice two to three hours before exercise results in the highest levels of nitrate in the blood.
So go drink yourself some beets.
Haven’t there been reports that nitrates are harmful?
Yes. Depending on their source.
Synthetic nitrates are found everywhere in our food supply. They are commonly used as a food preservative (look on any package of lunchmeat and you’re likely to see it contains nitrates/nitrites), and are a common ingredient in fertilizer used by farms across the country. This means that fruits and vegetables are usually grown in – and livestock eat feed grown from – soil fertilized by synthetic nitrates. Both plant and animal-based foods go on to absorb these nitrates, which then make their way to supermarkets everywhere for us to ingest.
Why does this matter?
Because when we eat synthetic nitrates, the body can convert them into what are called “nitrosamines,” a dangerous carcinogenic.
And in case you didn’t know, carcinogens can cause cancer.
However, naturally occurring nitrates such as those found in beets are different. Our metabolic process during digestion prevents the body from absorbing inorganic nitrates too quickly or at toxic levels, and the vegetable itself contains additional compounds – like vitamin C – that prevents the conversion of nitrates into nitrosamines.
In other words, naturally-occurring nitrates are good.
Synthetic nitrates? Not so much.
Beets aren’t just for athletes
While beets are a great option to enhance performance, their vessel-expanding benefits don’t end with athletes.
As we age, the tissue lining our blood vessels can degenerate, causing circulation to the brain to slow down.
Cardiovascular illnesses like arthrosclerosis (thickening of artery walls) and high blood pressure (increased resistance created by the arteries when the heart pumps blood) are conditions that also compromise blood flow.
And let’s not forget erectile dysfunction, which is caused by the narrowing of blood vessels.
By supplementing the diet with inorganic nitrates like beets, the availability of nitric oxide increases, improving circulation in the vessels, reducing the affects of aging, and improving vascular health.
It also makes Mr. Happy happy again.
Some final thoughts on beets
Since the writing of this article, I have been drinking eight ounces of beet juice every day for the past two weeks. So far I have not seen noticeable improvement, but I’d like to believe that’s because I kick ass every time I workout in the first place. The more likely reason is that prior to researching this topic, I didn’t realize that I should be drinking my beet juice a few hours before I hit the gym. Rather, I was drinking four ounces twice a day – at random times and not before I exercised.
Obviously, I’ll be more compliant with this strategy moving forward.
Regardless, I found beet juice to be far superior in flavor to arugula and celery, which are both also great sources of inorganic nitrates. While juice straight out of the bottle is pleasant, adding a few drops of Stevia will make even the pickiest of eaters giddy with delight.
Aside from the cardiovascular benefits mentioned throughout this piece, beets are a great one-stop-shop for a whole host of vitamins and minerals including:
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin B6
It’s worth drinking for those micronutrients alone.
One last thing. If you drink beet juice, don’t be alarmed if your pee turns pink. It’s okay. This is normal and you’re completely fine.
It’s just another amazing power of the beet.