If you stay on top of the latest superfood trends or spend any time in health food circles, you’ve probably noticed a buzz around beetroot and its alleged ability to turn moderately capable athletes into superhuman powerhouses. But is there any validity to these claims?
Beets and Nitrates
There is no doubt that when it comes to nutrition, beets pack a powerful punch. They’re full of components that have been proven to be beneficial to the body, like folate, manganese, potassium, fiber, and the phytochemicals quercetin and resveratrol. The beet component that is most often cited as having positive effects on athletic performance, however, is the nitrate content.
You may be thinking, “Hey, wait a minute, aren’t nitrates those nasty things in bacon and lunch meats that I’m supposed to avoid because they’ll give me cancer?”
The answer is yes (so don’t go running off and start loading up on hot dogs). Dietary nitrates and nitrites found in processed foods have been shown to be dangerous. But when consumed in their naturally occurring vegetable form, nitrates pose no harm and have, in fact, been shown to have positive effects on the body.
Nitrates are found in all vegetables. They are especially abundant in leafy greens and beets, and a growing body of evidence suggests that the nitrate content in vegetables like beets can actually improve exercise performance.
Fun Fact: Golden beets, which are milder in flavor, have the same nitrate-rich nutrient profile.
How It Works
When you eat beets, some of the nitrates mix with your saliva, where friendly bacteria convert them to nitrites. Further down the chain of digestion, the nitrites are then converted to nitric oxide, which facilitates several bodily mechanisms, including:
- Maintaining blood pressure and regulating muscle contraction
- Enhancing vasodilation and blood flow
- Facilitating neurotransmission
It is likely a combination of these mechanisms that leads to a boost in athletic performance. Researchers hypothesize that, ultimately, the nitrates in beets allow you to burn less ATP (energy) in order to produce a muscular force. In other words, beets help you get more bang for your metabolic buck.
Research and Findings
There have been many studies exploring the effects of beet intake on exercise performance, but the most applicable to the running community is probably a 2012 study that explored whether eating 200 grams of beets in their whole food form would have a significant impact on running performance during a 5k treadmill time trial.
The study found that eating beets did make a difference. Average running speed was 3% faster after eating beets compared to a placebo. There was no difference in heart rate between the two trials, which means that the extra speed did not come at a cost to cardiac output. Rates of perceived exertion were, in fact, lower during the first mile of the beet trial, suggesting that in addition to making you faster, eating beets may make the run feel a bit easier as well.
Other studies have found similar results. A 2011 study by Lansley et. al. found that drinking 2 cups of beetroot juice improved cycling time trial performance, with a 3% faster time. Another study in the Journal of Applied Physiology found that taking concentrated beet juice shots significantly increased the time to exhaustion in a cycling test.
The Bottom Line
It seems that the hype surrounding beet consumption has a scientific foundation and may be worth exploring. However, unless you want to eat 200 grams of beets (about 2 whole beets) before a workout (hello, port-a-potty) or spend quite a few dollars stocking up on concentrated beet juice shots, we think there may be a more important take-away:
Eating vegetables is good for you, and will probably help your athletic performance.
People often want a quick fix, so the appeal of drinking a glass of beet juice and instantly being 3% faster is strong. For most of us, however, simply focusing on adding nutrient-dense foods to our diet and eating as clean as possible will probably lead to the same performance improvements, possibly even more. With that in mind, we’d like to share a recipe that takes advantage of the athletic benefits of beets while also offering a wide variety of healthy nutrients.
Recipe for the Runner: Beet, Citrus, and Fennel Salad
For the salad:
- 2 whole beets
- 1/2 an orange
- 1/2 a grapefruit
- 1/2 a bulb fennel, sliced thin
- Goat cheese to crumble on top (if desired)
- Mixed leafy greens or kale
For the dressing:
- 3 Tbsp balsamic vinegar
- 2 Tbsp yellow mustard
- 1 Tbsp honey
- 1 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- Boil the beets. Simply add the whole beetroots to a pot and cover with water. Let boil until the beets are fork-tender (about 30 minutes). Allow to cool a bit, then peel and chop into small pieces.
- Slice the citrus. Peel the orange and grapefruit and either slice thin or cut into small chunks.
- Make the salad dressing. Mix together all of the dressing ingredients in a lidded container and shake well until blended.
- Assemble the salad. Mix together the green, beets, citrus, and fennel. Drizzle with just enough dressing to lightly coat the salad when tossed. Plate and top with goat cheese crumbles.
Tracie is a former teacher and a lifelong learner who loves exploring. Most at home in the mountains, she enjoys tearing up and down the trails on her mountain bike, and occasionally leaves the wheels at home for a run through the trees. Having recently earned her personal trainer certification, Tracie thrives on helping others reach their athletic goals.