Beets: Next Level Performance

The best new trend in sports isn’t a berry flavored pre-workout, brown rice protein powder, nor is it chocolate milk. The current supplement of choice across the board in sports right now is beet juice; it’s scientifically proven to work, it’s legal to use, and has very few side effects. It’s so effective, in fact, that the top performing countries in the 2012 Olympics were all supplying beet juice to their athletes. The scientific research on beet juice has increased dramatically, which has increased general knowledge of it’s benefits, helping it gain popularity among high performance athletes and sports teams.  

In short, beet juice:

  • Increases oxygen efficiency (1)
  • Increases time to exhaustion during exercise (2)
  • Dilates blood vessels (3) → better blood flow of oxygen and nutrients
  • Regulates and lowers blood pressure (4)
  • Increases team sport performance (5) → improves sprinting and decision making
  • Increases cognitive performance (6)
  • Positively affects learning and memory processes (7)

How Beets Improve Athletic Performance                                                                Beets are high in dietary nitrates (as are dark leafy green vegetables), which are not to be confused with sodium nitrite (nitrite salts), the preservative used in processed and cured meats. Once consumed, the dietary nitrates found in beets are changed into nitrites by the oral microflora (bacteria) on your tongue. This means that it may be important to keep the beet juice in your mouth for a few seconds, maybe even swish it around. This also means that using mouthwash that destroys oral microflora may inhibit the conversion of nitrates to nitrites. Once swallowed, the nitrites then interact with stomach acid, where it is converted to nitric oxide. This biological conversion from nitrate to nitric oxide is referred to as the nitrate→ nitrite→ nitric oxide pathway. Nitric oxide may be a familiar term among athletes and gym-goers due to pre-workout supplements that heavily market how it increases nitric oxide levels. However, non-vegetable sources of nitrates may have detrimental health effects. There is no scientific evidence that nitric oxide stimulating supplements have any beneficial effect, they have artificial colors and flavorings, and long term safety is questionable. Beets, on the other hand, are cheap, readily available, and have supportive compounds and enzymes that help with the assimilation of nitrates and nutrients.

Nitric oxide, once converted from dietary nitrates, is a molecule produced by the body, which has various positive and desirable effects on the body. First and foremost, the 1998 Nobel Prize for Medicine was awarded to three scientists for discovering the signaling role of nitric oxide in body, helping the 50 trillion cells in the body to communicate. Over 60,000 scientific studies have been conducted on nitric oxide, which has shown to have important and significant effects on cellular function.

In terms of athletic performance, beet juice is a potent vasodilator (expands blood vessels) which allows more blood and oxygen to circulate throughout the body at a faster rate (8), as well as having blood pressure lowering, vasoprotective, and antiplatelet properties (9).  

Beet juice also lowers the oxygen cost of exercise. In a study that observed the effect of beet juice on cyclists, the consumption of beet juice reduced the oxygen cost of exercise by 19%, and increased the time to exhaustion by 17% (2). It is important to note that these results were observed on day 4 through 6 of daily consumption of beet juice. For best results, beet juice should be incorporated into the daily routine of athletes. The biological process of how a beet juice impacts athletic performance are also complex, and not fully depicted here.

Here’s some more interesting research on beet juice:

Dietary nitrate supplementation reduces the O2 (oxygen) cost of walking and running: a placebo-controlled study.

Dietary nitrate supplementation improves team sport-specific intense intermittent exercise performance.

Dietary nitrate improves sprint performance and cognitive function during prolonged intermittent exercise.

Dietary nitrate supplementation reduces the O2 (oxygen) cost of low-intensity exercise and enhances tolerance to high-intensity exercise in humans.

Dietary inorganic nitrate improves mitochondrial efficiency in humans.