Beetroot is versatile and tasty vegetable that is enjoying a new popularity owing to associated benefits on health and performance
One nutrient in beetroot known as nitrate has potent effects on widening of blood vessels and increasing blood flow, thereby enhancing delivery of oxygen and fuel to working muscle
Performance benefits have been observed in both long duration endurance work, shorter time-trial style events, and high intensity performance like repeated sprints
Beetroot juice shots, or our own Beetroot Smoothie, are a convenient way to obtain these benefits for yourself
Athletes are always looking for a competitive advantage, in both training and nutrition, but it is doubtful whether many athletes would have considered that a single vegetable would give them a performance edge. Beetroot, also known as the table beet, garden beet, red beet, or just “the beet”, refers to any of the varieties of Beta vulgaris cultivated for human consumption. Recently, fresh beetroot and raw beetroot juice have emerged as offering potential benefits for heart health and athletic performance, the latter of which is particularly exciting.
Beetroot contains a moderate amount of carbohydrate (9 g per 100 g)*, a small amount of protein (2 g per 100 g), and is a good source of fibre and micronutrients including folate and manganese. Other nutrients present include betalains, which are the principal antioxidants in beetroot and are partly responsible for the dark purple colour, as well as betaine, a nutrient generating interest in both the disease prevention** and exercise performance realms.
However, the most discussed nutrient present in beetroot and the one mostly likely to confer performance benefits is a molecule known as nitrate. Beetroot is naturally-rich in nitrate – much higher in fact than most other vegetables. Nitrate plays an important role in the body’s production of a chemical known as nitric oxide, by first being converted to nitrite. Nitric oxide is a potent vasodilator***, which means that it can enhance blood flow by widening blood vessels. This has important implications for delivery and utilisation of oxygen and fuel for working muscles, and is the likely mechanism explaining the impressive performance benefits of beetroot.
Beetroot and sports performance
Both nitrate alone and beetroot, usually in the form of a concentrated beetroot juice shot, have shown remarkable effects as a nutrition aid enhancing athletic performance. A concentrated shot of beetroot juice taken about 3 hours before exercise can lower the oxygen cost of that exercise bout, which means that an athlete can exercise harder at a lower rate of energy expenditure.
Importantly, beetroot juice can benefit athletes performing in a range of sports activities, not just one particular type of exercise. For example, competitive-level cyclists who drank beetroot juice were able to cut down the time that it took to ride a set distance (i.e. time-trial), whereas benefits have also been reported in athletes completing high-intensity intermittent exercise tests for both physical and cognitive parameters. So, it appears that beetroot juice has relevance for both endurance sports like running, rowing and cycling, as well as potentially for team sports like soccer, GAA, rugby and basketball to name a few.
In such studies, the placebo condition is usually a shot of beetroot juice identical in taste and appearance, but one that has been passed through a special filter that removes nitrate, and as a result, the performance benefit is not observed. This leads to the conclusion that the effect is dependent on the nitrate naturally-present in juice.
How much and when do I take it?
One of the key questions about the use of beetroot or beetroot juice for improving performance is how much and when do I take it? The majority of research on beetroot juice supplementation has been performed using concentrated shots (70 mL, or about two mouthfuls), rather than a standard juice. This is important as you will see both versions on the shelves. If you were to choose the standard juice version, you would need to drink as much as 1.5 litres of beetroot juice to get the same amount of nitrate that has been shown to benefit performance.
In terms of eating whole, fresh beetroot, it would take the equivalent of about three large beetroots to provide the same amount of nitrate. A problem with that approach is that the accompanying fibre intake so close to performance may lead to some gastrointestinal issues, which is never a good thing for an athlete…
Early research focussed on consuming beetroot juice or shots for several days or weeks before testing an effect on performance, but the most recent work suggests that even a single dose taken about 3 hours before exercise or performance can provide the same benefits. Moreover, two shots are better than one, but that doesn’t mean that three are better than two! Finally, taking beetroot juice immediately before you perform is unlikely to result in any performance benefit because it takes about 3 hours for the conversion to and concentration of nitrite to peak in the blood.
Interestingly, the process of converting nitrate to nitrite prior to nitric oxide is dependent on bacteria present in the mouth and saliva. By using a strong mouthwash prior to ingestion of beetroot, particularly those that are antibacterial and/or contain chlorhexidine, the rise in nitrite in the blood in markedly reduced, and the expected effects of beetroot are diminished. In other words, wait until after you have had your juice before freshening up before performance.
Finally, if you are trying beetroot juice for the first time and it so happens that your urine turns pink, don’t stress – it’s a harmless, natural colouring from beetroot.
Beetroot is a versatile food, with beetroot salads being a favourite around here. Mainly in-season during early autumn, August in particular is the best month for getting fresh beetroot. Although, nowadays due to international trade, it can be found reasonably easily year-round. The best option is to choose is fresh beetroot when you can get it, but it will require some peeling and/or cooking depending on your preference. If you are struggling to find fresh beetroot during the winter months, beetroot sold in vacuum packs is the best alternative, but certainly check the label for hidden ingredients****.
And for something a little different, try this simple smoothie recipe.
* A medium-sized beetroot is approximately 80 to 100 g** Both betaine and nitrate present in beetroot are proposed to have benefits to cardiovascular health: betaine through effects on reducing levels of homocysteine, a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, and nitrate through effects on widening blood vessels and reducing blood pressure.
*** Ingredients that act as precursors for nitric oxide are often used in pre-workout supplements that propose to give the user “a pump”.
**** Jarred beetroot usually comes infused with added sugars, and in general, we advocate limiting intakes of foods with added sugars.