For years, endurance athletes have looked for ways to deliver more oxygen to their muscles. They’ve also searched for ways to get their muscles to use oxygen more efficiently. Some cyclists have even resorted to blood “doping” to increase the blood’s ability to carry oxygen.
Now, it appears that what they were looking for has been in the garden all along. Several recent studies show that a common vegetable can substantially increase the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood. It can also reduce the amount of oxygen that the muscles need to perform work.
These performance enhancing benefits can bestow greater energy and stamina. In fact, the results are so significant that numerous Olympic athletes have added the juice of this vegetable to their training and recovery routine.
Now, we realize that you’re probably not an Olympic-caliber athlete. It’s unlikely that one of your main goals is to shave 30 seconds off your race time to make it to the winner’s podium.
But there’s a good chance you lead a busy life. You probably have a demanding job, a long to-do list, and lots of family obligations. And you’d probably like some added energy for exercise and recreation after all those obligations are met.
So what is the vegetable that more and more athletes swear by? The beet.
One of the first studies to demonstrate the ability of beets to improve energy and performance was conducted at Exeter University in England.1 In this study, the researchers followed eight competitive cyclists.
For six straight days, the cyclists consumed half a liter (about 16 ounces) of organic beetroot juice. They then completed fitness tests. On a separate occasion, the men drank a placebo for six days. They then completed the same cycling tests.
The results showed that the beet juice allowed the men to cycle for 92 seconds longer than the placebo. The percentage increase was 16%. That might not sound like a lot. But in a sport like cycling, an improvement of just a few percentage points can mean the difference between first place and the middle of the pack. The beet juice offered these athletes a very significant advantage.
After consuming the beetroot juice, the men also had lower resting blood pressure.
In a follow up study, a different group of athletes rode a 10-mile course. The results were the same. After consuming the beet juice, the riders shaved almost a minute off their time.
A similar study was published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. This study looked at the effect of whole beets on 5K running performance.2 Five men and six women underwent two trials. In the first, they consumed 200 grams of whole beets. In the second, they consumed a placebo consisting of cranberry relish.
After each meal, the participants ran the 5K. The results showed that those who consumed the beets had better running times. On average, the beet eaters finished 41-seconds faster.
Keep in mind that all of these studies are small. Larger studies have yet to be conducted to validate the findings. Normally, we would be skeptical of such limited evidence. But it is well understood how beets are able to boost energy, stamina and endurance.
The researchers believe that the nitrates in beets are responsible for the positive results.
Nitrates are naturally occurring chemicals. They exist in the air, soil, and water. They’re also abundant in various vegetables. And beets happen to be one of the richest food sources of naturally occurring nitrates.
Nitrates can have several beneficial effects in the body. These include improved endurance and lower blood pressure.
Scientists believe that the energy and endurance benefits are the result of nitrates converting to nitric oxide in the body. This conversion reduces how much oxygen the body burns during exercise. The result? Less exhaustion during exercise.
Andrew Jones was the lead author of the studies performed at Exeter. He says that, “The oxygen cost of exercising at a given speed is basically fixed. Only nitrate ingestion appears to improve efficiency. These effects cannot be achieved by any other known means, including training.”
Nitric oxide also plays a big role in heart health. Insufficient nitric oxide can lead you down a path toward heart disease. This is why many of the subjects in these studies experienced healthier blood pressure readings as a result of their beet intake.
“Beet” Yourself Up!
Most of us are not endurance athletes. We don’t worry about our running times as much as simply being able to garner enough energy to fit a workout into our busy schedules. Either way, adding beets to your diet – especially about an hour before your workout — may just be the way to do it.
You can roast or bake beets and add them to salads. You can throw one or two raw beets into the blender as part of a morning smoothie. Or you can also buy organic beet juice already bottled. Biotta is the brand we recommend.
2 Murphy M et al. Whole beetroot consumption acutely improves running performance. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. April 2012;112(4):548–52.