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BEET IT!!: Can Beets Make You Run Faster?Beets and performance
A number of studies
show that beetroot juice improves time to exhaustion during exercise
(in other words, you have more energy for a longer period) and reduces
the oxygen cost of exercise (1, 2). Researchers have hypothesized that the nitrate in beetroot juice
reduces the oxygen cost of endurance exercise by allowing you to burn
less energy (ATP) to produce the muscular force that propels you
forward, allowing you to last longer.
So how does this all work?
Beets contain a lot of great things, including phytochemicals like quercetin and resveratrol. But the positive effects of beets on exercise performance are probably due to their nitrate content. The breakdown and use of dietary nitrates in the body is actually
pretty cool. It begins in the mouth with your saliva. About a quarter of
the dietary nitrate (NO) found in foods like beets enter the salivary circulation after combining with bacteria on your tongue. There, the NO is converted to active nitrite (NO). Neat, huh? Then you swallow the nitrite and it is reduced to nitric oxide (NO) when it interacts with your stomach acid.
It is this form, nitric oxide, that produces the positive effects
during exercise. You’ve probably heard of nitric oxide, especially if
you hang out in the supplement aisles of your local health food store.
Nitric oxide does a lot of things, but in terms of exercise it increases
blood flow to the muscles, making it easier for your power generators
(mitochondria) to produce energy (ATP). It also governs blood pressure
and regulates muscle contraction.
The majority of beetroot studies so far have used time to exhaustion
protocols – and those results don’t always translate into actual
performance gains. What most enquiring minds really want to know is: will eating beets or drinking beetroot juice help me to run (cycle, swim, walk, etc) faster?
One study showed that drinking beetroot juice improves cycling time
trial performance (3), but what about eating plain ol’ beets – and what
if you are a runner, not a cyclist?
The study in this week’s review looked at whether eating 200 grams of
whole beetroot (containing ~500 mg of nitrates) before exercise
improves running performance during a 5 km treadmill time trial. Murphy, M., Eliot, K., Heuertz, R.,
Weiss, E. Whole beetroot consumption acutely improves running
performance. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2012 Apr;112(4):548-552.
The participants in this study consisted of five recreationally fit
men and six women in their 20s. The study used a double-blind crossover
design in which the subjects ate either 200 grams of baked beets or a
placebo (cranberry relish) before completing a 5 kilometer treadmill
time trial test. All participants completed two trials in random
sequence separated by a 1-week “washout” period. The purpose of the
washout was to decrease the chances that the intervention effects
(eating beets or cranberries) would overlap and interfere with the
results of either of the trials.
Trial 1: The subjects ate 200 grams of
baked beets (about 2 medium-sized beets) and 75 minutes later ran 5
kilometers on a treadmill.
Trial 2: The subjects ate 200 grams of a cranberry relish and 75 minutes later ran 5 kilometers on a treadmill.
For each of the trials, the subjects arrived at the laboratory after
an 8 hour fast. They were asked to avoid eating other nitrate-rich foods
(they were given a list), dietary supplements, and medications for 72
hours before the test. They were also told not to lift weights in that
same time period and in the 24 hours before were asked not to consume
alcohol, caffeine or do any sort of exercise. All these “rules” made for
a stronger study by levelling the playing field as best as possible
between subjects. While it is pretty easy to distinguish the taste of beets from that
of cranberry relish, the researchers kept the portions and calories
similar and used the same spices. Because the participants didn’t know
what the study was about, the researchers thought it unlikely that the
difference in taste would create a placebo effect and change the outcome
of the study.
Resting blood pressure was measured before and one hour after eating
the beetroot or cranberry relish. During the time trial the researchers
recorded average running velocity, heart rate and rating of perceived
exertion at one mile intervals and at the end of the 5 km run.
200 g beets = about 2 medium beets
Improved running performance
The researchers wanted to find out if eating 200 grams of beetroot
(containing ~500 mg nitrates) before exercise improved running times
enough to be significant. What they found was that yes, average running
velocity (speed in a given direction) was slightly faster (3%) after
eating the beetroot compared to the placebo 12.3+ 2.7 vs 11.9+ 2.6 km.
Interestingly, the difference was greatest (5%) during the last mile.
While the difference may not look like much, a 3% faster running
velocity translates to about a 41 second faster finishing time. In a
short race like a 5 km run, 41 seconds is a lot! For example if your
pace is 8 minutes per mile, you would finish a 5 km in 24:51 minutes.
But if you ate 200 grams of beetroot before the run you could
potentially shave 3% off of your time.
So we know the subjects ran at a faster velocity. But were there any
differences in heart rate or did they feel like the run was easier after
eating the beetroot?
Heart rate and rating of perceived exertion
Even though the subjects ran at a slightly faster velocity during the
beetroot trial, there were no differences in exercise heart rate
compared to the placebo trial.
What does that mean?
Well, the most likely explanation is that the nitrate content of the
beets reduced the oxygen cost of exercise. Unfortunately, this study did
not take direct measurements of oxygen use or of respiratory exchange
rate (RER is a measure of the ratio of carbon dioxide produced to oxygen
used) so this doesn’t fully prove cause and effect. However, it does
support the results of similar types of studies evaluating the
performance effects of dietary nitrates.
Perceived exertion was measured using the Borg 6 to 20 point scale.
Perceived exertion was rated lower during the first mile of the
beetroot trial with no differences later in the run. If perceived
exertion was lower during the first mile of the beetroot trial this may
have contributed to the faster running velocity later in the run,
perhaps because the subjects didn’t feel as tired.
A major limitation of this study is that serum nitrate levels weren’t
measured, so there is no way to know how great an increase there was
after eating the beetroot compared with the placebo. Also, the nitrate
content in the beetroot was not measured. Still, given what we know
about the nitrite content of beets, it is pretty likely that the
beetroot did in fact increase serum nitrate levels and enhance
Eating 200 grams of baked beets 75 minutes before exercise improved the running performance of recreationally fit men and women. The increase in performance was most likely due to the conversion of
the dietary nitrate to nitrite to nitric oxide in the body. Nitric oxide
reduces the oxygen cost of exercise by requiring your muscles to use
less energy or ATP to produce the same amount of work.
What this means is that eating a couple of medium sized beets at
least 60 minutes before a run could help you shave at least half a
minute off of your 5 km time! Of course, this was a very small study. If you want to help out with
your own science project, why not try it yourself? At minimum, it’s
worth a shot to see if it makes a difference. (Just don’t be alarmed if
you’re peeing pink for a little while.)
- The results of this study have some real value and potential
application to the athletic setting. Most previous studies evaluating
the performance effects of nitrate-rich vegetables have used time to
exhaustion protocols (which test exercise capacity, rather than athletic
- You can try this yourself! If you are a juice fan, you could easily
juice a couple of beets and drink the juice down before your morning run
and see how you feel. Just make certain you stick to real foods. Don’t
risk your life by supplementing with nitrite salts.
- We still need more research to determine the optimal amounts of dietary nitrate needed to enhance athletic performance.
- Bailey, Stephen J., Winyard, Paul, Vanhatalo, Anni, Blackwell, Jamie
R., DiMenna, Fred J., Wilkerson, Daryl P., Tarr, Joanna, Benjamin,
Nigel, and Jones, Andrew M. Dietary nitrate supplementation reduces the
O2 cost of low-intensity exercise and enhances tolerance to
high-intensity exercise in humans. J Applied Physiol. 2009; 107(4):
- Bailey, Stephen J., Fulford Jonathan., Vanhatalo, Anni, Winyard,
Paul, Blackwell, Jamie R., DiMenna, Fred J., Wilkerson, Daryl P.,
Benjamin, Nigel, and Jones, Andrew M. Dietary nitrate supplementation
enhances muscle contractile efficiency during knee-extensor exercise in
humans. J Applied Physiol. 2010; 109(1): 135-148.
- Lansley, KE, Winyard, Paul G., Bailey, Stephen J., Vanhatalo, Anni,
Wilkerson, Daryl P., Blackwell, Jamie R., Gilchrist M., Benjamin, Nigel,
and Jones, Andrew M. Acute dietary nitrate supplementation improves
cycling time trial performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2011; 43(6):
Article By Jennifer Koslo
of Precision Nutrition