Beetroot juice was the secret sauce for many athletes competing in the London 2012 Olympic Games. Lots of countries were using it, but it wasn’t until afterwards that the news about beetroot juice became public knowledge…
Many athletes are looking for that performance edge over their competitors. Most athletes have heard about it, but don’t know how to use it. If you’ve nailed the fundamentals of basic sports nutrition and are looking at taking your racing to the next level, try adding beetroot juice to your race plan.
What is it about this vegetable that gives you a performance kick? The component responsible for the benefits of beetroot juice is Nitrate. It’s produced within our bodies and is also found in some of the foods we eat, particularly green leafy vegetables, beetroot, processed meats and the water supply.
But the nitrate content varies widely even among the same vegetable variety. Freshness and farming practices play a part in how much nitrate is present by the time it lands on your plate. Vegetables grown with nitrogen-containing fertilisers will have higher levels of nitrate. So if you choose organic produce, these will probably contain lower levels of nitrate compared to non-organic produce.
When ingested, nitrate is absorbed and rapidly converted into nitrite. This circulates in the blood and is converted to nitric oxide under conditions of low oxygen availability (just like when you exercise).
Nitric oxide is a versatile little compound that can improve some of the crucial components needed during exercise. It’s known to play a number of important roles in the regulation of blood flow, hormones and metabolism (1, 2). By using beetroot juice, it’s been shown to (1-3):
Reduce resting blood pressure
Reduce the oxygen cost of exercise – So you use less oxygen for the same amount of work
Reduce time trial performance
Increase fuel availability
Improve skeletal muscle contraction
Improve high-intensity performance
Ticking lots of boxes to allow you to work harder and faster before you reach exhaustion!
Some of you may have already dabbled in beetroot juice supplementation and not noticed any difference. Or you don’t know how to properly use it to your advantage. In fact, you probably won’t be able to tell on a day to day basis. Some people are not as responsive as others…
When we look at the relationship between nitrate and oxygen efficiency you would expect the majority of the benefits to be seen in endurance events where oxygen cost is crucial. But in fact, current research shows inconsistent results in longer events of sub-maximal intensity (e.g. an Ironman) (3-5). More research is needed in this space. Whereas if we look at high-intensity exercise (>85-90% VO2max), where our body creates an acidic environment, this is perfect for nitric oxide conversion, helping to improve performance for this type of exercise (5).
Results can also depend on the personal conditioning of the athlete. If you have a higher proportion of Type II muscle fibres that are responsible for powerful bursts of movement, then you’ll likely see more benefit from nitrate use. Also, if you’re more on the beginner/weekend warrior end of the athlete spectrum, you’re more likely to see improvements compared to a highly trained, elite-level athlete.
More research is definitely needed, but current protocols suggest taking 5-6mmol (or ~300mg) 2-2.5hours before exercise. There are a few concentrated products that help you do this – Beet It (300mg) and Go Beet shots (260mg).
For longer events, e.g. triathlon, road cycling, marathons – 1 shot 2-2.5hrs before may not be enough, so add an additional shot closer to the start of the race (as tolerated).
Good news here! The side effects appear to be few and far between. With the most common issue reported being temporary and harmless pink discolouration of urine and stools (1,3). Some athletes do report gastrointestinal tract discomfort (1,3) though so this is definitely something to trial in training before using for the first time on race day.
In summary, if you’ve got the foundations nailed, want to race faster and improve your performance, make sure you look at introducing beetroot juice into your bag of tricks. If you want more great tips like these to enhance your performance, sign up for our regular newsletter where we share evidence-based sports nutrition tips for everyday athletes HERE.
I'm keen to hear from anyone that has played with beetroot juice supplements already so please let me know if you have and share your experiences!
Remember if you don’t use beetroot juice, chances are your rivals are and will have an advantage over you on race day. When you start using this secret sauce correctly, you’ll reach your full potential!
(1) Burke, L., & Deakin, V. (2015). Clinical Sports Nutrition (5th ed.). North Ryde, NSW: McGraw-Hill.
(2) Dyakova, E.Y., Kapilevich, L.V., Shylko, V.G., Popov, S.V., & Eanfinogenova, Y. (2015). Physical exercise associated with NO production: Signalling pathways and significance in health and disease. Frontiers in Cell and Developmental Biology, 3. doi:10.3389/fcell.2015.00019
(3) Jones, A.M. (2014). Dietary Nitrate Supplementation and Exercise Performance. Sports Medicine, 44(1), p35-45. doi: https://doi: 10.1007/s40279-014-0149-y
(4) Mcmahon, N.F., Leveritt, M.D., & Pavey, T.G. The Effect of Dietary Nitrate Supplementation on Endurance Exercise Performance in Healthy Adults: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Sports Medicine, 47(4), p735-756. doi: 10.1007/s40279-016-0617-7
(5) Van De Walle, P., & Vukovich, D. (2018). The Effect of Nitrate Supplementation on Exercise Tolerance and Performance: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 32(6), 1796–1808. doi:10.1519/JSC.0000000000002046
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