Beet Juice: A Super-Drink For Endurance-Athletes?

By Amy Tribolini, MS, RD, LD

With some of the top athletes in the world swearing by the energy boosting, endurance enhancing benefits, it is hard not to imagine how beet juice could benefit your own athletic performance. 

Unlike most trendy new nutritional products, this one revolves around a root vegetable.  Beets have been prized for their nutritional benefits since the Middle Ages, so why have beets become more popular in recent years?  Aswell in research has acknowledged that not only are beets a nutrient-packed powerhouse, but they also contain chemicals that can give athletes a more competitive edge. 

What happens to your body on beets?

Let’s start out by discussing what happens to your body when you consume beet juice and what impact this has on athletic performance in endurance athletes.

The scientific benefits of beet juice revolve around its unique chemical profile.  Beet juice is packed with nitrates and your body converts these nitrates to nitric oxide. Nitric oxide widens, relaxes, and dilates blood vessels. 

Why is this beneficial to an ultra-runner?  Well, blood vessel dilation increases blood flow capacity leading to more oxygen being transported to your muscles.  More oxygen means running faster, higher efficiency and less fatigue.  In an ultra-marathon, this can translate to powering up climbs faster, feeling less fatigued at a faster pace, and greater stamina.  Additionally, beets are high in antioxidants.  Antioxidants can be beneficial in decreasing inflammation and cellular damage that can occur in an endurance event.    

What has science shown about the benefits of beet juice?

One promising research study published in the journal Nutrients, evaluated the athletic performance of high-level swimmers.  The main goal was to see if one week of beet juice supplementation could improve an athlete’s performance.  In the study, half of the participants consumed 17 ounces of beet juice everyday for six days.  The results showed two key points.  The athletes consuming beet juice were able to swim harder using the same amount of oxygen, and the amount of overall energy they needed to expend was decreased. 

Another promising study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, investigated beet juice’s effect on running performance.  In the study, participants were evaluated on two different occasions: once after consuming beet juice and once after receiving a cranberry placebo drink.  The results showed that when the participants consumed the beet juice they ran 5% faster toward the end of their performance.  Another benefit noted in the study, was that the participants reported a decrease in their perceived exertion when they were consuming beet juice. 

How do these results translate to ultra-running?  Fighting general fatigue and tapering down in pace are two focal weaknesses of many endurance athletes.  If simply consuming a vegetable juice can lessen these effects, it might be worth a try.   

Beet Juice

Does all research indicate beet juice enhances athletic performance?

While science has confirmed some of the many proposed benefits of beet juice, it would not be fair to say beets have been the champion of every scientific experiment.  A research study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism looked at beet juice’s effect on runners during endurance events at altitude.  Because we know that nitric acid, from beets, increases blood flow and oxygen to the muscles, it would be safe to hypothesize that beet juice would enhance performance at altitude.  Not so fast, the study concluded that the beet juice supplementation did not increase speed or lower perceived exertion at altitude.  It is fair to point out that this study only had 10 participants; perhaps a larger participant group could yield more meaningful results. 

How much should I take?

When increasing nitrate levels in the body, athletes benefit from several days in a row of supplementation.  The research indicated that after 4-6 days of supplementation with two cups of beet juice daily, blood levels of nitrates were at an optimal level to see increases in performance.

In the scientific studies evaluated, participants consumed approximately 16 ounces of beet juice daily to reap benefits.  Because there are no other specific guidelines for beet juice dosing, this is the only recommendation at this time.  More research is needed to identify if smaller dosages can still yield the same performance benefits. 

Another important factor to consider is the timing of consuming beet juice.  Scientifically, most research studies showed benefits when beet juice was consumed 75 minutes to 3 hours prior to exercise.  The blood levels of nitrates continue to be elevated for about 12 hours after consumption. 

Are there side effects to consuming beet juice?

Because of the deep red pigmentation of beets, drinkers beware that after consumption you may notice a reddish discoloration of your urine and bowel movements.  While this effect is not considered dangerous, it can be quite alarming if you haven’t seen it before.  Secondly, if you have a history of kidney stones or a physician has diagnosed you as at-risk, you may want to avoid beet juice.  Beets are high in oxalates and this chemical can crystalize in the kidneys forming kidney stones.        

References:

Pinna, M., Roberto, S., Milia, R., Marongiu, E., Olla, S., Loi, A., . . . Crisafulli, A. (2014). Effect of Beetroot Juice Supplementation on Aerobic Response during Swimming. Nutrients, 6(2), 605-615.

Murphy, M., Eliot, K., Heuertz, R. M., & Weiss, E. (2012). Whole Beetroot Consumption Acutely Improves Running Performance. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 112(4), 548-552.

Arnold, J. T., Oliver, S. J., Lewis-Jones, T. M., Wylie, L. J., & Macdonald, J. H. (2015). Beetroot juice does not enhance altitude running performance in well-trained athletes. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, 40(6), 590-595.

About the Author:

Amy Tribolini currently works as both a Registered Dietitian and Nutrition Professor. She lives, trains, and competes as an ultra-runner out of Colorado Springs, Colorado. Amy specializes in fueling endurance athletes, athletic performance, and plant-based diets. Amy holds both a Bachelors Degree in Dietetics and a Masters Degree in Human Nutritional Science from the University of Wisconsin

Instagram- @ultrarunningdietitian

Email contact: tribolinia@gmail.com

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