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Can Beets Boost Athletic Performance?

Most athletes want to perform at their best; some even look for supplements to give them the edge, hoping to make themselves a little bit faster, stronger, or recover quicker than before. Recently, there has been a lot of talk about beets and beet juice. Could a lowly root vegetable help athletes perform or recover better? Let’s see what the science has to say.


What makes beets special in the first place? Beets are particularly high in dietary nitrates (1). Nitrates are a precursor to nitric oxide in the body (1). Nitric oxide plays a key role in many pathways in the body including some that affect sports performance like improving blood flow, muscle contractility, and mitochondrial respiration (1,4). We all remember from school that mitochondria are the “Powerhouse of the Cell”, but what does mitochondrial respiration mean? Mitochondrial respiration is the process of mitochondria using oxygen to convert stored energy to energy that’s ready to be used, or ATP (2). Consuming beets or beet juice may lower the energy cost during exercise, meaning an athlete can do the SAME amount of work using LESS oxygen (1).

So, does it work?


· In a study from 2018 10k runners were supplemented with beet juice (3). The study found that beet juice improved the race time in 10 of the 14 runners, but not in a statistically significant way (3).

· A 2018 review of studies from 2010 to 2017 looked at beet juice supplementation and high intensity exercise. The study concluded that beet juice supplementation was shown to reduce muscular fatigue during high intensity efforts (4).

· In a 2021 meta-analysis beet juice consumption and its effects on HIIT, high intensity interval training, the authors findings suggested that there is no improvement in peak or average power output when supplementing with beet juice compared to no supplementation (5).

· Authors stated in a 2019 review that beet juice supplementation has an effect on oxygen cost and consumption and seems to increase the time until exhaustion (6). However, this is dependent on the dose and duration of supplementation and on the athlete’s fitness level (6).

· A 2021 review of beet juice supplementation and recovery after exercise induced muscle damage reports that in most studies reviewed muscle soreness was reduced during supplementation (7).


As you can see when we look at recent studies and reviews the conclusions are mixed. Some say there is a slight benefit while others report no benefit or benefits that aren’t statistically significant, meaning the results weren’t strong enough to show that it wasn’t a mistake. Overall, this is not surprising as actual studies are less attention grabbing than the headlines that new sources use when referencing them. The studies also give recommendations for future studies, this is very common. Most studies look at a very specific question, to answer more questions, more research is needed.

What’s the takeaway?


Beets offer a ton of nutrition. They are rich in antioxidants, folate, potassium, and fiber. Beets are not only healthy, but they could also improve exercise performance, endurance, and recovery. All the studies above used beet juice, however, not many of us have a juicer at home and buying beet juice from the store can be expensive. For myself, I would save the money and time and eat beets instead of juicing them, then you get all the benefits of fiber too!


There are a variety of ways to include beets in your diet. Roasted beets make delicious, earthy additions to salads and can be served as a side for many dinners. They can be added to make pink hummus and pesto’s and can be hidden as a secret vegetable in homemade brownies and donuts! One of my favorite ways to eat beets is to shred them and incorporate them into a plant-based burger patty.


Eating beets may not be appropriate for certain populations. Those who struggle with low blood pressure or people with a history of kidney stones, should speak with a doctor or dietitian before adding beets to their diet if they are not currently consuming them.


References

1. Jones AM. Influence of dietary nitrate on the physiological determinants of exercise performance: a critical review. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2014;39(9):1019-1028. doi:10.1139/apnm-2014-0036

2. Hoeks J., Hesselink M., Schrauwen P. (2012) Mitochondrial Respiration. In: Mooren F.C. (eds) Encyclopedia of Exercise Medicine in Health and Disease. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-540-29807-6_136

3. de Castro TF, Manoel FA, Figueiredo DH, Figueiredo DH, Machado FA. Effect of beetroot juice supplementation on 10-km performance in recreational runners. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2019;44(1):90-94. doi:10.1139/apnm-2018-0277

4. Domínguez R, Maté-Muñoz JL, Cuenca E, et al. Effects of beetroot juice supplementation on intermittent high-intensity exercise efforts. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2018;15:2. Published 2018 Jan 5. doi:10.1186/s12970-017-0204-9

5. Wong TH, Sim A, Burns SF. The Effect of Beetroot Ingestion on High-Intensity Interval Training: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Nutrients. 2021;13(11):3674. Published 2021 Oct 20. doi:10.3390/nu13113674

6. Olsson H, Al-Saadi J, Oehler D, Pergolizzi J Jr, Magnusson P. Physiological Effects of Beetroot in Athletes and Patients. Cureus. 2019;11(12):e6355. Published 2019 Dec 11. doi:10.7759/cureus.6355

7. Rojano-Ortega D, Peña Amaro J, Berral-Aguilar AJ, Berral-de la Rosa FJ. Effects of Beetroot Supplementation on Recovery After Exercise-Induced Muscle Damage: A Systematic Review [published online ahead of print, 2021 Aug 16]. Sports Health. 2021;19417381211036412. doi:10.1177/19417381211036412

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