A study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics looked at whether eating 200 grams of whole beetroot, which is about 500 mg of nitrates, prior to exercise would improve running performance during a treadmill time trial.2 The study used a double-blind crossover design in which subjects ate either baked beets or a placebo consisting of cranberry relish 75 minutes prior to completing a 5 kilometer treadmill time trail test. It turns out that those who consumed the baked beets significantly improved their running times by three percent. While this difference may not seem like much, a three percent faster time translates to a 41 second faster finishing time. This increase in performance is most likely due to the conversion of nitrate to nitrite and finally to nitric oxide in the body.
So how does dietary nitrate get converted to nitric oxide?
The breakdown and use of dietary nitrates actually begins in your mouth. The bacteria on your tongue help reduce about a quarter of the dietary nitrate from foods – such as beets – to nitrite which is then swallowed and reduced to nitric oxide when it mixes with the acid in your stomach. Nitric oxide regulates vasodilation, relaxing blood vessels and increasing blood flow, which reduces the oxygen cost of exercise. This means, your muscles can use less energy to produce the same amount of work.3
From a practical standpoint, this study indicates that consuming 200 g of beetroot, or two medium sized beets – equating to approximately 500 mg of nitrates – an hour or two before exercise could improve your running performance. Different methods of cooking techniques – such as baking or pureeing – do not appear to reduce the nitrate content. Therefore, don’t be afraid to get creative even though drinking beet root juice may be more palatable. Try smoothies, bake them into chips, or try other recipes from the web!
Gavin Van De Walle is an ISSA Certified Fitness Trainer, a NANBF Natural Competitive bodybuilder, a nutrition columnist for “The Collegian,” and a dietetic student at South Dakota State University. Once Gavin becomes an RD, he will aim to achieve the distinguished Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics (CSSD) credential.
1. Ormsbee MJ, Lox J, Arciero PJ. Beetroot juice and exercise performance. Nutr Diet Suppl. 2013:5 27-35.
2. Murphy, M., Eliot, K., Heuertz, R., Weiss, E. Whole beetroot consumption acutely improves running performance. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2012; 112(4):548-552.
3. Larsen FJ, Sschiffer TA, Borniquel S, et al. Dietary inorganic nitrate improves mitochondrial efficiency in humans. Cell Metab. 2011; 13(2): 149-59.