Monday, December 1, 2014

The Dirt on Beets: Improving Athletic Performance, One Sip at A Time

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, beets are proving to be one food you may want to consider adding to your training repertoire.  As fellow SCAN blogger Gavin Van De Walle wrote, beets have the potential to improve athletic performance and cardiovascular health, thanks to their high nitrate content.  Through a series of reactions, the body converts nitrates to nitric oxide; nitric oxide, essential to body function, has several beneficial effects, including blood vessel dilation, lower resting blood pressure and increased blood flow to tissues throughout the body.  Recent evidence indicates that supplementing the diet with inorganic nitrates lowers the oxygen cost of exercise, making muscles more efficient, and may enhance athletic performance by increasing time to exhaustion, power output and exercise tolerance. 1 

The synthesis of nitric oxide occurs at the time of low oxygen, low pH and intense physical activity, Nitrate consumption is especially beneficial for short (5-30 minutes) bouts of intense, aerobic physical activity, such as running, sprinting or rowing. 2, 3  Researchers are starting to discover that nitrates may also be helpful for team sports, where repeated bouts of high-power, high-intensity energy are required (such as football or volleyball).4

Beets and beet juice have been researched most extensively at doses equivalent to approximately 1-½ cups roasted beets or 500mL of beet juice, providing approximately 500mg of nitrates. Other high-nitrate foods include spinach, escarole, lettuce, celery and arugula; it’s likely these other foods would also prove beneficial.  Considering that “whole foods” also contain fiber, antioxidants and other nutrients that have beneficial health effects, opting for whole beets instead of beet juice would be beneficial. 
If you don’t care for beets or beet juice, there is the option of Beet Elite.  Using a low-temperature dehydrating process, the folks at Beet Elite create a powdery substance made from organically grown beets.  Though the company’s patented technology, the nitrate-nitric oxide conversion occurs more quickly, allowing you to consume the drink just 30 minutes prior to your workout (rather than two to three hours).  Mix the crystals with ½ cup of water and voila!  Your pre-workout beverage is served.  Each serving is the equivalent of six beets. The smaller serving size (1/2 cup liquid vs. 2 cups of juice) is also appealing.  Unless you enjoy eating beets, daily, before your workouts, you may want to consider this route.
I was skeptical of all these promises but after using Beet Elite before my “short but intense” rides for my most recent century ride training, I can attest that my workouts felt easier and I was able to ride stronger than when I did not use it.(Not exactly a high-quality scientific experiment, but perhaps helpful, nonetheless).  How does it taste?  Definitely a little, ahem, “earthy.” It definitely tastes of beets but black cherry-flavored Beet Elite is definitely palatable and something one can tolerate for the added performance benefits.

There are a few caveats to using nitrates as an ergogenic aid, however.  First, the nitrate-nitric oxide cascade begins in your mouth by salivary bacteria; use mouthwash containing alcohol and you kill off those good bugs and prevent the reaction from occurring.  Second, nitric oxide in blood peaks two to three hours after nitrate consumption; if opting for whole beets or other nitrate-rich foods, meal planning is essential.  Third, a daily dose of nitrates (or Beet Elite) is required to keep plasma nitrate levels elevated.  Finally, most studies have tested activity that is short in duration (30 minutes); for longer bouts of activity, the research is still out but folks at Beet Elite recommend a second dose (after four hours, not exceeding two doses in 24 hours) for longer endurance events.  

Kym Wroble earned her Bachelor of Science degree in nutrition and dietetics and minored in food science at Dominican University, River Forest, Illinois. She completed the clinical component of her dietetic internship with Iowa State University at Great River Medical Center in Burlington, Iowa. Her previous experience working as a nutrition educator at Scott County WIC provided her with additional focused training in several areas including pregnancy, postpartum wellness, breastfeeding and infant and child nutrition. In June of 2009, Kym completed the CDR Certificate of Training in Adult Weight Management.  Kym is a member of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association) and the Iowa Dietetic Association.  Additionally, she is also a member of several dietetic practice groups, including the Dietitians in Business and Communications, Food and Culinary Professionals dietetic practice group and the Sports, Cardiovascular and Wellness Nutrition dietetic practice group. She has a particular interest in culinary nutrition and enjoys cooking, baking, recipe modification, and learning about food and wine. She played varsity volleyball at Dominican University and continues to enjoy an active lifestyle jogging, biking and weight training.
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1.      Jones, A, Dietary Nitrate supplementation and exercise performance, Sports Med. 2014: 44(Suppl. 1): 35-45.
2.      Murphy, Margaret et al., Whole Beetroot Consumption Acutely Improves Running Performance, Jour of the Acad of Nutr and Diet. 2012: 112(4) , 548-552.
3.      Lansley KE, Winyard PG, Bailey SJ, et al. Acute dietary nitrate supplementation improves cycling time trial performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2011: 43(6):1125-1131.
4.      Wylie, Lee et al., Dietary nitrate supplementation improves team sport-specific intense intermittent exercise performance. Eur Jour of Appl Phys. 2013: 113(7): 1373-1684