Beetroot Juice as a Performance Enhancer
Beetroots may not be the most aesthetically attractive vegetables that one can find at the local grocery store, nor the most appetizing, but they are drawing an increased attention among athletes- a craze driven by their link to performance enhancement. Today, I am going to examine why so many people have jumped on the “beetroot bandwagon"- and help you decide whether or not beetroot juice may be helpful to you.
The Science Behind Beetroot Juice as a Performance Enhancement
With an intended career in medicine, I am well versed in the complexities of understanding and further relating theoretical practices to real life outcomes. Science is often confusing, so I am going to try and convey the science behind beetroot juice in laymen terms.
Beetroot juice aims to improve the body’s exploitation and efficiency of oxygen use. During exercise, we deplete our muscles of oxygen, which reduces their ability to contract. One of the adaptations of consistent training is an increase in the body’s ability to use oxygen, both delivering more oxygen to working muscles as well as muscular utilization of oxygen. Beetroot juice targets the physiological responses that allow for greater oxygen uptake efficiency in our muscles during exercise.
So what is it about beetroot juice that enhances our body’s ability to use oxygen during exercise? The answer lies in beetroots abundance of nitrate.
The wealth of nitrate found in beetroots is only truly useful to performance with the help of bacteria in our mouth that convert nitrate to nitrite. Think of nitrate as a treasure chest, and think of the bacteria and saliva in our mouths as the key to this chest. Inside the treasure chest is nitrite, which is later converted elsewhere in the body to nitric oxide. This nitrite oxide is the real answer to why beetroot can give us a performance enhancement, but hopefully the analogy above helps relate how we can take advantage of beetroots nitrate wealth and manipulate it to help us on the sporting field.
So now that we understand how the abundance of nitrate in beetroots can increase our body’s nitrite levels, we are ready to investigate nitrites role in improving performance. Physiologists have long linked the involvement of nitrite oxide (NO) in blood to the way that muscles produce energy. Greater NO in the blood during exercise appears to reduce the amount of oxygen it takes to synthesize energy. NO also works as a vasodilator, which means that it widens the veins in our body allowing more oxygen rich blood to be pumped to working muscles and oxygen depleted blood to return to the heart and lungs for re-oxygenation. Thus, it is seen that beetroots can- through their conversion of nitrate to NO, cause vasodilatation as well as help endure greater aerobic efficiency.
Theory Vs. Real Life- What Story Do The Results Tell?
Countless sporting professionals have anecdotally attested to the truth behind beetroots ability to improve performance. These recounts and personal reflections are arguably more important than the strict science, as they take into account the “placebo effect”. Whether it is the beetroots themselves that are helping the athlete, or the athlete thinking/ believing that they are helping; doesn’t really matter. No one will argue with a quantitative increase in performance.
But what does the research conclude? Many studies have been partaken to investigate beetroots direct role as a provider of nitrate as well as reports looking at nitric oxides role in improved performance. From the studies that I am familiar with, almost all conclude a slight increase in performance when an athlete consumes beetroot juice three hours prior to their competition. The reason for the advanced consumption of beetroot juice is to allow the body enough time to generate NO from the nitrates found in beetroot. A study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology showed an increase in performance of 4.2% in distance runners completing a 5km run. To make this time more relatable—it gave a runner with a 5km time of 25min an improvement of 23 seconds. Although this improvement is not as large as one may have thought, it is still an improvement.
Is Beetroot Juice Right For Me?
Now that we know more about the potential benefits of beetroot juice, it is time to decide whether or not we are going to hold our noses and skull the red fluid before our next workout. Before we do this, I need to provide you with two additional sets of information to better aid your decision.
- The first is to tell you that research has shown a decreased percentage of performance gain from beetroot juice in highly elite individuals. This does not mean that no gain was observed, but rather a gain generally less then 4.2%, as observed in the study above. Many other reports have concluded similar findings, strengthening the claim. Physiologists belief that this may be due to elite athletes ability to increase NO levels within their bloodstream via other means.
- Secondly- do you use mouthwash? If you are an avid mouthwash user, consuming beetroot juice will not help you! This is because mouthwash kills the saliva and bacteria that is the key to unlocking the nitrite from nitrate.
It is clear that beetroot juice has the ability to improve performance, but like most things, it is largely individual in application. My advice would be to give it a try. Research has shown that beetroot juice can provide a performance aid in many individuals, and I hope that you are one of them.