There are few legal ergogenic aids for athletes. Beets, or more appropriately foods high in nitrates can give a big boost for athletes. There is an extensive list of research touting the benefits of nitric oxide for athletes and I just finished reading a few of some of the newer studies. So I wanted to update my info on beetroots/performance just to make sure I’m staying up on the latest info for my athletes. I’m not going to state my research sources in this article, but if you need them, I can give you them.
What is Nitric Oxide?
When we consume foods that are naturally high in nitrates, our body does a good job at converting nitrates to nitrite and eventually nitric oxide. This process begins in our mouth and we have nitrate reducing bacteria on our tongue. This is important to note as if you’re an athlete that wants to gain benefits from nitric oxide, you have to be careful not to use mouthwash. While I’m not advocating for bad breath, when you use mouth wash it kills the nitrate converting bacteria.
Benefits of Nitric Oxide for Athletes:
I should start with: nitric oxide actually has some awesome benefits for all people, not just athletes. Nitric oxide is a vasodilator, which means it opens up our arterioles and makes them wider. This makes blood flow easier and reduces our blood pressure. If you have high blood pressure, consuming one serving of beets (or similar foods) can reduce your resting blood pressure by 7-8mmHg. Pretty cool right. Other benefits include:
- Vasodilation/Increased blood flow to the vasculature (more blood flow to working muscles)
- Increased mitochondrial respiration
- Increased glucose and calcium homeostasis
- Improved muscle efficiency due to a lower ATP cost (exercise will feel easier at harder intensities)
- Performance enhancing-proven with endurance exercise and more recently seen in high intensity exercise/team sports and power sports
Where to find Nitrates?
- Bok Choy
- And others-the ones listed contain high levels of nitrates
Looking at this list, if everyone just consumed more dark leafy greens/veggies, we’d all be on our way to having naturally high levels of nitric oxide in our body.
How Much Should you Take?
Most research has been done using beetroot shots (liquid beetroot). This is because it is easily blended/juiced and the blending does not diminish the levels of nitrates. Unfortunately many methods of cooking beets and other foods high in nitrates will reduce the efficacy of the nitrates (boiling especially).
Research shows: 5-6mmol of nitrate given for several days pre-competition is the best amount. Well, how much is that? If you’re not into juicing and you’d rather buy a beet drink, this equates to 2 shots of beetroot juice. One popular company is called BeetIt. So you’d take 2 shots of BeetIt.
If you want to juice your own beets, you’d want to start with 1/4-1/2 of a whole beet mixed with other ingredients (water, coconut water, some spinach?) A few thins to note about beets-they can turn your urine red (normal and fine) and they can even cause a scratchy or sore throat. So start with a smaller amount to test it.
Just consuming this amount of beetroot juice can show a 15% increase in time to failure. You want to take the shot of beetroot juice at least 1 hour pre-competition, however it takes generally 2 hours to see the benefits. Your nitric oxide levels will return to baseline around 12 hours later.
Does this Benefit Everyone?
Yes and no. Consuming fresh veggies is always a plus for everyone. Unfortunately there are athletes who are non-responders. This means they can consume the beetroot juice and not see a benefit. Often times, research has shown that elite athletes do not show as much improvement as less well trained athletes. This could be:
- Elite athletes already have higher baseline plasma nitrates (healthy diet?)
- They have better oxygenation (more capillaries)
- Have higher nitric oxide synthase activity (already better at converting nitrates)
- Have a higher proportion of type 1 (slow twitch) fibers-these are less amenable to changes in nitrate
- They might not be responders
All this means is that I’d recommend all who were interested in trying a nitric oxide supplement to try it. See what happens and then decide what you think.
How long should you take it?
There is no definitive answer, however Dr. Andrew Jones out of the University of Exeter (the leading researcher in nitric oxide) believes that while there is no evidence that consuming nitrates over a long period is detrimental, there is no need for constant supplementation.
Instead he recommends taking the supplement 4-7 days before your competition or intensive training periods. He also states up to 4 weeks of supplementation appears to be beneficial, but then to cycle off them after that. Plus, no mega doses as they will not help.
In what form should you take foods containing nitrates?
As mentioned earlier, the way you process the food does alter the nitrate content. Juicing the beets is the preferred method. At this point, beet root powder do not seem to contain the same levels of beneficial nitrates because in order to get the powder form, the beets must be boiled and ground.
If you don’t want to juice and want to try powder, go for it. Or if you want to roast beets, go for it. There is no harm in trying different methods of cooking, you might not achieve the full benefits.
Quick Take Aways:
- Beets and other foods containing nitrates are beneficial for both athletes and those looking to be healthy
- Consume dark leafy greens as part of your diet
- For performance benefit, consume 2 shots of beetroot juice 1-2 hours before competition
- Consume beetroot juice or an equivalent food for 4-7 days pre-competition, but cycle off after 4 weeks
- Beets are beneficial for endurance athletes, but new research shows team/intermittent sports as well as high intensity and power sports
- Consume beets in the form of juice vs powder