Beets are known to increase blood flow, muscle function as well as brain activity. So they are expected to improve sports-related performance. Let us look at what science says in that regard.
Beets are naturally high in compounds called nitrates. When consumed, its nitrates are converted into another set of healthful compounds called nitrites at the back of your tongue. The nitrites are further converted to a compound called nitric oxide (NO) in the starting part of your digestive tract. This compound is very potent in lowering blood pressure and improving blood flow as well as exercise capacity.
Nitric Oxide Lowers Blood Pressure
Once nitric oxide is in your bloodstream, it increases the blood flow and oxygen supply to the tissues. Through some biochemical mechanisms, the muscles of the blood vessels relax, resulting in lower blood pressure.
Nitric Oxide Increases VO2 max
When one exercises, the muscles get oxygen through the blood for producing energy. However, as the exercise intensity increases beyond a certain point, the oxygen provided by the blood is not sufficient. As a result, the muscle cells switch from an oxygen-dependent energy production (aerobic) to an oxygen-independent one (anaerobic).
The anaerobic way of generating energy is very inefficient and you cannot sustain such effort for too long. This leads to rapid fatigue and forces you to slow down. The point at which the muscles switch over from aerobic to anaerobic energy production is called your metabolic threshold. That is when your aerobic capacity is exhausted, which is defined in terms of a number that all sportspeople are familiar with: VO2 max or maximum volume of oxygen that your body uses when exercising as hard as possible. As you can guess, it is a good indicator of your physical fitness.
By increasing the blood flow, nitric oxide helps muscles get more oxygen, especially the tissues that are deprived of oxygen. This effectively increases your VO2 max. While your fitness has not really increased, you will be able to function as if it has, at least for a few hours.
Since beets supply you with a good amount of nitrates, your muscles are able to get this extra amount of oxygen. As a result, the beets are expected to enhance your endurance and exercise capacity. So what does the evidence show?
Beets and Exercise Capacity
- Drinking beet juice before exercise allows you to exercise longer. It increases lung function and strengthens muscle contraction, together improving cardio-respiratory endurance.
- Consuming whole beets significantly improves running performance. Even the perceived exertion by athletes reduces if they have consumed beets (seventy-five minutes) before the run. Of course, you may not be able to run at your best if you ingest a lot of beets. Use discretion.
- Beetroot juice can help improve cycling performance in trained cyclists.
- How soon before the activity should you consume the beet juice? The beets start showing the effect about 1.5 hours after their consumption, with the peak benefits noticed in about two to three hours.
- How long does this effect last? It is not known but the effect starts wearing off after two to three hours of consumption.
- In an interesting experiment, scientists found evidence that blood hemoglobin senses oxygen levels and holds on to its nitric oxide and oxygen when oxygen levels in tissue are high, but releases oxygen and nitric oxide when oxygen levels are low. That would mean that beets could be more useful specifically to the muscle cells that are falling short of oxygen due to exertion.
How Much Beets You Should Consume
To get the benefit for endurance improvement, how much of beets or beetroot juice should you consume?
- Evidence shows that you should drink 200 mL of beetroot juice daily with another 200 mL one hour before exercise. This should also come from a cup (130 g) of chopped beets.
- One study showed that drinking 500 mL of beetroot juice increased blood nitrites over a three hour period. So that amount would improve exercise performance.
Personally, I think 500 mL is too much beetroot juice to consume on a daily basis considering that beets are high in compounds called oxalates, which cause poor absorption of iron and calcium in the intestines. Also, oxalates may cause kidney stones in people who are prone to developing oxalate-related kidney stones. Some people may get an upset stomach with such high levels of beetroot juice consumption.
While it might be fine to consume 500 mL juice once in a while (such as on the competition day), it is best not to drink that quantity on a daily basis. Plus, don’t venture into it for the first time before your competition. Try it a few times in training to see how it works for you.
Finally, cooking beets reduces their nitrate contents. So it is best to consume raw beets or their juice.
This information is from my upcoming book to be published by Macmillan Publishers in Nov 2023. It discusses twenty superfoods, their nutrients, health benefits, recommended amounts and excess levels. It also covers how to select and store and who should avoid them.
The superfoods: Tomatoes, carrots, spinach, beetroot, coconut, capsicum (Shimla mirch), drumsticks, pineapples, papaya, amla (Indian gooseberry), jamun (Java plum), turmeric, garlic, ginger, cinnamon, flax seeds, aloe vera, green tea, asafoetida (hing), and sabja (sweet basil seeds).
To Read More
- United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee: How Beetroot Juice Can Improve Your Performance
- On this website: Can garlic enhance athletic performance?
- Coach Magazine: What Is VO2 Max And How Do You Improve It?
- On this website: These exercises can slow down your ageing
First published on: 17th January 2023
Image credit: Pixabay on Pexels