Julian Ong, MND, APD
The latest trend to hit the sports supplement industry stems from none other than the humble beetroot. This versatile root vegetable can be used in a variety of dishes and is well known for its rich content of healthful chemicals including betalains (antioxidants that are responsible for the deep red color), vitamins A and C, iron and other minerals, carotenoids, and dietary fiber. Recent research that is turning heads, however, examines its positive benefits on blood pressure, brain health and, of particular interest to athletes and fitness enthusiasts, its ability to enhance exercise performance due to the presence of dietary nitrate. Nitrate is mainly found in root vegetables, such as beetroot and radishes, as well as certain green leafy vegetables, such as spinach, rocket (arugula), and celery.
In a recent study of recreational athletes, supplementation with nitrate-rich 0.5 L of beetroot juice per day for 4-6 days extended the time-to-exhaustion of highly intense exercise by up to 16%. In addition, cyclists were also shown to immediately improve their time trials by approximately 2% after supplementing with beetroot juice. Most recently, Swedish scientists found that mice supplied with nitrate-enriched drinking water developed significantly stronger muscles.
Reaping the performance enhancement benefits of nitrates can easily be achieved by consuming 0.5 L of beetroot juice preferably 2.5 - 3 hours prior to competition or training. Elite athletes, however, should start loading 6 – 8 days prior to competition. Beetroot juice can easily be bought online if your local grocer does not carry it. Alternatively, you may wish to try juicing it yourself, although cooking beetroot can reduce its nitrate content significantly. Studies have shown that beetroot depleted of nitrate failed to produce any positive effects on exercise.
While consuming dietary nitrate from vegetables or vegetable juices is considered safe, an excess of nitrate from indiscriminate supplementation through organic nitrates and nitrites can be potentially fatal. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics therefore recommends that nitrate supplementation should only come from natural sources such as whole vegetables or vegetable juices. Juices should also be stored correctly to avoid bacterial contamination that can result in potentially harmful levels of nitrite to accumulate over time.
Good sports nutrition comes as easy as including more heart healthy greens in your diet. Do give beetroot juice a try the next time you go for a bike ride or run -- you just might achieve a new personal best.
For further reading:
- Stephen J. Bailey, Anni Vanhatalo, Paul G. Winyard & Andrew M. Jones (2012): The nitrate-nitrite-nitric oxide pathway: Its role in human exercise physiology, European Journal of Sport Science, 12:4, 309-320. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/17461391.2011.635705
- Andrés Hernández, Tomas A. Schiffer, Niklas Ivarsson, Arthur J. Cheng, Joseph D. Bruton, Jon O. Lundberg, Eddie Weitzberg, Håkan Westerblad: Dietary nitrate increases tetanic [Ca2+]i and contractile force in mouse fast-twitch muscle, Journal of Physiology, Epub ahead of print 11 June 2012. http://jp.physoc.org/content/590/15/3575.full.pdf+html
- Murphy M, Eliot K, Heuertz RM, and Weiss E (2012). Whole Beetroot Consumption Acutely Improves Running Performance. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics 112: 548-552, 2012. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22709704