Save 40 seconds off your 20K with beet juice!
If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
I know it sounds too good to be true, and to be honest I didn’t believe it either at first. I have degrees in nutrition as well as exercise physiology. And when I started graduate school I intended to be a research scientist, but coaching sort of found me along the way. My point is that I try to take an analytical and scientific approach to my coaching whenever possible. I’m also what I describe as “ an open minded skeptic” when it comes to ergogenic aids or supplements. So when I first heard some of the claims made about using something as simple and safe as beet juice to improve performance, my first thought was “ I’m not buying it.” But good scientists does his research, so I found myself searching the research journals , and reaching out to some of my academic contacts to get me full texts of some of the most important research studies on beet juice, and I’ve become a believer.
Most of the recent work in this area has been done in the lab of Andy Jones in Exeter, UK. He built upon the work of others to find that dietary nitrates can actually reduce the oxygen costs and increase gross efficiency when putting the power to the pedals at submaximal efforts. This is significant because the oxygen (O2) costs for experienced cyclists are very stable: 10ml/O2/watt/minute. A stronger rider can put out more watts, but the O2 required for each watt can be predicted with a very high degree of accuracy. If an athlete can create more power with less oxygen, he definitely has an advantage. Jones and other have found similar results time and again, so we can be sure the one study was not just a fluke. In 2011, Jones and is colleagues did a study that is probably one of the most important for us cyclists. They found that a single dose of 500ML beetroot juice taken 2.5 hours before a time trial improved performance by almost 3%. That doesn’t sound like a lot to a non-racer. But we all know that 3% can be the difference between winning and losing. (Last year one of my athletes missed the international podium by less than 0.05%). The participants in the study went 4 seconds faster in a short 4K time trial and 48 seconds faster in a 16K time trial, just by drinking beetjuice. Other studies found similar results, with improvements as small as 1%, and as large as 3%. These studies were all double blind and placebo controlled (neither the participants nor the researchers knew what the athletes were taking until after the results were gathered) so the risk of any placebo effect is very small. Time savings are on par with the difference in time between a pair of box section rims, and a set of 808s. And all you have to do is drink a little juice.
How does it work?
There are a few theories on how and why beet juice helps athletes go faster, and one of them is related to the mechanism that helps that “little blue pill” do its magic. Beets are very high in nitrates(NO3) that your body converts to nitric oxide(NO). Saliva and stomach acid are important in this process, so no mouthwash or spitting before you drink your juice (no kidding). NO is an important vasodilator in your body and the endothelial cells in your arteries actually make NO when you exercise. NO essentially opens up your blood vessels to allow blood to flow through more easily. (Those little blue pills help NO do its job particularly well in a very specific part of your body) Dr Jones suggests several ways that the NO may improve performance. One is that the vasodilation helps the O2 get from the lung into the blood and then from the blood into the muscle more efficiently. Another is an increase in the efficiency of the mitochondria, “the powerhouse of the cell.” While the third possibility offered by Jones is a reduced ATP cost for muscle contraction. The efficiency of mitochondria and reduced ATP cost for muscle contraction are two things that training doesn’t change. Training can result in MORE of these “powerhouses” but making them more efficient is almost unheard of. So improving these mechanisms by simply drinking beet juice is an exciting prospect. Jones, and the other researchers aren’t quite sure of these mechanisms and are basically taking an educated guess. One of his papers includes the following quote: “These suggestions are naturally speculative at the present time and await further investigation.” Translation: We think this is why it works, and we’ll figure it out eventually.
The potential risks are relatively minor, but de aware that everything that comes out of your body will be pink/red for about 24 hours after you drink your beet juice. Beet juice can cause a bit of stomach upset, so be sure to try it for a training session some time before your big race. The stuff is also a bit “earthy” tasting and may take some getting used to. Its not terrible, but it isn’t exactly refreshing either. The vasodilation caused by the NO will also lower you blood pressure just a little, so exercise caution and speak with your physician if you are taking blood pressure meds or one of those medications that leads to extra blood flow down below. Some researchers have cautioned that we don’t yet know the long term effects of frequent nitrate supplementation, but any risks are probably quite small when you are getting those nitrates from beet juice.
I like to go with the tried and true protocols that worked in the research studies, so I’ll offer up two suggestions and you can figure out what you prefer. The first is to drink 500ml of beet juice 2-3 hours before your event. You can make your own juice by putting three beet roots( the round part of the beet that grows underground), into the juicer. You’ll want to skin the beets before you juice them, and then follow them up with an apple. The apple sweetens it up a little and hides a bit of the earthiness. You can also head on over to Whole Foods and buy yourself a bottle of James White brand beet juice. The James White isn’t cheap at around $6 a bottle, but it’s well worth the performance improvement. The other option is to buy a concentrated beet juice product called “Beet-it”. This stuff is also made by James white and can be ordered online at http://www.beet-it.com/. When you use the concentrate you’ll need to drink 140ml ( 1 bottle) of concentrate every day for 5 or 6 days before your event. There may be other beet juice procedures that work just as well, and future research will help sort that out. But these two protocols are proven and tested, so those are the ones I recommend to my athletes.
There are other products on the market that contain NO or NO3, and are intended to improve performance. Many of them come in brightly colored packages and come with pictures of bulging muscles on them. But I am much more comfortable as an athlete and as a coach drinking juice over taking powders, pills and supplements. Why bother with that stuff when plain of beet juice can take 40 seconds off your 20K?
Sean is the head coach for Crank Cycling in San Diego CA.
Below is a partial list of resources, it is enough to get you started on your own research if you wish:
Effects of dietary nitrate on oxygen cost during exercise. Larsen FJ, et al 2007
Dietary nitrate supplementation reduces the O2 cost of low-intensity exercise and enhances tolerance to high-intensity exercise in humans. Bailey SJ, et al 2009
Acute dietary nitrate supplementation improves cycling time trial performance.
Lansley KE, et al 2011
Whole beetroot consumption acutely improves running performance. Murphy M, et al 2012
Nitrate supplementation’s improvement of 10-km time-trial performance in trained cyclists. Cermak NM, et al 2012
No improvement in endurance performance after a single dose of beetroot juice. Cermak NM, eta al 2012
Influence of acute dietary nitrate supplementation on 50 mile time trial performance in well-trained cyclists. Wilkerson DP et al, 2012