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Beetroot: not your first thought when you think of a fitness supplement, though granted, it's brightly colored. What If I said it could make you 20% stronger - in a week? Maybe it's time to get juiced - in a good way!

The only thing beetroot has in common with everybody’s idea of a sports supplement is that it’s brightly colored. But then, sports supplements tend to fall into two categories: those that are ineffective, essentially colored water, and those that are illegal, dangerous and intended for veterinary use. So it’s surprising to be told that there’s a supplement with proven effects that’s cheap, effective and actually makes you healthier as well as perform better. It does stain, though, so be warned.

I’m talking about beetroot juice.

If you’re rolling your eyes at this point, you’re not alone. The whole idea of so-called superfoods and the furore around supposed panaceas like apple cider vinegar or Greek yoghurt have made a claim like this automatically sound suspicious at best. And when people are talking about our health we have a right to be skeptical. But beetroot juice is the real deal, with no-one expecting to make money from it and a raft of studies showing come quite surprising results in athletes.

How Does Beetroot Affect Performance?

Beetroot, either eaten or as a juice, essentially seems to aid performance by increasing power output. Athletes who drank beetroot juice or ate beetroots before being tested showed increased power output and were able to complete time trials faster than control groups. And it’s not a result of a general improvement in health. 

Beetroot can be effective immediately in increasing power output measurably and strength output can increase in just one week, according to studies. At the University of Connecticut, trained men were given beetroot or a placebo and assessed after 14 days’ training. Those who used beetroot exhibited a 25 percent improvement in strength in the bench press and a 15 percent increase in their bench press power. Those are some pretty big numbers, and they equate to increased tolerance for training and a resulting increase in muscle mass. Yes, there's already a substance available that can hit numbers like that and deliver similar benefits; but it’s one of those "illegal-and-meant-for-vets" ones we mentioned earlier and besides, it’s associated with a slew of health problems. Beetroots actually boost health, especially improving cardiovascular health.

How Does Beetroot Boost Performance?

The best ideas we have are bound up with nitrates and betaine. Betaine is an amino acid found in beetroots, hence its name. It’s technically known as trimethylglycine, and is a breakdown product of choline, found in red meat amongst other sources. Betaine can lower the risk of heart disease by changing the dangerous amino acid homocysteine into methionine, and can enhance liver health and joint recovery — all positive sounding outcomes. But how does betaine boost performance?

Theories abound. It could be because betaine increases the amount of creatine that the body makes naturally. Or, it could be that it cuts lactate production. Finally, there’s some evidence that betaine increases production of insulin-like growth factor and human growth hormone, two of the most anabolic hormones in the body. It’s also possible that betaine’s efficacy is a result of all these.

We should also talk about nitrates. Beetroots have a high nitrate content and it looks as if when you eat beetroots, your body absorbs the nitrates and converts them to nitrite, the precursor to nitric oxide. Nitric oxide is a vasodilator that opens blood vessels and increases oxygen efficiency at the cellular level. It’s likely that this effect is most pronounced when athletes do some form of endurance-oriented or pump training that carries more blood to the muscles.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Gretchen Reynolds, Looking for Fitness in a Glass of Juice, New York Times
  • Acute dietary nitrate supplementation improves cycling time trial performance, lankly et al
  • Marjorie Miller, To beet or not to beet? Researchers test theories of beet juice benefits Penn State News
  • Photo courtesy of tillwe via Flickr:
  • Photo courtesy of tillwe via Flickr:
  • Photo courtesy of Skånska Matupplevelser via Flickr:

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