Posted on 17/10/2019

We all want to run like Brigid Kosgei and Eluid Kipchoge. This, however, is an unlikely reality for the majority of the population. A large portion of us struggle to get off the couch, and the rest get to 5km and feel like our lungs are going to explode. There are the few ‘fancy’ folk who can run a marathon and walk normally afterwards, smile even.

But there’s a ‘not-so-new’ new kid on the block who has been reported to help get those muscles firing with greater force while reducing your perceived exertion. You may just get to 6km this time before feeling like your legs are going to collapse.

Root for it

It’s the root vegetable that turns everything it touches bright red, including your morning pit-stop at the loo. The humble Beta vulgaris rubra, otherwise known as red beetroot (herein referred to as beetroot) has attracted much attention as a health promoting functional food and performance enhancing superfood. This is largely attributed to its rich source of nitrate, which is converted into nitric oxide (NO2), the chemical responsible for opening up your blood vessels, improving the blood flow and oxygen delivery to your muscles. On top of this, there is evidence to suggest that beetroot helps to improve muscular contractions. So not only will you be able to endure more, but you are possibly able to put out greater power on top of it.

Unfortunately for those well trained athletes, who cruise 10km without breaking a sweat the benefits are not as prominent. What is seen however, is that there is likely to be an improvement in perceived exertion and the time to exhaustion. One study found that a nitrate-rich beetroot juice supplement resulted in elite endurance athletes to endure a longer time in an incremental treadmill test before voluntarily stopping vs their non-supplemented counterparts (it was double-blind placebo controlled if anyone cares). If anyone has done one of these tests they will know that it is a serious feat to endure more of it. This could be explained by the increased oxygen saturation of the runners muscles as well as reduced build-up of fatigue inducing metabolites.

High Intensity Exercise

On top of improvements seen to endurance sports, there is also evidence to show that if you drink some beetroot juice (as little as 200-250ml fresh juice) you may see improvements in intermittent, high intensity efforts. The thought behind why this occurs has to do with a quicker recovery of a substrate called Phosphocreatine (PCr). PCr is a the immediate, short term energy storage unit in muscles that lasts for a few seconds before being depleted. If you can regenerate it faster then you should be able to sustain hard efforts. Beetroot juice is also thought to improve power output by improving the speed at which your muscle shorten.

Recovery Juice

There’s a lot of talk about beetroot juice for improving performance, but lets not overlook its potential to aid in recovery (and just as a general really healthy food to eat). Beetroot is a great source of betalian, betain, betanin and other anti-inflammatory phytonutrients and antioxidants. Post hard efforts, a moderate amount of inflammation is needed to help with muscular adaptations so there is some evidence to say that overdosing on antioxidants during this period may blunt this effect. Chronic inflammation and injury however may benefit from beetroot supplementation by inhibiting inflammatory pathways and promoting blood flow through relaxation of your blood vessels.

Getting it Down

Dislike the idea of drinking 250-500ml of beetroot juice (this is the typical amount tested that gave the best performance enhancing results)? Don’t worry, it doesn’t have to be juice to get the benefits of the nitrate and antioxidants. In fact some may argue that its better to have it in the whole food form, this way you getting a good whack of fibre as well, although cooking does decrease the levels of antioxidants. To maintain as many of the good things, keep the skin on when you cook it, and try to keep cooking times short.

When to Get it Down

There are all sorts of studies and recommendations that suggest what and when the optimal time for beetroot supplementation is. Summarised below are some guidelines that you could follow:
• Lead up to intense exercise: supplement for at least 6-15 days before event
• On the day: supplement 150 minutes or 2-3 hours prior to intense exercise (NO2 levels peak then) for optimal effects
• Don’t consume with caffeine or oral antiseptics (mouthwash) which may interact with nitrate absorption and utilisation

Time to BEET those goals

Okay great, so we are all on the same page about when, why and how much, but how do you get in that much beetroot. Leading up to your event, eat it, drink it, roast it, theres a million and one ways to eat this glorious root veg (just google it). Race day is a slightly different story. A little trick you could try is this power beet juice.

Beetroot Endurance Juice (makes 1L):

  • 250ml Beetroot Juice (Fresh)
  • 250ml Cranberry Juice
  • 500ml Coconut water

Mix this up in a jug and Bobs your uncle, the ultimate endurance drink. Split it and drink 500ml before the event, and then if you’re carrying a flask have the other 500ml in there for during the event. Coconut water is a great form of hydration due to the electrolytes, cranberry juice provides the carbs and beetroot juice provides the nitrate. Hello Power Juice.

There is also the option of beetroot powders, pills and extracts. Just make sure that if you go down this route that you check the safety as well as the nitrate levels (aim for between 300mg-600mg for optimal effects).

Hope you enjoyed this overly scientific write up on a vegetable that rightly has seen much attention. Please comment if you have any other suggestion for how to consume this red root or if you try the endurance juice.

Happy Running Fam!

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