Beets are my favorite ergogenic aid. Specifically, beet juice has been shown to improve running and cycling performance. While there’s only so much a supplement can offer to benefit a runner or cyclist, beets get you there and more. Let’s have a look at everything that goes into this deep red taproot.
We’re going to start very basic. A beet or beetroot, if you’re from across the pond, is a root just like carrots, garlic, potatoes, onions, but it’s characterized by a deep dark red color. It’s mainly consumed on salads, pickled, or oftentimes as a juice. You can most likely purchase it at the local supermarket for some $1-2 per pound and it honestly tastes gross. It’s quite a bitter and earthy food; most people will turn their nose up to beets in their next dinner. With that being said, it has some serious benefits for all kinds of athletes.
Performance Benefits of Beet Juice
The performance benefits of beet ingestion include reduced blood pressure, lower oxygen uptake during submaximal exercise (think tempo) and enhanced exercise tolerance (time to failure). A study also showed that supplementing with beets can improve mitochondrial efficiency.
The mechanism is believed to be related to the high nitrate concentration of beets. Nitric oxide (NO) is produced within the body from nitrates and helps mediate blood flow in muscle. The idea here is that increased blood flow through the muscles improves the capacity to absorb oxygen from the blood into the working muscle.
Negative Studies on Beet Juice
Even with all these benefits, there is conflicting evidence regarding the efficacy of beet juice in elite athletes. One study looked at consuming 140ml of beet juice prior to a one hour time trial and noted no differences in performance relative to a control. Another study involving active males found that whole body oxygen consumption improved, but mitochondrial efficiency did not. A third study found that beet juice had no effect of the performance of elite 1500m runners.
With all of these studies showing a lack of evidence to justify beet juice supplementation, are there any studies that confirm beets are beneficial to sport performance?
Positive Studies on Beet Juice
Well, yes. One study from 2016 noted that maximal cycling power in 13 trained athletes increased by 6% following beet juice consumption. Another study found that 500m time trial performance in kayak athletes at national and international level improved by 1.7%. This study suggests that elite athletes may require more beets to produce effects because compared to the elite 1500m runner study above the dosage was significantly higher.
High Intensity Exercise
There are at least a few studies indicating the benefits of beet juice on high intensity exercise. Specifically, one study looked at the combination of sprint interval training and beet juice supplementation and found that combining beet juice with an interval set of 4x30s at max work capacity caused a greater improvement in peak work rate relative to no interval training or no beet juice supplementation over a 28 day period.
This indicates there may be some benefit to chronic beet consumption and the response is some cumulative effect. The authors of this study also noted that those who consumed beet juice and trained with sprint intervals had a shift in muscle fiber types away from type IIx (super high explosive) to type IIa (fatigue resistant explosive).
Another study backed up this idea by showing that in a hypoxic environment, supplementation with oral nitrates and sprint interval training caused a greater reduction in type IIx muscle fibers than just hypoxic sprint interval training over a 5 week period. Type IIa fibers are especially beneficial to runners and cyclists who typically complete bouts of 5-10 minutes. In these efforts, type IIx fibers would quickly fatigue, but type IIa fibers continue to contribute to power production.
The big takeaways from the studies are as follows:
- beets may improve oxygen consumption
- elite athletes likely need higher doses to see effects
- chronic beet consumption may help adaptations to sprint interval training
- beets seems to have some effect on the conversion of type IIx fibers to type IIa fibers, a potential benefit for cyclists.
How to Supplement Beetroot Juice
Regarding dosage, there is actually some inter-beet variability in nitrate concentration. I recommend using organic beets which may have higher nutrient concentrations and lower levels of pesticides. Studies have shown pesticides adversely affects our microbiome. The best way to consume beets is in a juice. Just like wheatgrass shots, we can throw it down quickly and drink something else right after. I use an Omega masticating juicer which uses a horizontal auger and the main selling point is the higher juice yield relative to a centrifugal juicers designed for fruit juice extraction. Either way, it’s really quite simple, juice the beets and drink the juice two to three hours before your ride.
Beet Juice Dosage for Running or Cycling
There is some research on the correct dose of beet juice for running or riding. One study compared the response of athletes to 70, 140, and 280ml of beet juice. The researchers found minimal differences between 140ml and 280ml with both providing significant increases in time to failure. It is likely that 140ml is an upper limit on how much should be consumed for a workout, but athletes may find benefits from even less depending on the dose response curve.
Daily Cost of Beet Juice Supplementation
Based on this information, I began the task of juicing 440g of beets to determine the relative yield from a masticating juicer. 260g of beet juice was recovered from the initial 440g, giving a yield of 59.1%. After checking the price of organic beets on the websites of a few supermarkets, it appears the most common price is $2.00/lb. So, with a bit of quick math, consuming a typical 140ml dose of beet juice should cost approximately $1.05. This was derived from the need for 237g of beets per day to produce the 140ml dose.
The decision to include beets as part of your daily training routine is a matter of comparison and value assessment. Creatine in bulk is about $0.12 per day and whey protein in bulk is about $0.68 per day. Even if beets don’t make it into your daily training routine, they can certainly benefit you on event day. Just make sure to try beets on at least a few training days beforehand to make sure there aren’t any unintended consequences.
Will beets make you a superhuman? Probably not, but there are notably benefits including improved time to failure, increased type IIa fibers, and greater adaptations to sprint interval training. If you can manage to put down 140ml of beet juice a day over long periods, there are some rewards to be earned. Even if you can’t manage that, consuming a beet juice product 2-3 hours before a big event can give you a little added boost. My experience with beet juice is that my perception of fatigue decreases and my submaximal efforts feel significantly easier in both running and cycling. With all this information, I leave you with one tip: make sure not to spill any juice, it will certainly stain your carpet.
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