Beetroot and Running Performance

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There have been a number of studies recently that show Beetroot (beets in the US) improve exercise performance including running. Beetroot juice has no side effects, takes effect within an hour, and remains active for days. However, don't clean your teeth or use a mouthwash immediately before consuming the beetroot.

1 Details

Studies[1][2][3][4][5]indicate that beetroot juice has a number of benefits

  • Improved Running Economy, which is reduction in the oxygen required across a range of efforts. This is without any increase in blood lactate that would indicate nonoxidative energy production.
  • Increased time to exhaustion in maximal exercise with VO2max unchanged.
  • Reduced resting blood pressure.

2 Effective Dose

It's been suggested that the minimum effective dose is 5 mmol of Nitrate (NO3) [6]. (For Nitrate, 1g=16mmol.) However, nitrate content of beetroot is highly variable[7], with whole beetroots and beetroot powder varying by a factor of ten between varieties. The variation between beetroot juices was even larger, varying by x250.

3 Sources

There are lots of products based on beets, and it's hard to work out what's going to be the best for convenience and cost.

3.1 Beetroot

The obvious source is beetroot as a vegetable. An analysis found that beetroot averages ~1g/Kg fresh beetroot[7], which is ~15 mmol/Kg. Therefore, you'd need to eat about 300g/11oz of beetroot. However, different varieties varied between ~280mg/Kg and 2,300mg/Kg.

3.2 Beetroot Powder

An analysis of four powders found the nitrate content varying between 0.125 mmol/g and 0.87 mmol/g, meaning you'd need to take between 6g and 40g of beetroot powder, a huge variation[7]. Another analysis of 6 powders found the variation to be from 0.10 to 0.256 mmol/g, requiring between 46g and 20g of powder for an effective dose. This makes beetroot powder quite expensive; I calculated the price between $2.50 and $6 per dose. Here's my rough estimate of the cost per 5mmol dose based on Amazon pricing. Important: both the price and nitrate concentration could easily vary for the same brand, so use this data with caution. None of the available beetroot sources specifies the nitrate concentration'.'

Brand g/serving mmol/serving mmol/g g/dose unit price Grams/unit per gram cost/dose
redibeets 4 0.43 0.1075 47 $ 32 250 0.128 $ 5.95
superbeets 5 1.03 0.2060 24 $ 35 153 0.229 $ 5.55
endurance beets 11 1.08 0.0982 51 $ 17 220 0.077 $ 3.94
beetboost 11 1.78 0.1618 31 $ 38 200 0.190 $ 5.87
beetelite 10 2.16 0.2160 23 $ 35 200 0.175 $ 4.05
pureclean powder 10 2.56 0.2560 20 $ 39 300 0.130 $ 2.54

Another alternative would be "bulk supplements beet powder", which is much cheaper per gram, but with unknown nitrate concentration.

4 Beetroot Juice

The amount of nitrate in beetroot juice also varies widely, and I calculated the rough cost/dose. I was surprised to find that beetroot juice was far cheaper than the powders. Important: both the price and nitrate concentration could easily vary for the same brand, so use this data with caution. None of the available beetroot sources specifies the nitrate concentration'.'

Brand ml/serving mmol/serving mmol/ml ml/dose unit price ml/unit per ml cost/dose
Lakewood juice 500 18.77 0.0375 133 $ 6 946 0.007 $ 0.89
Beet it juice 500 7.55 0.0151 331 $ 12 1000 0.012 $ 3.97
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5 Implications for Runners

Beetroot supplementation a way of reducing the energy cost of exercise (improved Running Economy). This reduction in energy cost is especially important for marathon runners, where the Glycogen stores are a limiting factor in performance. Runners focused on shorter distances would benefit from the increased time to exhaustion at high intensity.

6 Period of Effect

The changes from beetroot take effect in about 30 minutes, peak after 90 minutes, stay elevated for 6 hours[8] and remain effective for at least 15 days[4] Taking beetroot juice daily will build up the effect over a 3-4 days then plateau.

7 Active Component

One study[2] removed the Nitrates from the beetroot juice and found that the effects also disappeared, indicating that the Nitrates are the active ingredient. The Nitrates (NO3) in beetroot juice are converted to Nitrites (NO2), and it is the nitrite that has the effect. Using an antibacterial mouthwash before taking beetroot juice prevents the nitrate being turned into nitrite[9].

8 Side Effects

The only documented side effects of beetroot (other than the taste) is Beeturia, which is pink or red colored urine. While this effect may be disconcerting, it is harmless and effects only about 10-14% of the healthy population. However, you are far more likely to have Beeturia if you are anemic, so have your blood checked if you get the symptoms, just in case. There are many other reported side effects of beetroot, including paralysis of vocal cords, have been reported on the internet, but I've found no documented cases and this appears to be urban legend[10].

9 The spinach alternative?

Another source of nitrate is spinach, which may be a substitute for those that don't like beets. Around 100-300g of spinach are claimed to have similar results to the equivalent weight of beets[11][12][13]. Canned beets contain 170-290 mg/100g nitrates[14], and the spinach petioles (stalks) can contain a similar 10-260 mg/100g, but the spinach leaves only contain 4-12 mg/100g[15]. Also, note that cooking reduces the nitrate levels in spinach[16]. Some studies[17] used Sodium Nitrate directly, at a level which may be equivalent to about 300g of spinach. Eating 300g (10oz) is about 7 cups of spinach, which would take some dedication to consume.

10 Alternatives

Another approach is to take the amino acids Citrulline or Arginine to boost nitric oxide. I'd recommend reading [1] and [2] for a review of the research.

11 References

  1. Dietary nitrate reduces maximal oxygen consumption while maintaining work performance in maximal exercise.
  2. 2.0 2.1 A toast to health and performance! Beetroot juice lowers blood pressure and the O2 cost of exercise
  3. Dietary nitrate supplementation enhances muscle contractile efficiency during knee-extensor exercise in humans
  4. 4.0 4.1 Acute and chronic effects of dietary nitrate supplementation on blood pressure and the physiological responses to moderate-intensity and incremental exercise
  5. Dietary nitrate supplementation reduces the O2 cost of low-intensity exercise and enhances tolerance to high-intensity exercise in humans
  6. EJ. Gallardo, AR. Coggan, What's in Your Beet Juice? Nitrate and Nitrite Content of Beet Juice Products Marketed to Athletes., Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab, pages 1-17, Oct 2018, doi 10.1123/ijsnem.2018-0223, PMID 30299195
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Jürgen Wruss, Gundula Waldenberger, Stefan Huemer, Pinar Uygun, Peter Lanzerstorfer, Ulrike Müller, Otmar Höglinger, Julian Weghuber, Compositional characteristics of commercial beetroot products and beetroot juice prepared from seven beetroot varieties grown in Upper Austria, Journal of Food Composition and Analysis, volume 42, 2015, pages 46–55, ISSN 08891575, doi 10.1016/j.jfca.2015.03.005
  8. Acute Blood Pressure Lowering, Vasoprotective, and Antiplatelet Properties of Dietary Nitrate via Bioconversion to Nitrite
  9. The increase in plasma nitrite after a dietary nitrate load is markedly attenuated by an antibacterial mouthwash
  10. What Are the Benefits of Drinking Beet Juice?
  11. FJ. Larsen, E. Weitzberg, JO. Lundberg, B. Ekblom, Dietary nitrate reduces maximal oxygen consumption while maintaining work performance in maximal exercise., Free Radic Biol Med, volume 48, issue 2, pages 342-7, Jan 2010, doi 10.1016/j.freeradbiomed.2009.11.006, PMID 19913611
  12. FJ. Larsen, B. Ekblom, K. Sahlin, JO. Lundberg, E. Weitzberg, Effects of dietary nitrate on blood pressure in healthy volunteers., N Engl J Med, volume 355, issue 26, pages 2792-3, Dec 2006, doi 10.1056/NEJMc062800, PMID 17192551
  13. Nitrate from spinach boosts muscle mitochondria function
  14. C. Y. Lee, R. S. Shallenberger, D. L. Downing, G. S. Stoewsand, N. M. Peck, Nitrate and nitrite nitrogen in fresh, stored and processed table beets and spinach from different levels of field nitrogen fertilisation, Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, volume 22, issue 2, 1971, pages 90–92, ISSN 00225142, doi 10.1002/jsfa.2740220212
  15. Z. Yosefi, R. Tabaraki, H. A. Asadi Gharneh, A. A. Mehrabi, Variation in Antioxidant Activity, Total Phenolics, and Nitrate in Spinach, International Journal of Vegetable Science, volume 16, issue 3, 2010, pages 233–242, ISSN 1931-5260, doi 10.1080/19315260903577278
  16. William E. J. Phillips, Changes in the nitrate and nitrite contents of fresh and processed spinach during storage, Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, volume 16, issue 1, 1968, pages 88–91, ISSN 0021-8561, doi 10.1021/jf60155a012
  17. FJ. Larsen, TA. Schiffer, S. Borniquel, K. Sahlin, B. Ekblom, JO. Lundberg, E. Weitzberg, Dietary inorganic nitrate improves mitochondrial efficiency in humans., Cell Metab, volume 13, issue 2, pages 149-59, Feb 2011, doi 10.1016/j.cmet.2011.01.004, PMID 21284982