Bears, beets, Battlestar Gallactica…there is more to beets than staining your hands and being the namesake of Schrute Farms: they’ve become one of the latest areas of exercise performance research. Those bright red root vegetables are one of nature’s best sources of sodium nitrate, which is the focus of much of the recent beet fanaticism in the world of sports supplementation. So, what does the science says about beets and this alkali metal nitrate salt?
It’s no surprise that veggies are good for you, and if you are concerned about your aerobic health and performance, the research clearly shows that they are really good for you. Along with being great sources of carbohydrates, fiber, and countless vitamins and minerals required for health and athletic performance, approximately 80% of our nitrate consumption comes in the form of vegetables, specifically celery, spinach, and especially beetroot. So what about this nitrate stuff? Yes, there is some actual scientific rationale as to why all the guys on your weekly group ride are adding spoonfuls of red powder to their water before heading out. One study found that consumption of nitrates can improve the efficiency of our mitochondria, those organelles that convert what we eat into adenosine triphosphate (ATP) so that our muscles may use it as fuel. Participants in that study, who were given a daily sodium nitrate supplement equal to approximately two medium-sized beets, used less oxygen to perform specific endurance cycling tests. Another study found that nitrate supplementation enhanced performance of and recovery from endurance cycling. While most of the research involves cycling performance, other studies have shown that (due to the concentration of nitrates) beetroot consumption may improve running performance as well. What’s the theorized mechanism for this performance-enhancing effect? It appears that sodium nitrate is kind of like nature’s duct tape, as it can improve mitochondrial efficiency by decreasing proton leakage and increasing ATP exchange. Other studies have shown an increase in overall power output, without an increase in oxygen requirements.
For those of you looking to increase muscular strength more than to improve your cycling century time, you’re probably familiar with nitric oxide (NO). One of the primary active ingredients in the ever-popular “pre-workout” supplements, the signal transmitter NO is a powerful vasodilator, meaning it briefly forces increased blood flow into the muscles, providing more energy to produce ATP and provide “the pump”. Previously, it was believed that the only way to increase NO was either through exercise itself or through conversion of the amino acid L-arginine (hence, the popularity of NO in sports supplementation). But, recent research suggests that one of the by-products of dietary metabolism may be bioactive NO. Whether or not this powerful vasodilation effect improves anaerobic exercise performance is a little murky, but there is no doubt that it acutely makes you feel “strong like a bear”.
So, with strong evidence that sodium nitrate and its metabolites may improve both aerobic and anaerobic performance, is it time to head to the nearest GNC®? Not so fast. First, despite the laboratory research, the performance-enhancing benefits of sodium nitrate and NO have yet to be proven in real-world competition. Not to mention that almost all of the studies showing aerobic benefits were with untrained subjects. And, there is an actual risk for acute nitrate toxicity, which can cause a number of health problems. As far as anaerobic benefits, the increased vasodilation, that feeling of being “pumped” thought to be caused by NO and nitric oxide synthase, may in fact be partially due to the high concentrations of caffeine generally found in such supplements. Furthermore, research shows that acute L-arginine supplementation may not even increase endogenous production of NO anyway. So, even if we were certain that NO did provide performance-enhancing benefits, there is little scientific evidence that the purported active ingredient in these sports supplements actually increases plasma NO levels.
As usual, Mother Nature wins. Throwing a few beets on your spinach salad guarantees that you’ll consume enough sodium nitrate to get the possible mitochondrial efficiency improvements and supposed performance-enhancing benefits, along with a healthy dose of numerous vitamins and minerals with essentially zero risk for toxicity. Supplementing with exogenous sources of sodium nitrate or L-arginine may not only provide no benefit, but also could be dangerous. Before adding another supplement to your regime in search of PRs in the gym or on the track, try examining your diet first.
Dr. Damian Rodriguez is the health and exercise scientist for doTERRA International, LLC. He holds a doctorate in health science, a master’s degree in exercise physiology, and countless professional certifications. He has spent most of his life researching nutrition, exercise, and the lifestyle behaviors associated with optimal health. Along with his passion for health, as someone who lives with Asperger’s Syndrome, he is also involved in bringing awareness to autism spectrum disorders. There are varying opinions about many health and fitness topics. His opinions are his own and not necessarily that of doTERRA International, LLC. Consult your healthcare provider before making any changes to diet and exercise.