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In Beet Juice We Believe

More support for this natural performance-booster.

The beet-juice-is-good-for-runners story keeps rolling along, often with a curious new twist or turn. The story I’m talking about is probably the biggest performance-enhancing tale of the last five years. At least, if you don’t count A-Rod and Biogenesis, the neutraceutical company that apparently supplied Alex Rodriguez and other Major Leaguers with forms of testosterone.

Beet juice won’t help you retain a multimillion dollar Major League Baseball contract. But, according to an impressive amount of quality research, it could help you run 1 to 2 percent faster in 5Ks to marathons. That might not sound like much, but it’s actually a big boost. Enough that I’d be surprised if most elite distance runners haven’t given beet products a try by now.

In the U.S. we generally distinguish between beet greens and the tuberous, red beet that grows below the soil. In the U.K., where much of the original research was conducted by Andrew Jones, PhD., a former adviser to Paula Radcliffe, the tuber is called the beetroot. Jones used a British beetroot juice in his early studies. Runner’s World has thoroughly covered the connection between beet products and improved endurance performance since Jones’s first study in 2009 (free, fulltext here).

Recently RW SweatScience blogger Alex Hutchinson posted a great update here, with data regarding the dose-response effect of beetroot concentrate on performance. Now Australian Louise Burke, one of the world’s most esteemed endurance nutritionists, has written an “Invited Editorial” in the Journal of Applied Physiology to offer her perspective on beet-enhanced performance. She admits that she was highly skeptical at first, but has been largely won over by the accumulating evidence.

However, she also reminds us of one curiosity, and raises another that I hadn’t previously heard. First, beets get their endurance power, if you will, from helpful mouth bacteria that convert the nitrate in beets to nitric oxide, which appears to be the miracle substance. Nitric oxide can substantially lower blood pressure, and somehow extend endurance. But if you use certain antibacterial mouthwashes or gums, you might lose the potential benefit of beets.

Second, and this is the new stuff, the most power-packed beets will be those planted in fields that are covered with commercial, nitrate-rich fertilizers. As Burke notes, “This is somewhat ironic, and in contrast to many of the boutique fruit/vegetable juices coming to market.” Many runners, myself included, choose to buy organic fruit and vegetables when we can. Recently I sampled and enjoyed organic beet juice from Red Ace. But a competing company, Beet-It, actually advertises a sport beet drink as well as their organic product, because the sport juice contains “33% more natural dietary nitrate” than the company’s organic beet juice.

Organic or not, you might want to increase your consumption of beets and other high-nitrate vegetables like spinach, arugula, and rhubarb. As Burke says: “Beetroot juice supplementation might provide substantial benefits to health and daily function.”

At the least, she continues: “Many mothers and nutritionists are simply grateful that Professor Jones has accomplished a task that has eluded their own endeavors: getting boys to increase their intake of vegetables!”

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