Can beetroot supplements increase an athlete’s aerobic capacity? It may depend. Looking at the benefits, caveats, and trade-offs to beetroot supplementation can help you decide whether or not it’s right for you.
Why Take Nitrate Supplements?
It’s hard to believe that something as unassuming as a beet could help you ride your bike faster. Yet, there’s research to support exactly that. This purple root owes most of its success to its high concentration of inorganic nitrates. Ingesting inorganic nitrates increases nitric oxide’s level in your body, which may improve your aerobic capacity.
When you consume inorganic nitrates in foods like beetroot, your system converts the nitrates into nitrites through healthy bacteria in the mouth. Later on, these nitrites are transformed into nitric oxide in the gut. Nitric oxide is a signaling molecule that widens blood vessels and increases blood flow. Vasodilation and the resulting increase of blood flow can reduce hypertension and the cost of ATP production. As ATP is the main energy source during aerobic exercise, this is a big potential win for cyclists.
Research suggests that the primary benefit of nitrate supplements is an increased efficiency during submaximal exercise. Athletes may be able to maintain the same pace using less energy or push a higher pace using the same amount of energy. Probably not by too much, though. In studies conducted with endurance athletes, the increases in efficiency were on the marginal side, with athletes experiencing small endurance performance increases.
Nitrates have general health benefits too. Research shows that consuming inorganic nitrates can lower blood pressure, reduce chronic inflammation, and improve cardiovascular health. Naturally sourced inorganic nitrates like arugula, spinach, and beetroot also tend to be dense in other key nutrients and minerals too, making them a good addition to your diet.
Unfortunately, cashing in on the performance benefits isn’t as easy as one would hope. To benefit from nitrate supplementation, the timing, the amount, and the loading have to be just right.
Timing, Quantity, and Consistency
In order for dietary nitrate supplements to be used effectively, they must be consumed in large quantities, at regular intervals, timed accordingly with your training. To start, the current research suggests that nitrates have a one-week loading period. So if you wanted to leverage the benefits of nitrates for next Saturday’s crit, you’d have to start loading up on beetroot juice concentrate now.
When you ingest inorganic nitrates, there’s also a peak in nitric oxide before your system returns towards a base level. Most studies suggest that you will need to consume your beetroot juice concentrate between two and three hours before your training in order for the increased levels of nitrate to play a role in your training.
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Nitrates also have to be taken in relatively large quantities for the benefits to be significant. In general, you’re looking for about 400mg of nitrates in your beetroot supplement. This quantity increases as your fitness level increases. Prior research suggested that the more physically fit you are, the less nitrate supplement will work. However, more recent research suggests that beetroot supplementation can work on trained athletes but that trained athletes have to take even more nitrates. A physically fit athlete might be taking as many as 800mg of nitrates.
This is what makes beetroot juice the most popular nitrate supplement. With juicing, concentrate, and powdered options, you can choose exactly how you want to take beetroot. But most importantly, all options allow you to take the nitrates quickly.
No More Caffeine Supplements or Mouthwash
Supplementing with beetroot also entails a few trade-offs. Particularly if you already supplement with caffeine. Research shows that taking caffeine with beetroot supplements cancels out the benefits of beetroot juice. This doesn’t mean you have to give up your morning cup of coffee. But you probably won’t want to use caffeine and beetroot juice simultaneously. So, if you’ve found success using caffeine supplements before your workouts, it might be worth sticking to the caffeine.
Other studies have found that antibacterial mouthwashes and chewing gums can inhibit your ability to accumulate nitrates. This could be because nitrates are primarily converted into nitrites through bacteria in your mouth and that antibacterial oral hygiene products harm these healthy bacteria. If you regularly use these mouthwashes or chew gum that is antibacterial, you may want to consider alternative products before supplementing with beets.
How Much and How?
While the quantity of nitrates you should take appears to be influenced by your fitness level, the exact amount isn’t always so precise. Generally, it seems that being cautious and taking more nitrates rather than fewer nitrates yields better results. For reference, a physically fit person might take anywhere between 400mg and 800mg of nitrates.
As for how you take it, it is up to you. Some athletes like the beetroot “shots.” These are clearly marked with nitrate quantity, so it’s easy to measure and control how much nitrate you’re taking in. You can also take beetroot supplements in a powdered form. If you do this, be sure to check the nitrate quantity on the package. Some powders don’t have as many inorganic nitrates as you would hope.
Other athletes prefer to juice their own beets and add them to smoothies or drink them straight. Raw beets contain about 250mg of nitrates for every 100g of beets, so you can measure and add them to any fuel you want. While being a little less precise, this method offers a fresher alternative.
Should I Take Beetroot Supplements?
Before adding any new supplement to your diet, it’s a good idea to consult with your doctor. While supplementing beetroot juice seems to be safe for most athletes, everyone is different, and what works for someone else may not be right for you.
From there, the decision is really up to you. Beetroot supplementation has some pretty solid research to suggest that it can increase your aerobic capacity. However, it does come with some caveats and trade-offs that might not make it worthwhile for you personally.
Similarly, the results seem to vary. Anecdotally, some athletes that have tried beetroot supplements noted positive effects. While other athletes have shared that the only real change they saw was in the color of their urine. Ultimately, whether or not beetroot works for you could come down to your own personal experiment.
Further Reading and Resources
- Lorenzo Calvo J, Alorda-Capo F, Pareja-Galeano H, Jiménez SL. Influence of Nitrate Supplementation on Endurance Cyclic Sports Performance: A Systematic Review. Nutrients. 2020 Jun 17;12(6):1796. doi: 10.3390/nu12061796. PMID: 32560317; PMCID: PMC7353291.
- Mirco Govoni, Emmelie Å. Jansson, Eddie Weitzberg, Jon O. Lundberg, The increase in plasma nitrite after a dietary nitrate load is markedly attenuated by an antibacterial mouthwash, Nitric Oxide, Volume 19, Issue 4, 2008, Pages 333-337
- Domínguez R, Cuenca E, Maté-Muñoz JL, García-Fernández P, Serra-Paya N, Estevan MC, Herreros PV, Garnacho-Castaño MV. Effects of Beetroot Juice Supplementation on Cardiorespiratory Endurance in Athletes. A Systematic Review. Nutrients. 2017 Jan 6;9(1):43. doi: 10.3390/nu9010043. PMID: 28067808; PMCID: PMC5295087.
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