Why Endurance Athletes Are All About Beets

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Earthy, sweet, and gorgeously colorful—beets are rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, and have been shown to reduce inflammation, protect your heart, and potentially even help prevent cancer. But beets are also exceptionally high in nitrates, the key detail that has captivated the fitness world in the past few years. When eaten, nitrate converts into nitric oxide, which relaxes blood vessels and improves circulation—and may help cardiovascular endurance and athletic performance.

It’s no wonder that serious athletes are drinking in the benefits. Cyclists, runners, and other endurance athletes all swear by raw beet juice. Record-breaking marathoner and Fitbit ambassador, Ryan Hall, is a believer. “I’ve been drinking beet juice daily for many years,” says Hall. “I’ve read several studies that show performance benefits for athletes, and it’s packed with nutrients that keep the body strong. I feel like beet juice is one of those easy extras I can add to my regimen to get a 1 percent boost.”

A small study from Washington University in St Louis reveals more evidence that beet juice may boost muscle strength. Researchers gave concentrated beet juice to heart patients, and two hours later, they reported 13 percent increased strength. For older individuals struggling with muscle weakness, this could mean small victories, such as climbing a set of stairs or standing up out of a chair. And for athletes looking for a competitive edge, the findings are equally enthralling, as a few seconds might be the difference between first place and not standing on the podium.

“I have compared the beet-juice effect to Popeye eating his spinach,” commented Andrew R. Coggan, PhD, co-author of the study and exercise physiology specialist, in a university news release. “The magnitude of this improvement is comparable to that seen in heart failure patients who have done two to three months of resistance training.”

Beets can be absolutely delicious, and there are many ways to enjoy them. The raw juice delivers nitrates, but you need to drink a lot of itabout 500 ml or 17 fluid ounces to reap the benefits. Concentrated shots or powders are more popular for athletes because they lower the volume you’d need to drink. Hall relies on beet powder, mixing two heaping tablespoons in water an hour before warming up for a race or workout. If you’re more into cooking your vegetables, you lose some nitrates, but the whole root offers more dietary fiber, so you’re trading off benefits. Try blending cooked beets in smoothies, whirling them into hummus, or in salads or sides. They’re also a surprisingly sweet addition to pancakes or muffins.  

Pro tips: Because healthy bacteria in the mouth kick off the conversion of nitrates to nitric oxides, many athletes make an effort to swish beet juice before swallowing. They also avoid using mouthwash or gum, which mess with the conversion. Some runners report rocky stomachs, so before guzzling the stuff on race day, try a few sips during a training run first. Also, don’t be alarmed if you go to the bathroom and see red—some discoloration is normal after consuming beets.

Have you ever tried raw beet juice to get a workout boost? Join the conversation below.

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