Beetroot is increasingly being touted as an athlete’s super-food, with a number of studies suggesting that eating this earthy, often-neglected vegetable or drinking its juice could improve your performance, speed, and endurance. This makes it great for runners, whatever distance you like to do.
Beetroot is heaving with nutrients: B vitamins, which are needed for energy production; antioxidants such as vitamin C, beta-carotene and beta-cyanine; and an impressive range of minerals, including magnesium, potassium, phosphorous and iron.
The pigments in beetroot are known as betalains and there are two key types. Betacyanins, which are vibrant red/violet in colour (the variety we are most familiar with), and betaxanthins, which are yellow in colour. Both forms of betalains contain nitrogen and also possess antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Beetroot is also packed with high levels of chemicals called nitrates and it is this nitrate content that appears to be particularly beneficial for exercise performance. Our bodies convert nitrates to nitrite and then nitric oxide, a gas that widens your blood vessels, improving blood flow and oxygen delivery to your muscles. This allows your muscles to use oxygen more efficiently, thereby reducing the amount of oxygen required to perform exercise.
There have been several studies investigating the effects of beetroot on performance and endurance. In one study, cyclists who consumed 500ml of beetroot juice showed significant improvement in time trials. This appears to be because the compounds in beetroot improved their power output without any increase in oxygen. Another study, from the University of Exeter, published in 2010, suggests that consuming beetroot juice could help increase exercise time by 16 per cent.
The research suggests it is likely you will see most benefits if you drink the juice regularly – don’t expect miracles if you try it for the first time on the day of a race. Some study participants were drinking half a litre of juice per day – which is a lot – but there are smaller beetroot shots available which can provide a concentrated hit (300ml of juice equates to one 70ml shot). Results from a time-to-exhaustion cycling showed that those taking two shots of beetroot juice performed better than those taking four shots, extending their time by 14 per cent compared with 12 per cent.
But it’s not just juice that can benefit you – eating baked beetroot has also been shown to improve runners’ speed by three per cent over a 5K run, which is significant over such a short distance.
Beetroot may improve your recovery too. Many of the phytonutrients in beetroot have been shown to function as anti-inflammatory compounds, which is particularly important if you are suffering with muscle soreness or injuries. Being naturally sweet, yet rich in soluble fibre, it’s a great energising food, providing longer lasting fuel and helping you avoid energy dips.
And because it also rich in folate and iron – important for red blood cells and oxygenation – it’s a great food if you’re feeling low in energy.
Beetroot can be eaten raw or cooked and it makes a delicious juice when mixed with carrot and apple (it’s potent stuff, so best mixed with other juices). If are you using the concentrated beetroot shots consider taking two shots before a race or long training session.
As the concentration of phytonutrients is diminished by heat try to eat beetroot raw or lightly sautéed or steamed. For some people eating large quantities of beetroot can cause pink colouration of urine, but this is harmless, albeit alarming. Beetroot lowers blood pressure, so avoid excessive consumption if you are taking any blood pressure medication.