Drinking beetroot juice has become very popular between runners and cyclists. It might indeed be the right thing to do, because it contains dietary nitrate, which can reduce the oxygen cost of exercise. Whenever you want to produce power, you need oxygen, and if you need to go harder you need more oxygen. If your body can produce the same power with less oxygen, you have the possibility to go faster and longer.
Scientists have therefore wondered if consuming nitrate-rich food, such as beetroot and leafy green vegetables, could help competitors, and in 2009 a study showed indeed that drinking 0.5l of beetroot juice reduced the oxygen cost by 20%. This is phenomenal, and it sparked a real rage.
However, the initial results were obtained in volunteers who ate a nitrate-free diet, and in 2010 the same group demonstrated that people who had a normal Western diet decreased the cost “only” by 5%.
Our normal diet does not contain that many nitrate rich vegetables, and the whole story reminds me of vitamins and minerals: if you have a real deficiency, a boost will help you, but if not, you are much better off with a healthy diet. If this is the case here as well, could we obtain the same effect by changing slightly the kind of vegetables we eat? That would be the safest, cheapest and easiest solution.
To make matters even more complicated, a recent study could not notice any improvement in elite athletes.
Would this mean that as you get fitter and/or exercise more, dietary nitrate becomes less beneficial? Or is the other way around, and would very fit athletes need more to see an effect?
There are many more questions, such as: should we take it during training as well, so that we can work harder and therefore (hopefully) perform better at races? Or is it better to train without it to make our bodies used to work hard without help, and only take it during the last week before a race?
The most important question is probably this: could it reduce the benefits we get from exercise in the long-term?
As long as these questions are not answered, I will not spend my money on beetroot juice, but I am going to eat more nitrate-containing vegetables all year round…
Does anybody have experience with this?
If you want more details about the effects of beetroot juice, you can read my article in Suite 101.