Can the humble beet really help you become a better athlete?
Beets are one of nature's most nourishing and health-enhancing foods. So, it should come as no surprise that researchers have demonstrated beetroot powder offers athletes superb performance-boosting benefits.
If you've ever taken a pre-workout supplement to help you crank out those last few reps or run that extra mile, you know what a difference that extra boost can make. Unfortunately, many performance-boosting products on the market are chock full of artificial ingredients, ridiculous amounts of caffeine, colorings and fillers that don't do anything to improve your athleticism – in fact, they can be downright dangerous.
What’s so great about beets, and which supplement is most beneficial for your health and athletic goals? Here's what you need to know.
Health Benefits of Beets
Wanna know the real secret behind beets' performance-boosting abilities? Nitrates.
Keep in mind these are not the unhealthy, processed, artificial sodium nitrates or nitrites that you've been warned to avoid. These nitrates occur naturally in many whole, unprocessed foods, and they're incredibly beneficial for your health. When you ingest nitrates in the form of whole, natural food sources, your body converts them into nitric oxide. And if you've ever taken a pre-workout supplement, you've probably noticed that nitric oxide is one of the main ingredients.
Why is that?
Because the nitric oxide molecule is responsible for dilating your blood vessels. When your blood vessels increase in diameter, they allow more blood to flow throughout your body. If you've ever heard of vasodilation in reference to sports supplements, that's exactly what beets do – and it just so happens that this phenomenon is excellent for athletic performance! Beyond improving vasodilation, beets offer several other health benefits:
Beets Reduce Fatigue During Intense Training
High-intensity training – think heavy lifting or HIIT sprints – requires not only healthy blood flow but substantial short-twitch muscle fiber strength. Beets help speed up your body's ability to resynthesize phosphocreatine, an amino acid necessary for muscular strength, power and endurance. Researchers also believe that beets help improve muscular power output by helping your muscle fibers shorten faster, leading to more explosive movement and quicker recovery in between bouts of intense effort.
Beets Improve Muscular Endurance
Because beets are so great at improving blood flow, they're also excellent when it comes to improving your endurance during exercise. During aerobic exercise – running, cycling, swimming, etc. – your muscles normally require substantial oxygen to function properly. The nitrates present in beets actually decrease the oxygen cost of exercise. The less oxygen your muscles need to function, the longer and harder you can train without fatiguing. In fact, one study found that beet juice helped endurance athletes exercise up to 16 percent longer!
Beets Boost Heart Health
Beets' naturally occurring nitrates help strengthen your heart and improve your blood pressure by dilating your blood vessels. Increased blood vessel dilation allows for improved blood flow throughout your body, thereby reducing stress on your heart. Keep in mind that blood nitrate levels gradually drop off after about six hours, so you'll need to consume beets or beet powder regularly to see long-term blood pressure benefits.
Beets Reduce Exercise Recovery Time
Another benefit of consuming dietary nitrates is increased nutrient and oxygen uptake after exercise. Because blood nitrate levels remain elevated for about six hours after consumption, your muscles continue to receive more nutrients and oxygen after your workout. Not only does this help you recover faster, but it also helps reduce post-exercise soreness. Plus, beets also contain potent antioxidants called betalains. Because these compounds have anti-inflammatory properties, they also play a role in reducing soreness after intense training.
Beets Contain an Array of Nutrients
Outside of boosting athletic performance, the root veggie contains a wide variety of nutrients your body needs for optimal functioning. In their whole form, beets contain substantial amounts of antioxidants, phytonutrients, fiber, potassium, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, folic acid, iron, magnesium and calcium. These nutrients help protect against oxidative stress, reduce inflammation and even boost brain health!
So, beets are pretty awesome, right? Better performance AND recovery all from a humble little root veggie? Nature's pretty cool that way.
You know what's not awesome, though?
Pesticides and artificial fertilizers.
Before you go picking up bushels of beets at your local supermarket or downing scoops of beet powder, make sure your beets are ORGANIC. All those chemicals conventional farms use in their soil and spray on their plants negatively impact the quality of the veggies they produce.
As an athlete – or really, as a human – you don't want those chemicals floating around in your body. And if you're looking for a performance boost from your beets, those harmful additives can counteract the veggie's performance benefits.
Possible Risks and Side Effects of Beet Consumption
There's no doubt that beets offer tremendous health benefits to anyone who'll eat them. But, as with all things, too much of a good thing can sometimes be – well, not so good.
Beet powder, when taken in suggested amounts, bestows you with all of the health-promoting benefits mentioned above. It's when you consume an excessive amount of beets or beet powder that you may notice some not-so-pleasant side effects. If you are currently on blood pressure medication, beets' nitrate content may further lower your blood pressure. Speak with your doctor before adding beets to your diet, just to be safe.
When you consume beets – either in powdered or natural form – your urine might develop a lovely pink hue. Not to worry, though – according to medical experts, beet-induced pink urine, formally known as beeturia, is completely harmless. It might be an indication that you're low on iron, though. If you're worried about it, ask your doctor for a blood test.
Beet consumption may also give your stools a nice reddish or pinkish shade. Colored stools are usually harmless, and when caused by beets, rainbow poops are nothing to worry about. In some individuals, the pigments contained in beets break down and cause tar-colored stools. Usually, this is no cause for alarm, but in very rare cases, tarry stools may indicate the presence of blood. If you develop black stools, eliminate beets for a few days and your stools should return to normal. If they don't, just to be safe, you should consult your doctor to rule out gastrointestinal abnormalities.
Because beets are rich in oxalates, there is a small chance you may develop kidney stones if you routinely consume too many beets or too much beet powder. Oxalates combine with calcium to form tiny crystals that can eventually turn into kidney stones. If you are prone to kidney stones or already have them, it's probably a good idea to avoid beets altogether.
So, the burning question is: How much should you eat to experience the benefits but reduce the potential risks?
Experts recommend sticking to two to three servings per day of beet powder or beet juice since these foods are more concentrated than whole beets. And if you want to eat a few servings of whole beets in a day, go for it. According to the FDA, one serving of whole raw beets is about one cup. It's important to note that at present, there is no established upper limit for beet consumption. If you consume an excessive amount, however, there is a possibility of adverse effects.