Nitrate rich beetroot juice is the latest craze in endurance athletes because it belongs to a very exclusive list of ergogenic aids that have been verified by well designed, scientific testing.
A recent study from the department of Kinesiology at McMaster University, showed that beetroot juice may have the capacity to improve the efficiency of oxygen consumption (VO2). This study looked at 12 male cyclist ingesting 140ml of concentrated beetroot juice per day, for 6 days. On the 6th day, had them cycle a 60min of submaximal cycling followed by a 10km time trial. The results showed an improvement in the beet juice group with submaximal oxygen consumption lowering (good thing) that accounted for a average of a 12s faster time, and an average of 6 watts increase in power.
But a recent study in the journal of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise tested a 641mg dose of potassium nitrate (key ingredient and supplemental equivalent to beetroot juice) revealed otherwise. The study took 10 elite Norwegian cross country skiers and supplemented them 2.5 hours before a 5km time trial. The study was placebo-controlled, double-blind, with each subject performing the protocol twice. The result: there almost wasn’t any! No faster times, no difference in oxygen consumption. The key factor in this study was perhaps the athletes impressive VO2 max (which averaged around 70mL/kg/min). The explanation that the researchers favored was that due to the elite caliber of the athletes, they were less efficient in turning nitrate to nitrite which is a key process in benefiting from the beetroot juice. It could also be due to the fact that 641mg, a single shot– only a few hours before activity is just not enough for the body to use–loading days before could also be the key difference.
What does this all mean?
What we can take away from these studies is that beetroot juice (the whole food) is not the equivalent to potassium nitrate. There is just something extra in the beet juice; perhaps the nitrate and the beet’s other components allow for this advantage to occur. What we do know is that beet juice without the nitrates don’t work and that the just the nitrates alone don’t work either; nor do they work with elite athletes. A good take away also is that whole foods are more complex than their constituents taken by themselves. So next time you’re going to go for your big run, try loading on some beet juice a few days before and see if your personal best changes!
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Cermak, N. M., Gibala, M. J., & Van Loon, L. J. C. (2012). Nitrate supplementation’s improvement of 10-km time-trial performance in trained cyclists. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 22(1), 64-71. Retrieved from www.scopus.com
Peacock O, Tjonna AE, James P, Wisloff U, Welde B, Bohlke N, et al. Dietary nitrate does not enhance running performance in elite cross-country skiers. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2012.