Move over chocolate milk. The latest unlikely sports performance-boosting beverage is blood-red beet juice.
The drink (also referred to as beetroot juice) has recently become a staple among elite athletes looking for an edge—like members of Team USA at the Sochi Olympics—and more casual fitness types (like the rest of us) are following suit.
While many fans are picking up their beet blends at juice bars, brands like Red Ace Organics sell beet shots, and the company’s sponsored athletes include top-20 U.S. mountain bikers Chris Baddick and Diedre York, and distance runner Tyler McCandless, all of whom rave on the website about how beet shots fueled them to victory. Another supplement company, Pines International, says sales of its beet juice powder increased by 50 percent from 2012 to 2013.
A spokeswoman says, “There’s an increased interest from athletes due to research showing the beetroot juice has been shown to help the body respond better to exercise, by balancing oxygen use and increasing stamina.”
The claims for beet juice
Enthusiasts point to evidence that the nitrates in beet juice are converted in the body to nitric oxide that can enhance energy extraction from oxygen. Translation: more oxygen gets to the muscles, which means they can work at a higher level of intensity, which leads to enhanced athletic performance. Sounds pretty good, right?
Pines cites a study published in August 2013 in the Journal of Applied Physiology, which found that beet juice “may positively influence the physiological responses to exercise” after 10 healthy men consumed beet juice and showed a reduction in their steady-state oxygen uptake during moderate-intensity exercise (meaning they were able to work harder without consuming more oxygen, because their blood flow had been improved).
Two other recent studies showed that competitive cyclists were much faster after drinking beet juice (in one case for six days, in another right before the race). But another study that focused on giving smaller doses (about five ounces) to cyclists before a race did not show performance improvements.
What it means for you
Nutritionist Ariane Hundt (founder of Brooklyn Bridge Bootcamp) says that while beet juice has lots of health benefits, its performance-boosting properties have not been 100 percent proven in the research, especially for us less elite exercisers. “The benefits probably wouldn’t be meaningful to the average Joe looking to boost their weekend warrior performance,” Hundt says.
She points out that the 10-man study was a very small sample size, the improvements in oxygen cost were only slightly enhanced compared to the placebo group (1.7 or 3 percent, depending on the dose), and there was no improvement in anyone’s heart rate. Also, the juice, she cautions, is higher in sugar than green juice, so it may not be the best choice for people with blood sugar fluctuations.
She’s also skeptical of the powder form.“Beetroot powder doesn’t have nearly enough antioxidant enzymes and active ingredients to affect the body positively since most is lost in the processing, despite the marketing claims of some companies,” she says. (She prefers to eat her beets raw or briefly steamed, for their many health benefits, like boosting liver detoxification, fighting cancer with antioxidants, and lowering cholesterol.)
It’s not a quick fix, she says. “No juice or dietary supplement can undo a poor diet or the effects of a negative and stressful environment. If your diet isn’t already up to par, then no amount of beet juice will enhance your performance as an athlete,” Hundt says. But if you are pretty healthy, and you want to swig some beet juice in moderation, let us know if it makes you run a little faster. —Ann Abel
Have you sipped beet juice for a better workout? Did you notice a difference? Tell us in the Comments, below!