Improving Performance with Dietary Nitrates

Beetroot has earned the status of ‘superfood’, a new food group, reserved exclusively for highly nutritious healthy foods, packed full of vitamins and minerals. Research has indicated that beetroot can increase our white blood cell count and is high in antioxidants.

But are superfoods a hype kicked up by Instagram ‘influencers’? If so, then beetroot may be the exception. The Canadian Winter Olympic (medal winning) speed skating teams rely on concentrated beetroot shots as part of their diet plan. We asked the maker of these shots, Beet It Sport, some questions about how the dietary nitrates that come from beetroot can help elite level athletes.

Jonathan Cartwright is the Beet It Sport Specialist at James White Drinks Ltd. (Beet It Sport), having researched the effects of dietary nitrate on exercise performance during his BSc and MSc degrees. 

Us: When were the benefits of beetroot juice discovered?
Jonathan:  The first human study to investigate the exercise benefits of dietary nitrate from beetroot juice supplementation, was published in 2009 by Bailey and colleagues at The University of Exeter. Eight healthy volunteers received either 3 days of 500ml (~350-400mg nitrate) of beetroot juice or 500ml of blackcurrant cordial (placebo). In summary, authors reported a ~5% reduction in oxygen cost of cycling exercise and a 16% improvement in time to exhaustion, in the beetroot juice group compared to placebo group.

(Bailey et al (2009). Dietary nitrate supplementation reduces the O2 cost of low-intensity exercise and enhances tolerance to high-intensity exercise in humans. Journal of Applied Physiology.

Us: What are the main benefits/performance gains?
Jonathan: There is now substantial scientific evidence surrounding a variety of human health and physical performance benefits of beetroot juice supplementation. The main health benefit is the reduction in resting blood pressure following beetroot juice supplementation. The main physical performance benefit of beetroot juice supplementation, is the reduction in the oxygen cost of exercise, which suggests that the working muscle has become more efficient. Furthermore, beetroot juice supplementation has recently been shown to improve muscle power output and force production in humans, which means sports involving sprinting and intermittent sprinting may benefit from beetroot juice consumption.

Us: What are the physiological mechanisms behind these gains?
Jonathan: The exact mechanisms are yet to be full clarified by scientific research. Nitrate’s end product, nitric oxide, has multiple roles in physiology, so it is possible there are several explanations for the beneficial effects of nitrate supplementation. For benefits to endurance performance, it is likely caused by the vasodilatory effects of nitric oxide, which allows greater blood flow and oxygen to the working muscles and simultaneously, the mitochondria that produce energy in the muscles may become more efficient. However, for high-power/sprint sports, the mechanisms of action are likely due to beneficial changes to muscle contractility.

Us: How much, how often and when do you need to take it?
Jonathan: Scientific research is yet to fully clarify the optimal duration of dosing and optimal amount of nitrate pre-exercise, as this likely varies with body size, body mass and the type of exercise performed. However, the current consensus among researchers is that at least 400mg of nitrate (x1 Beet It Sport Shot) must be taken for several days (up to 6 days) prior to competition and training. Crucially, the final dose needs to be consumed 1-3hrs before competition to allow for nitrate conversion to nitric oxide. Any less than 400mg or more than 800mg nitrate per day, does not appear to have any extra benefit, so one or two Beet It Sport shots per day seems to be the ideal amount of nitrate.

Us: What's the difference between using juice vs concentrated shots?
Jonathan: Concentrated Beet It Sport shots contain the equivalent nitrate dose to ~500ml of regular beetroot juice. This enables athletes to gain the desired 400mg of nitrate from a smaller volume of fluid (70ml vs. 500ml), which allows greater convenience and palatability for people looking to improve their sports performance. In addition, the nitrate content of beetroot juice varies substantially, so as an athlete or researcher, you would not know how much nitrate you were consuming. Beet It Sport shots guarantee at least 400mg of nitrate per 70ml shot, which is why they are used by over 200 universities worldwide and trusted by athletes worldwide.

Us: Is it effective for all levels of athletes? (recent study suggesting elites need more)
Jonathan: The majority of research demonstrating the beneficial effects of dietary nitrate supplementation has been conducted using sub-elite, recreationally active participants, which covers most of the general population. However, a small number of studies reported the same nitrate dosing does not benefit elite athletes, possibly due to their habitual diet already nitrate-rich, or their nitric oxide production is already increased. It is possible that elite athletes require an increased duration or amount of nitrate compared to the sub-elite athletes. We supply an extraordinarily high percentage of elite athletes and teams who supplement dietary nitrate from Beet It Sport, including the recent Canadian Olympic Team at the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics.

Us: Apart from the "pink pee", are there any other side effects I should know about?
Jonathan: Beet It Sport shots have been scientifically tested on thousands of athletes and it appears beeturia (pink pee) is the only side effect reported. Given the natural ingredients are simply concentrated beetroot juice (98%) and lemon juice (2%); made from concentrates, it is not surprising that we have seen no side effects from consuming our recommended dosing in the scientific research. Like with all nutritional supplements, it is important to trial them in training before competition, as people respond in different ways to different supplements.  

Us: I hate the taste of beetroot, will I manage to take the shots?
Jonathan: Beet It Sport shots are certainly an acquired taste. Those who are serious about their sport usually tolerate the taste for its beneficial effects. After all, 70ml is merely a mouthful and there are plenty of alternative ways to consume them; mixing with smoothies, yogurt, muesli and more. If the taste is still an issue after experimenting, we recommend trying our delicious Beet It Sport flapjacks, which contain 200mg of nitrate from concentrated beetroot juice, oat flakes, raisin, apple extract and sunflower oil. Many athletes find these more palatable than our shots as they contain a 24g of slow-release carbohydrates, which is perfect for prolonged exercise.

Us: Apart from beetroot shots, bars and juice are there any other nitrate boosting foods I can eat?
Jonathan: Nitrate is predominantly found in green-leafy vegetables such as beetroot, spinach, lettuce, rocket and rhubarb. The UK current nitrate intake from vegetables has been estimated as approximately 70mg per day, so generally speaking, people could benefit from consuming more nitrate-rich vegetables in their diet. Notably, you would have to consume ~300g of beetroot, ~200g of lettuce or ~100g of rocket to match the nitrate content of one 70ml Beet It Sport shot. This highlights why researchers and athletes consider Beet It Sport shots the ‘gold standard’ convenience for their respective research and sports performance.

So there you have it. Could your performance, or your athlete’s performance benefit from beetroot supplements? Find out more via the Beet It Sports website or check them out at stand number 9140 at the Elite Sports Performance and Rehabilitation Expo, this May.