Beetroot juice is now high on the list of popular sports supplements. So why are athletes necking down this purple concoction and importantly, is it doing them any good?
With more research coming out than ever before supporting its use, there may just be some merit to moving this sports supplement out of the ‘fad’ category.
Beetroot juice contains lots of naturally occurring nitrate, which is found at different levels in many other vegetables. Nitrate is a powerful chemical in our body because it turns into nitric oxide.
Nitric oxide is a potent vasodilator, meaning it will improve blood flow and oxygen delivery to working muscles. As a bonus, it also improves the action of insulin and has a role to play in the immune system. As a side journey, there is some interesting research to show that beetroot juice may help lower blood pressure in people with hypertension.
With several dozen exercise studies looking at beetroot juice and sports performance now published, the results are looking promising. Exercising athletes who supplement with beetroot juice which contains an adequate amount of nitrate gain a small benefit on exercise endurance.
Nitrate can improve the economy of athletes when working at a constant load (running or biking), which translates into a slightly longer time until exhaustion. At an elite level, there may be a small, but competitively meaningful benefit in time trial performance. Recreational athletes appear to gain a greater benefit.
There is little concern about harmful effects from taking beetroot juice apart from some occasional minor gastrointestinal upsets. As anyone who has tried beetroot juice will tell you though, be prepared for a ‘colourful surprise’ on visits to the toilet – what goes in purple comes out pink.
So how much nitrate do you need to consume to get a potential benefit? An effective ‘dose’ of nitrate is considered to be about 400 milligrams. The popular commercial ‘beetroot shots’ will give you this dose, or instead you could just eat foods high in nitrates.
The highest dietary sources of nitrate are beetroot, celery, lettuce, and spinach and they contain about 250 milligrams of nitrate per 100 gram.
For more information on beetroot juice, go straight to the experts – those being the sports dietitians at the Australian Institute of Sport who have prepared a handy fact sheet http://www.ausport.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0009/466029/Beetroot_juice_Nitrate_11-_website_fact_sheet.pdf 
Confused about the mixed soup of nutrition messages being stirred through the media? Tim maintains an active nutrition blog at www.thinkingnutrition.com.au  where you'll find the latest nutrition research and controversies discussed in straight forward language, distilling out what you need to know for your better health.