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Why Endurance Athletes All Swear By Beet Juice

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Athletes at the London Olympics drank it for peak performance, U.S. marathoner Ryan Hall downs a glass to improve his run time, even Auburn’s football team swears by the red stuff for a pre-game elixir. We’re talking about beetroot juice, and science supports it, too: Past studies have shown that the juice can help cut minutes off your run time, improve your tolerance against high-intensity exercise and improve blood and oxygen flow in their muscles. However, new research from Pennsylvania State University contradicts these findings, reporting that beet juice in fact does not increase blood flow, which begs the question...

Is Beet Juice Really the Powerhouse Athletes Believe?
“I use beet juice in my practice and I have athlete clients who swear by it. They see it’s effective at improving their performance,” says noted sports nutritionist Barbara Lewin, R.D., founder of Sports-nutritionist.com who works with elite and Olympic athletes. (What else do pro athletes eat? These 5 Olympic Recipes to Fuel Your Workout.)

The idea is this: Beetroot juice is packed with nitrates, which your body converts to nitric oxide, a molecule that enhances blood vessel dilation, increasing your blood flow capacity and lowering the amount of oxygen your muscles need. “You’re able to use oxygen more efficiently, so the idea is athletes have more power, are able to run faster, and are able to move more efficiently,” Lewin explains.

But in the new Penn State study, participants who drank beetroot juice and then performed forearm exercises did not see a rise in blood flow to their muscles or a widening of their vessels. This is the first study to directly measure the effect of dietary nitrate on blood flow in active muscles, but in order to make very accurate measurements, researchers only looked at a highly specific set of conditions: The study was done on younger males, and only involved a small range of forearm exercises.

“The younger you are, the healthier your vascular function. As you age, your blood vessels aren’t as pliable or healthy, so the effect on a 20-year-old isn’t the same as on a 30- or 40-year-old,” Lewin explains.

And the limited exercises of the study aren’t what people tout the root juice for: “It’s not like they’re looking at cyclists or runners,” Lewin adds. In fact, the study authors contend this themselves: It’s possible that any blood flow enhancement from the dietary nitrate would only be apparent at a higher intensity or fatiguing exercises—conditions within the muscle that favor the conversion of nitrite to nitric oxide, said lead study author David Proctor, professor of kinesiology and physiology at Penn State.

And the study did find other benefits: Juice-drinking participants had reduced “pulse wave velocity,” a reflection of the artery walls “de-stiffening.” This could potentially help reduce the workload necessary for the heart to pump blood, which is especially beneficial for highly-strained hearts like those in people with cardiovascular disease, Proctor adds.

So, should you or shouldn't you add beetroot juice to your diet?

Is It Worth It?
If this study doesn’t actually disprove previous research, should you stock up on beet juice before your next race? (For a different type of boost, try The Best Running Tips of All Time.)

"I think there is consistency when it comes to the benefits of beetroot juice, and I do see a difference in my athletes who drink it,” Lewin says. “However, it isn’t going to be as beneficial for amateur athletes.”

Beetroot juice can improve your time: Runners who loaded up on the red stuff before a 5K shaved 1.5 percent off their time, in a study in the European Journal of Applied Physiology. Cyclists who drank just over two cups of beetroot juice before a time trial were almost 3 percent faster and produced more power with each pedal stroke than when they rode, according to a series of U.K. studies

While cutting any time off your PR is great, they only saved themselves about 20 to 30 seconds. While that doesn't matter for amateur athletes, "a difference in seconds can mean the difference between a silver or gold medal for an Olympian,” Lewin adds. (Check out these 20 Iconic Sports Moments Featuring Female Athletes.)

And then there’s the variability of the beets themselves: You can have beets from five different farms and they’re all going to have different nutrient profiles, which means the beets you’re juicing may be more or less effective than the beets your friend has. And fresh beet juice and bottled beet juice will obviously have different nutrient levels, too.

So should you skip it? Not necessarily: Even if you’re not an Olympian, there’s no harm to incorporating beet juice into your diet. “The gains aren’t as big for amateur athletes, but the nutrients certainly won’t hurt, especially since beets have a lot of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties,” Lewin adds. And not just for runners: Your improved oxygen flow means your high-intensity strength workouts may benefit as well as your runs (like these 10 New Fat-Blasting Tabata Workouts).

How Much Will Help
Nitrate levels benefit from a loading dose, so start to build up your levels a few days out from a big fitness event. “Most of my athletes take in six to eight ounces three to four days before an event,” Lewin says, adding you can mix it with apple juice to better the taste.

But if you’re really looking to supercharge your run, you should really focus on the rest of your diet, Lewin says. “We tend to look at easy fixes, and there are a lot of other things that will be more beneficial for amateur athletes than just beet juice,” she adds. Making sure you’re getting adequate nutrients and eating right are the first steps. (Try these 10 Juices and Smoothies We Love.) Then, on top of a really good nutritional program, you may be able to see benefits from the beet juice. Beet juice may make you faster, but not fast enough to bypass the basic steps.

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