There’s nothing quite like a tall, cold glass of beet juice to get you pumped for your next workout, amiright?
No? I get it. Beet juice isn’t exactly the first item on my list of things to drink before heading to the gym, either, but a growing body of research indicates it might be exactly the thing to make your sweat sesh feel a little bit easier while you push yourself a little harder.
But before you make a mad dash to Amazon to put a case of the stuff on your Prime account, you might want to slow your roll. I’m a natural skeptic, and whenever a “miracle cure” gets featured on The Dr. Oz Show and new brands start popping up all over the place to peddle their wares, alarm bells start going off in my head.
The case for beet juice
Don’t get me wrong. I’m certainly not going to tell you not to eat beets. Beets are good for you. They’re a vegetable for goodness sake. Who couldn’t stand to eat a few more veggies?
As I’ve mentioned, the current research regarding beets’ athletic performance benefits is certainly interesting. For instance, a small study published in the American Journal of Physiology in September 2015 found that chronic use of beetroot juice (taking it for two weeks) prior to cardiovascular exercise enhanced oxygen delivery to working muscles while reducing the strain on the heart during activity. The result was reduced time to fatigue that made it possible for study participants to exercise longer at a predetermined workload.
The running theory is that beets, like many leafy green vegetables, have a high nitrate content. These nitrates are converted to nitrites in the body, which are ultimately converted to nitric acid. Erick Avila, the owner of Ergogenic Health, explains: “Nitric oxide has a vasodilating effect. Vasodilation opens up our blood vessels, facilitating the transport of oxygen to our muscles. The more oxygen we have transported to our muscles, the longer we’re able to exercise (and at a higher intensity as well).”
All sounds pretty perfect, right?
Yet this study, just like the supplement companies peddling their juices, doesn’t exactly tell the full story.
Proceed with eyes wide open
After doing a little extra digging, I unearthed a few more studies on beets and beetroot juice, and their results are worth mentioning. For instance, another 2015 study, published in the International Journal of Exercise Science, found that during moderate-intensity exercise, beetroot juice did not affect the volume of oxygen intake or work performed, even though it did lower systolic blood pressure and oxygen consumption. All that really means is beets had an effect on study participants, but not one that resulted in improved athletic performance. So, uh, yeah…
In fact, the researchers postulated at the end of their abstract, “Since the effect of beetroot juice on oxygen consumption is small… it is unlikely to have a notable effect on daily training.”
Also worth noting is a 2012 study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics that found eating whole, baked beetroot before exercise made endurance exercise feel easier to participants. Which is a good thing, for sure… if you can stomach eating baked beetroot before you work out.
So what’s the deal: Is beetroot juice a yay or nay?
Beets and beetroot juice aren’t going to hurt you, so if you’re looking for an edge during your workout, drinking about one to two cups roughly an hour before you hit the gym is certainly worth a shot. And if you’re going to do it, your best bet, according to Avila, is to find a concentrated juice usually available at health food stores and some grocery chains.
That said, there’s no reason to lay out big bucks for premade juices touting somewhat unsubstantiated benefits. If you like beets, just buy the whole variety at your local store and incorporate them into your normal diet. Or if you’d like, make your own beet juice at home.
If, however, the thought of eating or drinking beets before your workout sounds like a special sort of hell, there’s no need to fall on that sword. The potential benefits of beetroot juice appear to be moderate and are most likely seen in specific demographics — namely, those on either end of the health spectrum, such as highly trained athletes or individuals with markers of heart disease. If you’re exercising simply to stay healthy and enjoy life, the boost you may or may not receive from drinking beet juice probably isn’t worth it.
Finally, remember how I mentioned that leafy green vegetables are also a source of dietary nitrate? Eating leafy greens will have a similar effect on nitric oxide levels in your body, which, presumably, would facilitate similar results. If beets are a no-go but you like romaine lettuce and spinach, go ahead and whip up a big salad or a green smoothie. Your body will thank you regardless of whether your workout feels easier.