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Beets take a beating from elites, still useful for most

Beets are high in nitrates which increase oxygen uptake.
Beets are high in nitrates which increase oxygen uptake.

Most elite runners have stopped drinking beetroot juice, but that doesn’t mean that everyone else can’t get in on the performance enhancing veggie.

In early 2009 studies began showing up about the incredible effects that beetroot juice and adding beets to your diet can have on endurance sports. The original study done at the University of Exeter found that drinking beetroot juice could help athletes exercise up to 16 per cent longer, as a result of the nitrate in beets.

Elite athletes began clearing the grocery stores of the juice and guzzling it back before races.

Then recent studies found that the juice may not be so useful for high-level athletes, but can still be beneficial to the general population.

Kyle Boorsma, who recently defended his thesis on the effects of beetroot juice on elite distance runners, explains what was discovered when they looked more deeply into the effectiveness of what some have called “beet doping.”

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“We decided to go ahead [with the study] and thought ‘Yeah, this is going to work. It’s going to be great.’ Then some more recent research came out that tested it in well trained individuals and it was not showing as great of an effect, if any, in the well trained and the elites, compared to the recreationally active,” said Boorsma.

The University of Guelph grad is himself an elite 1500m runner with a PB of 3:39 and was one of the athletes drinking the juice after the original studies, along with many of his Speed River Track Club teammates, including marathoners Reid Coolsaet and Eric Gillis. His study tested the performances of high-level 1500m athletes with and without the beetroot juice.

“We tested both acutely, meaning just beetroot juice, the day of the 1500m time trials, and chronically, meaning beetroot juice supplements for seven days leading up to the 1500m time trial,” said Boorsma. “In both cases we didn’t see an improvement in running performance.”

Still, the juice seems to be very useful for recreationally active athletes, which Boorsma describes as someone who is active on a regular basis, but not training at a high level for any specific event or competitive sport. The reason why the benefits diminish as athletes get better is unclear, but there are suggestions as to why.

“In well trained people we know that through training you already have optimized blood flow and oxygen delivery. That’s an adaptation just from going out and training every day, so these people who are well trained don’t stand to gain anything from taking beetroot juice because their blood flow and oxygen delivery is already at its optimal levels,” explains Boorsma. “But it could be any number of things. That’s just an idea that has been put forward.”

Anyone who wanted to add beets to their diet could do it in any number of ways, the simplest being adding one or two medium-sized beets to a meal occasionally. You can also pick up beetroot juice at most grocery stores.

To get the best performance benefit from the nitrates in the beets, they should be consumed about two hours before exercise or performances, but just adding them to your diet is still helpful.