Olympic athletes turn to beet juice to enhance performance

Sheryl Nadler
Shine On

A number of Canadian athletes may be seeing red these days and it has everything to do with their diet.

In a recent blog on Huffington Post, Canadian cross-country skier Sheila Kealey reveals that a few of her teammates have been experimenting with a not-so-secret addition to their diet — beet juice. Elite athletes worldwide have been incorporating small amounts of beet juice into their training diets.

Why? Several small studies have shown that "beet juice allows your muscles to perform the same amount of work while using less oxygen, somehow making your body's energy production more efficient," writes Kealey. Improved performances have been seen in runners, cyclists, trained divers and well-trained rowers, she adds.

Also see: Raisins just as effective as sports chews for workouts

But Trionne Moore, lead nutritionist with the Canadian Sport Centre in Ontario, cautions that research into the benefits of beet juice is still very new. There are still a lot of questions surrounding its benefits and whether those benefits extend to everyone.

"The summary of the research shows that advanced athletes [exercising] from 7-20 minutes show benefits. But that's when they're exercising at their optimum," she says.

Moore says that certain types of athletes -- those who require taking in oxygen quickly, like swimmers, runners, and cyclists -- can benefit from beet juice.

"But if you're in the gym doing weights and short bursts of high intensity exercise, it may not be applicable. There hasn't been any research to show that it is applicable to that kind of exercise."

So what is it about beets that can be so beneficial to certain athletes? Apparently, it's because they are so high in nitrates. Kealey explains that when nitrates — which are also found in green, leafy vegetables — convert into nitrite, some of that is converted into nitric oxide, which has been shown to allow more oxygen to reach the muscles, lower high blood pressure and improve blood flow.

Also see: How you can train like an Olympian

But nitrates? Really? This may come as a surprise to many of us who have been avoiding nitrates due to their association with certain cancers.

Moore explains that when nitrates are found in natural foods like beets or leafy greens, they are accompanied by other nutrients that help to offset any negative effects. However nitrates found in processed foods, without the benefit of additional protective nutrients, are a different story altogether.

"When nature packages a so-called bad substance, it always accompanies it with stuff that leads to better health or helps to offset it," she says.

Moore says she does recommend beet root juice for some elite athletes. But will it help the average Canadian to run better? The jury's still out on that one, she says.

"You know when you're jogging, but you can still talk?" she asks. "There doesn't appear to be a benefit there. It's basically when you can't talk, you're breathing really hard and you're feeling the burn — that's where it appears to kick in and be most useful."

Watch the video below about how Chinese Olympic swimmer Ye Shiwen outpaces even the fastest male.