There are no magic pills or shortcuts when it comes to cycling performance. But every now and then a new discovery is made that appears too tempting to be ignored. Beetroot juice is the perfect example. It became a popular food even amongst the pros after the initial research showed promising results. But does it really have any value beyond being a healthy vegetable? And do the supposed performance benefits apply also to amateurs?
How does it work?
“Nitric oxide helps with the dilation of small blood vessels, which improves oxygen transport around the body to fuel the muscles. It also helps to lower blood pressure, which is good for general wellbeing even if you’re not an elite cyclist,” says Nigel Mitchell, head of nutrition at Cannondale-Drapac pro-cycling. Beetroot is one of the best sources of nitrates, compounds that are broken down by saliva to form nitric oxide in the body. That’s why scientists started looking into potential uses for beetroot as a natural performance enhancer.
Early studies show promise on short distances
The first studies on nitrate supplementation measured the body’s use of oxygen and showed that beetroot juice lowered the amount of oxygen required to do the same set amount of exercise. The thing is, they were done on untrained athletes doing controlled exercises that had very little to do with any actual sport. But even this was enough to make beetroot exciting.
Doesn't matter how often it happens, taking a pee the day after drinking beetroot juice will always freak you out!! #pissingrainbows
— Mark Cavendish (@MarkCavendish) January 13, 2012
A couple years later, researchers gave trained cyclists a dose of beetroot juice three hours before 4km and 16km time trials. In both cases performance improved by around 2.7% compared to placebo. The study showed that participants were able to maintain a higher power output for the same amount of oxygen consumed. These are promising results but still not applicable for long road races.
Mixed results on long distances
Latest research that focused on long distance cycling and elite level athletes showed mixed results. On average, no significant improvements in performance were observed between the beetroot juice and placebo groups. Yet on the individual level, some participants did improve noticeably while others not at all. It might be the case that some highly trained athletes already have a high blood nitrite level without supplementation due to their body adapting to hard training. For these athletes, a single dose might not be enough and they may need up to a week of drinking beetroot juice every day or using more potent forms of nitrate supplementation to shift blood nitrite levels and see any results.
It’s worth a try
It seems that beetroot juice consumption before a ride can slightly improve your times. The problem is, the effects vary a lot among individuals. But the good news is, the less trained you are, the better the chance you might see results. Conversely, the closer you’re to the elite level, the longer you’ll need to supplement. If you measure your performance regularly, it’s worth trying to experiment with it. The next article will be all about how much and when to consume beetroot.