Beets are all the rage right now, especially for runners. As I started dipping my toe back into marathon training, I wanted to find out why. Is this miracle vegetable really going to make my running that much better?
The research in recent years is convincing. The basic premise is that beets are an excellent source of nitrate, which is shown to decrease blood pressure. Essentially, what a 2013 study by Andy Jones, a professor of applied physiology at the University of Exeter and go-to expert on beets and performance, showed is that the amount of oxygen you need to sustain exercise decreased after consuming beet juice. In other words, it took less energy to run the same pace.
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According to the research, which was performed with cyclists, the athletes were tested about 2.5 hours after ingesting beet juice. The highest dose of juice (four doses), which was in concentrated 70 mL shots, produced the best results—a 3 percent decrease in oxygen consumption.
In an interview with Asker Jeukendrup, a sport nutrition scientist who writes at MySportScience.com, Jones said the evidence is strong that beets have an effect on sport performance.
“I don’t think there’s much doubt that nitrate has physiological effects,” he said. “The evidence for dietary nitrate reducing resting blood pressure, and therefore potentially impacting positively on cardiovascular health, is really robust. The key now is to find out in which populations and sporting events it may be most effective in improving performance.”
A newer study in 2016, led by Lex Verdijk at the Maastricht University in the Netherlands, was conducted on soccer players. The players who drank two concentrated beet shots per day, on average, covered a 3.4 percent greater distance in a series of sprints at progressively faster paces. Their heart rate was also lower than those taking placebo.
Race results aside, we know that beets are good for us. If they make running a little bit easier, all the better. And besides, it’s a well-known fact that Eliud Kipchoge, the Olympic gold medalist and owner of the 2:00:25 marathon from the Breaking 2 experiment, is a beet believer. If it’s good enough for him, I’m willing to give the red root vegetables a try.
Here’s what I experienced during 14 consecutive days of beet consumption.
Yes, bathroom visits can be alarming to the uninitiated beet consumer. I already knew that urine and bowel movements would turn a shade of red that might otherwise have caused me to rush to the emergency room. The pigment, called betanin, turns urine and feces an unusual hue for most people and it can last 48 hours depending on how many beets are consumed. Interestingly though, I discovered that it wasn’t always the case for me. It just depended on how I prepared the beets and how much I ate. A big bowl of beet soup had a bigger, uh, impact, than a bowl of chopped beets with greens. Either way, there’s no cause for panic. Bonus: You’re still getting all the fabulous nutrients like Vitamin C, folate, and potassium.
I felt full, though sometimes bloated. Beets are filling. One cup, which is what I used as one serving, contains 3.8 grams of fiber (about 14 percent of the recommended daily allowance), according the USDA. Most days I combined that serving with other vegetables or fruits, in a smoothie, for example, which kept me satiated far longer than my normal meals. That was a bonus, though to be honest some days it felt like too much. I was bloated and that was uncomfortable, especially while running. The bloat went away after the first few days, though the fullness factor remained, which meant I didn’t do my usual constant grazing throughout the day like I typically do. One smoothie in the morning was enough to power me through until lunch. My recipe of choice was the “Can’t Beet Me” smoothie from Run Fast, Eat Slow, which includes blueberries, coconut water, almond milk, a banana, and almond butter (I also used it as a post-long run recovery drink).
Powdered beet drink mix made me gag. I had access to a variety of different beet products marketed to athletes, so I gave them a whirl. One day when I was pressed for time, I tried a powdered version that was supposed to be mixed with water and consumed 30 to 60 minutes prior to exercise. It wasn’t good. It almost made me vomit, in fact. So, that was the last time I tried a mix. It tasted kind of like chemical beet-flavored cough syrup.
Then I tried a liquid “beet performance supplement,” which is like a shot of beet juice the equivalent of three beets. As advertised, it’s supposed to improve “stamina, oxygen intake, and cardiovascular health,” and should be consumed about an hour before activity. This had a much better taste and went down easier. Was it the jet fuel it promised to be? I would like to think it was, but it’s hard to say for sure, and most of my runs at this early stage in my training felt challenging no matter what. At $5 per 2 ounces, I probably wouldn’t make it a habit either way. In a pinch, however, the shots were a great way to get a serving of beets checked off the to-do list and tasted just fine.
Preparing beets is easier than I had thought. I’m fairly adept in the kitchen, but I had never tackled beets mostly because they looked like a pain in the rear. I was proven wrong. The easiest way to work beets into your diet is to roast a bunch of them at the beginning of the week and then put them in the fridge. All you have to do is preheat the oven to 375°F, cut off the greens, wrap in aluminum foil, put them on a baking sheet, and let them roast for 60 minutes.
Okay, so peeling them is slightly annoying and your hands definitely turn bright red, but it’s easily washed off, and you only have to go through this chore once a week. Chop the beets as needed for the next five days. I found that when I had them already prepared, I could just throw them on a salad or mix with balsamic and sprinkle with goat cheese whenever I needed another serving.
Forcing beets upon myself upped my overall nutrition game. Although well-meaning friends sent me recipes for a dessert or two that used beets as an ingredient (red velvet brownies, anyone?!), I didn’t try them. Coming off a couple months of an unusually low activity level, I’ve been making a conscious effort to limit the sweets and get my fitness back. What I noticed, however, is that the challenge of incorporating beets into my meals increased the overall nutritional value of meal planning.
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My favorite source of dinner recipes came from my good friend Christina Bauer’s blog called Feeding the Frenzy. She happens to be married to ultrarunner extraordinaire Rob Krar and they are vegetarians—and Bauer is an incredible cook. For my final dinner of the two-week challenge, I made her beet borscht, which is packed with vegetables. Top it with a little sour cream, pair it with some crusty bread, and it’s filling enough to be a meal all on its own.
I got creative. A beet cocktail? Don’t mind if I do. Just because I skipped the brownies doesn’t mean I didn’t indulge—beets are fun like that. Case in point: I’m a big believer in Friday happy hour. At the end of my first week of beet consumption, I found myself on an impromptu girls’ night out with two of my BFFs. I realized that I needed to eat some beets to finish off the day.
It was then that “the Beeting” came into my life, which is a cocktail offered at the McMillan, a downtown Flagstaff joint. (Side note: It’s fun to tell your server, “I’ll take a Beeting.”) This adult beverage combines a roasted beet puree, gin, St. Germain, ginger syrup, and fresh lemon muddled with cucumber and basil. It’s beautiful. Did it count as a full serving of beets? I guess that depends on how many you order (I limited myself to one—there was a long run to contend with in the morning, and besides, I doubt this is how Kipchoge consumes his beets).
The first two weeks of marathon training went better than I’d imagined. After a prolonged period away from running due to work deadlines, travel, and other assorted life circumstances, I was understandably worried about how I’d feel ramping up mileage and intensity in my training. While workouts are still a struggle, I can get those long runs done without too much pain. Are the beets the reason why? I doubt they are the sole reason, but they certainly don’t hurt. After a year of catching every flu and cold going around, I’ve remained healthy for a month and I can’t help but think my cleaner diet—anchored by beets—is to thank.