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Can eating beetroot help you run faster?

Are you looking for a quick pick-me-up? Whatever your level of health and fitness, beetroot could be the answer. New science is revealing just how and why this colourful vegetable could benefit your body, brain, and even help you run faster.

Mounting evidence suggests that simply getting more beetroot into your diet really could improve your cognition, your heart health, and act as a natural performance enhancer. Dr Michael Mosley investigates in the new series of Just One Thing.

The benefits of beetroot

Beetroot was thought to have health promoting properties as far back as Ancient Greece, so we’ve known beetroot is good for the body for a long time. But now, a vast body of research is starting to unravel the surprising benefits of this earthy vegetable. So, why is it so good for you?

The secret ingredient

One of the powers of beetroot is that it is incredibly rich in nitrates. Eat some beetroot, and something remarkable happens: the bacteria that live in your mouth kick start the transformation of the nitrates into nitric oxide, a powerful molecule with many effects around the body.

Heart beets

A daily dose of beetroot juice can have a significant effect on blood pressure! One study found that just a few weeks of munching a couple of beets a day led to a fall in average blood pressure of about 5 millimetres of mercury, if maintained, this is enough to reduce the risk of stroke and heart attack by 10% . Studies have also found that beetroot can have an effect on blood pressure within a few hours of intake .

Nitric oxide can increase the size of your blood vessels so blood flows through more easily. This is one of the reasons why eating beetroot can reduce blood pressure. It could also help explain why beetroot juice can be beneficial for your brain!

Drop the beet for your brain

Beetroot can increase blood flow to crucial areas in your brain. One study found that pairing beetroot juice with exercise could increase connectivity in areas in the brain that control your movement. They found that those who exercised and drank beetroot juice displayed active motor brain networks which more closely resembled those of younger adults. So, drinking beetroot juice really may help keep your brain younger.

Beetroot & your (micro)biome

Research has also revealed that drinking beetroot juice twice daily for just ten days can change the mix of oral bacteria for the better. Amazingly, the volunteers who drank beetroot had a boost to bacteria linked to good vascular and cognitive health. They also had reduced levels of bacteria associated with disease and inflammation .

Boosting healthy populations of oral bacteria may help combat the drop in your body’s ability to produce nitric oxide as you get older and pave the way to better long term health.

Recent studies are also stacking up on how this humble vegetable could help you run faster…

Beet your personal best

Prof Andy Jones, Professor of Applied Physiology from the University of Exeter who has spent over 10 years investigating the effects of beetroot on sport performance explains how the nitrates in the beetroot improve the blood flow to our lungs and muscles, resulting in a faster delivery of oxygen. “There's the potential for the muscle to be receiving more oxygen and to distribute that oxygen within itself more effectively because of the effects of nitric oxide”, he says. Not only this, they help you make more efficient use of oxygen during exercise, so you can work harder, without feeling the strain.

The results are remarkable. Eating beetroot has been shown to have significant effects on speed and perceived exertion. In one study, during the last 1.8k, the runners who’d had beetroot ran a potential race-winning 5% faster .

How much should I be eating?

Prof Jones advised that two-three medium beetroots, or a shot of beetroot juice, is all you need to see positive effects. Getting about 6 to 10 millimoles of nitrate a day is what's important. He advises keeping a steady intake of nitrates every day and every week for long term benefit.

In one study, during the last 1.8k, the runners who’d had beetroot ran a potential race-winning 5% faster

The precious nitrates are water-soluble though, so be careful when boiling beets. Boiling your beets will allow nitrates to leach out into the cooking liquid, so you won’t get as many benefits.

Much of the beetroot we buy is vacuum-packed: some brands pre-boil and others don’t. Pickled beetroot tends to be pre-boiled, so the nitrate content will likely be too low to get all the good stuff.

So if you really want to get the most out of this vegetable it might be best to buy it raw and bake it, or drink the juice! It’s a small change that really could have some unbeetable effects!