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Beetroot - the Sporty Superfood

Over the last decade beetroot has gained popularity amongst the sports community for its ability to enhance performance, sitting in the category of foods and supplements known as (legal) ergogenic aids. Simply put an ergogenic aid is anything that gives you a mental or physical edge whilst training or competing.

So how does this simple vegetable affect performance, and what benefits can it bring to the non-sporting population?

Dietary Nitrate

The main benefit of beetroot that everyone gets so excited about is its high concentration of nitrate. When eaten (or drunk as a juice), bacteria in the mouth convert this nitrate to nitrite. Once it gets in the gut, this nitrite gets converted into nitric oxide, which is then absorbed into the blood stream.

What does Nitric Oxide do?

Nitric oxide is a vasodilator. This means that it widens blood vessels to allow greater flow of blood and oxygen in the body. Nitric oxide can also enhance the efficiency of our mitochondria, which are the energy producers of our cells.

These actions help to provide more efficient energy production, especially for endurance sports. Good news for runners, swimmers and cyclists!

High intensity, power and strength-based sports benefit from nitric oxide too. The blood vessel widening effect of vasodilation can boost blood flow to muscles - specifically to type 2 muscle fibres (these are the fast twitch ones used in power based activities) – and can improve muscle contractility in fatigued muscle.

It’s not just muscles that benefit either – it’s been suggested that increased blood supply to the brain can improve reaction times and memory. Perfect for team, racket and combat sports!

As with all other ergogenic supplements, this really should be seen as the final level of nutrition support to reap the benefits. Correcting imbalances and nutritional deficiencies is the foundation of functional sports nutrition. In other words, look at it as an added bonus once everything else is flowing smoothly.

What About the Non Sports Benefits?

Reducing blood pressure is another benefit of beetroot that has been well studied. Vasodilation from nitric oxide causes blood pressure to fall as the blood vessels widen. One collection of studies found that drinking beetroot juice each day had significant effects in lowering blood pressure amongst participants with clinically high blood pressure.

Similar studies have shown that as little as 250ml juice each day can bring about these effects.

Why Beetroot and not just Nitric Oxide Supplements?

You can buy nitric oxide supplements, but beetroot is a natural food source of nitrates that contains other nutritional benefits too. Beetroot is a great source of folate* and manganese as well as potassium (which in itself can help to lower blood pressure) as well as other beneficial antioxidants.

*Important to note here is that the folate in beetroot is the naturally-occurring form of vitamin B9. Folic acid is the synthetic form, often added to processed foods or used in supplements. Not everyone can process folic acid into its active form in the body…

How Much Should I Eat/Drink?

Beetroot is a good vegetable to include as one of your 7 a day and definitely a colourful option as part of your vegetable and fruit variety (aiming for 20-30 different types a week).

You can buy beetroot pre-cooked, ready to chop up in salads…

Or buy it raw and use as an ingredient for vegetable soups.

Powdered beetroot can be an easy addition to smoothies too.

How Do I use it as a Supplement for Sports?

Although studies vary in the exact amount of beetroot and nitrate to best enhance performance, the general consensus, (and according to Beet-It) is at least 400mg nitrate daily, starting 6 days prior to competition and training – with the final dose consumed 1-3 hours before the main event.

This time span allows for the greatest conversion from nitrate to nitric oxide. If you are involved in a long duration event, 4 hours or over, you could even top up with another 400mg dose half way through.

Rather than munching on a load of vegetables just a few hours before training or competing, drinking beetroot juice is a much better option. However, to avoid drinking large amounts of liquid before performing, concentrated doses have become much more popular. In addition to convenience, it’s an easy way to check for nitrate content, as many shots will state their nitrate levels.

NB. If you’re not used to eating/drinking beetroot, please be aware that it may turn your pee pink -this is normal!

Try it out for your next training session, or if you’re not already eating beetroot in your diet – give it a go!

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