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Up until now, the research on the benefits of beets and beet juice for athletes and athletic performance have centered around the nitrates in this root vegetable. These nitrates have been identified as being responsible for boosting blood circulation and increasing the transportation of oxygen to the muscles. In fact it was rumored that up to 90 percent of the athletes at the 2012 London Olympics were legally supplementing their diets with beet juice!
But now the news about beets just got better — and it still involves the same nitrates. At the University of Exeter, researchers discovered yet one more reason why athletes should eat beets. It turns out that the boost of oxygen sent to the brain may also allow athletes who are engaged in prolonged exercise (endurance athletes) to make smarter decisions and react more rapidly late in the game. That is, beets may help keep a tired brain sharp during the last quarter of a football game or the final 10 miles of a 100-mile bike ride.
The researchers reached this conclusion after they evaluated 16 male team-sport athletes who participated in two sessions on a stationary bike. Each session consisted of intermittent sprints along with active and passive recovery times. During the active recovery periods, the athletes were asked to complete a variety of cognitive tests designed to measure their response time and accuracy.
The difference between the two sessions was in the preparation: before one session, the participants consumed two shots of nitrate-rich beet juice daily for seven days and took a double shot 2.5 hours before they started cycling. For the other session, they followed the same preparation except the beet juice had had all the nitrates removed.
Not only did the athletes achieve 3.5 percent more work when they consumed the nitrate-rich beet juice compared with the placebo; they also “were able to make the same decisions, only faster,” according to the study’s lead author, Chris Thompson.
Why? Thompson explained that the nitrate-rich beet juice may ward off the decline in cognitive performance that can occur during prolonged intense exercise by delivering essential oxygen to decision-making areas of the brain.
This latest study not only supports but expands upon why smart athletes should eat beets. But perhaps it would be more accurate to say that anyone wanting to boost endurance and sharpen their mind should drink beet juice or take supplements containing beet extract. Thompson pointed out that although eating beets could be just as beneficial as drinking the juice, it may be more convenient to stick to beet juices that have a known concentration of nitrates.
However, that doesn’t mean you should forego the many delicious ways to enjoy beets. Feel free to eat your beets and continue to eat other vegetables rich in nitrates, such as spinach, green beans, carrots, cabbage, collard greens, and radishes because of their positive effect on cardiovascular and overall health.
Thompson KG et al. Influence of dietary nitrate supplementation on physiological and cognitive responses to incremental cycle exercise. Respiratory Physiology and Neurobiology 2014 Mar 1; 193:11-20