By Fritz Lenneman
Want to run faster? Try borscht. Or maybe a nice roasted beet salad?
A study by researchers at Saint Louis University, published in the April 2012 issue of the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, shows that eating cooked beets "acutely improves running performance." The key, the study says, is nitrate.
You may be more familiar with sodium nitrate, which when used as a curing agent for meats such as sausage, bacon and hot dogs, is converted to sodium nitrite. While there have been some concerns about the effects of sodium nitrite on the human body, epidemiological investigations and human toxicological studies have not shown a relationship between nitrate intake and the risk of cancer. Actually, more than 70 percent of the nitrate an average person consumes comes from vegetables such as cauliflower, spinach, collard greens, broccoli, and root vegetables such as beets.
For the study, the researchers tested 11 "moderately fit" runners as they ran a pair of 5-kilometer races on a treadmill. Before one race, they gave volunteers a placebo; before the other, they gave them a 200-gram (7-ounce) serving of baked beets (which contains approximately 500 milligrams of nitrates).
The results? After eating beets, the runners went an average of 3 percent faster and shaved 41 seconds off their times. And their biggest speed gains came over the final 1.1 miles of the race. According to the study, 200 grams baked beetroot, or an equivalent nitrate dose from other vegetables, should be consumed 60 minutes before exercise.
What to Eat and When
While eating specific foods like beets before a run could help boost performance, according to Academy of Nutrition and Dietetic spokesperson Joy Dubost, PhD, RD, CSSD, nutrition is something athletes should consider all day long.
Dubost says to consider when you'll exercise when choosing meals. Before a morning workout, for instance, she says to eat a light breakfast or small snack like cereal with low fat milk, whole grain toast with peanut butter, eggs with 100 percent fruit juice, or fruit with low-fat yogurt.
If you prefer to run later in the day, Dubost suggests start the morning with a carbohydrate-laden breakfast (cereal, whole grain bagels, or yogurt and fruit); have a light, balanced lunch (sandwich with cheese and turkey or other lean meats, or whole grain pasta with vegetables); a dinner with lean protein (such as grilled skinless chicken breast, brown rice or baked potato, and steamed veggies); and a filling snack (a hardboiled egg with slice of whole grain toast and peanut butter; low fat cheese with whole grain crackers).
While the middle of a long distance run is obviously not the time for a four-course meal, getting some hydration and carbohydrates during a grueling session can help you push through. "Current research supports the benefit of carbohydrate consumption in amounts typically found in a sports drink for events lasting 1 hour or longer," Dubost says. However, if you are exercising for less than an hour, water is probably all you need. "Prevent dehydration by taking adequate fluids early in the event," Dubost says. "Drink before you become thirsty."
After you've crossed the finish line, a good mix of protein and carbohydrates can make all the difference in how your muscles recover and prepare for the next big event. Dubost says good options for post-run snacks include: peanut butter and jelly on whole grain crackers or bread; yogurt with raisins; or a fruit smoothie. Or, get in touch with your inner child and have a glass of low fat chocolate milk. "A growing body of scientific research has identified chocolate milk as an effective workout recovery option," Dubost says. "Milk provides fluid and minerals for rehydration, casein and whey proteins to support body protein synthesis, and a lower glycemic carbohydrate called lactose. The chocolate provides a more pleasing, palatable flavor and does provide some extra carbohydrates."
Reviewed April 2013
Fritz Lenneman is a web editor for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.