'Legal blood doping': a juice to help beet your best
The natural ingredient that spurred on Olympic athletes is thought to have wider health benefits. Glenda Cooper reports from London.
By Glenda Cooper
The Daily Telegraph, London
Sydney Morning Herald
Date September 18, 2012
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Power source ... the beetroot. Photo: Sahlan Hayes
British athlete David Weir's haul of four Paralympic gold medals was powered by a secret ingredient that is completely legal, scientifically proven to improve sporting performance, and has even been referred to as "legal blood doping". What could this revolutionary aid be? Beta vulgaris - the simple beetroot.
Weir's admission that he gulped down a slug of the plant's juice during the marathon - rugby player Ben Foden and marathon runner Helen Davies are also fans - follows studies that suggest the "super root" can help more average athletes, too.
Rich in potassium, antioxidants and folic acid, beetroot was found to lower blood pressure back in 2008, by scientists at Barts and the London School of Medicine. In 2009, a University of Exeter study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology found that drinking 500ml of beetroot juice before exercise improved stamina. A second Exeter study last year found that cyclists could shave seconds off their time - similar benefits were found for runners in a US study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in April.
"Legal doping" ... beetroot juice.
The reason for beetroot's winning ways, says Professor Andy Jones, from the sport and health sciences department at Exeter, is nitrate, a nutrient found in soil that helps build protein. This converts into nitrite in the body and then into nitric oxide, which has a "double whammy" effect: it widens blood vessels, increasing blood flow; and it reduces the oxygen needed by muscles, enabling them to work more efficiently.
"We found this works most effectively in high-intensity exercise, typically races that last up to 30 minutes," says Prof Jones (who tweets under the name @AndyBeetroot). He says your average runner might feel the benefits of beetroot more than elite athletes whose muscles are already efficient.
However, those eager to achieve a new personal best would need to eat four or five beetroot to make a difference. Pickled or boiled beetroot is of limited value, unless you drink the water it is boiled in. A similar problem exists with supplements, with eight to 10 capsules needed daily.
Which is why experts say the best way to get the benefits is to drink the juice. "Shots" containing 7cl of concentrated juice, and 0.4g of nitrate, have been developed as a sports drink and for use in studies, by the James White drinks company in Ipswich. Managing director Lawrence Mallinson, who supplied shots to Team GB, says that beetroot juice now accounts for half of the firm's £5 million ($7.75 million) turnover.
You would need to drink about 500ml (half a litre) of ordinary strength juice to get the same nitrate levels. Consuming this amount of beetroot juice has no side-effects, says Prof Jones - other than turning your urine pink.
The benefits may go beyond track and field, according to Ben Benjamin, professor of medicine at Torbay Hospital. He says that, though more research is needed, 500ml of ordinary-strength juice daily could mean that frail, elderly people could get out of a chair without feeling breathless, or walk upstairs by themselves.
Prof Jones agrees: "This is one of the sports nutrition stories of the decade. It transcends performance - we can use it to improve health."