Thursday, June 21, 2012

Vegan Doping: Forget Carbo-Loading, Lets Talk Nitrate Loading

By now, I assume you’ve all heard about Lance Armstrong who was recharged with doping last week and is currently suspended from all athletic events including Ironman and is threatened with having his seven Tour De France victories stripped (Armstrong qualified earlier in the season for the Ironman World Championship in Kona.) Rather than going into a rant about if I think he did it or not, the ethics behind doping, how this helps or hurts the sport, or any of the other mumbo-jumbo that is currently trending, I’d rather offer an alternative to people looking to get that extra little push from their training that is not only legal but is also incredibly healthy.

(Side note: Regardless of what he did nearly a decade ago, his performances in recent Ironman competitions have been stunning, and Armstrong credits his new experiments with plant-based veganism for much of his recent ability.) 

Several new studies over the past few years have found that a diet high in beets can actually do amazing things for athletes, including drastically improving performance. In the past I’ve written about how plant-based diets can lower inflammation allowing an increase in training, as well as increased energy and stamina all while decreasing your risk of many lethal diseases. But the power of beets seem to leave even these attributes in the dust.

In 2009 a study found that beet juice has the ability to dramatically lower the muscles need for oxygen. The reason athletes train is to strengthen their heart and lungs. As this happens the body becomes more efficient, delivering more oxygen throughout their system allowing their muscles to perform more work. However, no matter how good of an athlete a person is, once the oxygen reaches the muscles, it does the same amount of work. Superior athletes only advantage is the ability to pump more oxygen to their muscles more quickly and efficiently. This can be compared to a car. A sports car and a normal sedan both use fuel exactly the same, however the sports car will be fast simply because it has a stronger engine which can use the fuel more effectively. However the fuel is doing the same amount of work in both the sports car and the sedan.

At least that is what traditional sports science always told us.

A new study took eight cyclists and measured their oxygen levels while cycling on an indoor trainer. They did the test at several times, including before and after taking placebos, as well as after having consumed two glasses of beet juice for several days. After drinking beet juice for a few days in a row, the cyclists were able to perform the same amount of work with 19% less oxygen. When they were cycling at full pace to exhaustion, they were able to increase their endurance to fatigue by an astounding 16%.

It is worth mentioning that before this experiment, there was no known food, drug, or steroid that could actually increase energy extraction from oxygen.  However, it appears that beet juice made their bodies significantly more efficient.

Why Beets? Well, besides being packed with macro, micro, and phyto-nutrients, beets offer one of the most concentrated sources of nitrates. When compared to berry juice (also packed with goodness, absent the nitrate) performance after beet consumption improved while the berry juice did nothing to affect normal performance. 

This is where it gets a bit complex, so hold on to your hats. After consumption, nitrate is absorbed in our stomachs and then actively pumped back into out mouth through our salivary glands. This is done because our body knows we have special bacteria living on our tongues which takes the nitrates and converts them into nitrites which are then re-swallowed, re-absorbed and finally sent off to the cells in our muscles. Here the nitrites are converted yet again into nitrate-oxide. This nitrate-oxide then helps take the place of oxygen in the muscles, therefore requiring less oxygen to perform more work. Because the nitrate needs to be absorbed by bacteria on the tongue using antiseptic mouthwash or excessive spitting after absorbing the nitrates was found to cancel the benefits.

So if you are preparing for marathon season, have a big cycling event or racing in a triathlon, instead of worrying about carbo-loading before your race, perhaps you should consider a diet high in nitrates, including beets, and dark leafy-greens such as kale, collards and arugula. But be warned, while nitrates found naturally in fruits and vegetables can increase performance, the nitrates added to cure meat (think bacon and hotdogs) are actually highly potent carcinogens that are linked to all types of cancers. This is because instead of turning into nitrate-oxide as they do when nitrates are ingested from beets and dark greens, they convert into nitrosamines. As it turns out, this is because meat is void of vitamin C, which blocks the conversion of nitrates to nitrosamines. As such, the nitrates found in bacon and hotdogs convert into the harmful nitrosamines during the processing stage, making all cured meats harmful regardless of what they are eaten with; while veggies continue to have beneficial affects. As such, perhaps you should consider trading your next BLT for an arugula and beet salad or simply add those ingredients to your smoothies!

(my favorite way to add beets to my diet is by peeling and shredding them)

Besides running a bit faster and a bit longer, beets have other advantages that make them beneficial to everyone’s diet. According to Dr. Mikhail Tombak, a scientist and longevity expert, beets have also been shown to that improve “blood structure and cure diseases of the circulatory system, large intestine, and digestive system." Tombak also says beet juice helps dissolve liver, kidney and bladder stones.

 So what is the take from all of this? Well, athletes will see their performance improve if they ingest a large amount of nitrite-rich foods before they race. Perhaps I am bit of quixotic but I’d like to think Lance was simply benefitting from the power of the beet.

Dr. Greger of has nearly an hour of video lectures on the topic.

These were the most relevant sources considered:
Schorah CJ, Sobala GM, Sanderson M, Collis N, Primrose JN. Gastric juice ascorbic acid: effects of disease and implications for gastric carcinogenesis. Am J Clin Nutr. 1991 Jan;53(1 Suppl):287S-293S.

Webb AJ, Patel N, Loukogeorgakis S, Okorie M, Aboud Z, Misra S, Rashid R, Miall P, Deanfield J, Benjamin N, MacAllister R, Hobbs AJ, Ahluwalia A. Acute blood pressure lowering, vasoprotective, and antiplatelet properties of dietary nitrate via bioconversion to nitrite. Hypertension. 2008 Mar;51(3):784-90. Epub 2008 Feb 4.

Eaton SB, Eaton SB 3rd. Paleolithic vs. modern diets--selected pathophysiological implications. Eur J Nutr. 2000 Apr;39(2):67-70.

Vermeer IT, Moonen EJ, Dallinga JW, Kleinjans JC, van Maanen JM. Effect of ascorbic acid and green tea on endogenous formation of N-nitrosodimethylamine and N-nitrosopiperidine in humans. Mutat Res. 1999 Jul 16;428(1-2):353-61.

Liu CY, Hsu YH, Wu MT, Pan PC, Ho CK, Su L, Xu X, Li Y, Christiani DC; Kaohsiung Leukemia Research Group. Cured meat, vegetables, and bean-curd foods in relation to childhood acute leukemia risk: a population based case-control study. BMC Cancer. 2009 Jan 13;9:15.

Crinnion WJ. Organic foods contain higher levels of certain nutrients, lower levels of pesticides, and may provide health benefits for the consumer. Altern Med Rev. 2010 Apr;15(1):4-12.


  1. As always, I need to clarify that I'm not an RD or a DR. My advice is simply what works for me. Please make sure to check with a doctor before incorporating any new changes in your diet.

  2. I'll be sure to eat more beet products. Thanks for citing your sources.

  3. Wow! This is incredible! I'm not 100% vegan (I allow myself one cheat day each week), but I am definitely going to start eating some beets!

  4. Hi: I'm vegan and I'll be doing my first triathlon tomorrow at age 50. Today is the famous pasta but I do not eat any flour. I love beets and this sounds pretty amazing!!! Should I drink beet juice tonitght or early in the morning?

    1. Hi Margie!
      Congratulations and best of luck on your race! I'm sure you are going to have a great time!

      I like to eat a massive arugula salad with beets and other veggies and topped with beans, rice, and/or potatoes as my pre-race meal. Gives both carbs and nitrates. That said, race nutrition is often very personal. I wouldn't recommend doing something for the first time on race day, however it is something worth experimenting with for future training days and races!

      Best of luck, let me know how it goes!