I went through a meathead phase between the ages of 17 and 25. Having burned out on running, I threw myself into weightlifting, repeating the same four-day workout cycle over and over and over again with almost no variation. Predictably, I gained a lot of strength and muscle mass initially, then plateaued. Naïvely, I kept expecting another breakthrough to happen despite the static nature of my routine, but of course it never did.
That is, until creatine came around. Intrigued by the hype that surrounded the supplement’s arrival on the market in the late 1990s, I started taking it, hopeful but not expectant. Almost immediately I became stronger than I’d ever been. There was no doubt in my mind that the stuff worked. A controlled study my situation was not, but in an informal way, it was actually pretty darn close because creatine was the only change from before.
Sports supplements that not only work but are so effectively that an athlete can feel and measure the difference they make, are exceedingly rare. More common are supplements that provide a tiny little boost that an athlete couldn’t possibly confirm experientially—you just have to trust the research. More common still are supplements that show some promise in early research but are ultimately determined to be ineffective.
To the best of my knowledge, there is no creatine equivalent for endurance athletes. I’ve tried various candidates over the years without finding any that I believed in enough to continue using. But a new study has inspired me to go back on one of these: beetroot juice.
I first tried beetroot juice supplementation several years ago after reading about studies demonstrating a positive effect on endurance performance that is mediated by the juice’s high concentration of dietary nitrates, which are known to dilate blood vessels and increase blood flow. Although I never felt a beneficial impact of beetroot juice on my own performance, that’s not why I stopped supplementing. The effect size of the performance boost seen in experiments was small enough that I didn’t expect to notice whatever boost I might be getting. Rather, the reason I stopped was that subsequent research indicated that beetroot juice supplementation was effective only in individuals with low fitness levels and in hypoxic (low-oxygen) conditions.
The new study, led by Torben Rokkedal-Lausch of Aalborg University in Denmark, looked at the effects of chronic high-dose beetroot juice supplementation on performance in well-trained athletes in both hypoxic and normoxic conditions. The subjects of the experiment were 12 male cyclists with an average VO2max of 66.4 ml/min/kg. They performed simulated 10 km cycling time trials in four separate conditions: while breathing normal air after seven days of beetroot juice supplementation, while breathing deoxygenated air after seven days of beetroot juice supplementation, while breathing normal air after seven days of placebo supplementation, and while breathing deoxygenated air after seven days of placebo supplementation. Average power output after beetroot juice supplementation was about 5 watts higher in both normoxic and hypoxic conditions. The authors concluded, “Our results provide new evidence that chronic high-dose [nitrate] supplementation improves cycling performance of well-trained cyclists in both normoxia and hypoxia.”
I don’t consider this study to constitute conclusive proof that beetroot juice supplementation will enhance my own performance, but it’s enough to have inspired me to take a small leap of faith and resume the practice. Conveniently, I found a mostly full canister of powdered beetroot extract in a kitchen cupboard at home. I mix it with tart cherry juice because, well, that’s a story for another time. In a few days I will repeat the functional threshold cycling test that I do every few weeks. Of course, any improvement I achieve therein cannot automatically be attributed to supplementation, for the simple reason that, in contrast to my meathead phase, my triathlon training is progressive, and as a result I’ve been improving in this test all along.
Even if this concoction doesn’t give me a measurable performance boost, I will at least have the confidence of knowing that, unlike many other supplements, beets and cherries are food—healthy food with lots of good stuff in them. So, no matter what, I will get more out of my new daily elixir than expensive urine.