Beets for Runners: Let Nature Increase Your VO2 Max

Beets for Runners: Let Nature Increase Your VO2 Max

There has been a lot of hype surrounding the use of beets for runners and endurance athletes, specifically for the purpose of increasing VO2 max during exercise. But, can beets really improve athletic performance and, if so, just how long do the results last? Find out here!

Over the past few years, beets have become the latest and greatest superfood, surpassing other beloved produce such as kale, bananas, and sweet potatoes to improve overall health and fitness. Using beets for runners and endurance athletes has even been touted by the U.S.A. Triathlon Team as they claim, “Beet juice decreases blood pressure and increases blood flow, thereby increasing metabolic threshold and VO2 max.”

Beets are loaded with vitamins and minerals such as vitamin C, iron, magnesium, and potassium. They are also low in saturated fat and high in dietary fiber, a great combination for improving cardiovascular health. But, it is the magic ingredient of nitrate that makes beets beneficial to runners.

What is nitrate?

There are two types of compounds – nitrate and nitrite – that consists of a single Nitrogen atom bonded to a number of Oxygen atoms.

  • Nitrate: 1 Nitrogen + 3 Oxygens
  • Nitrite: 1 Nitrogen + 2 Oxygens

Nitrate is the compound found in beetroot, which is derived from nitrogen gas as the beet grows in the ground soil.

Research shows that consuming dietary nitrate has a wide range of health benefits including reducing blood pressure, preventing blood clotting, and enhancing exercise performance in both healthy individuals and people with peripheral arterial disease (PAD).

Why are nitrates in beets good for runners?

To run, the body must get energy from glucose, fat, and other fuels. Primarily, the body uses sugar (carbohydrates) which are broken down and converted to glycogen. But, the body must have an adequate supply of oxygen to do this – called aerobic respiration. Runners who have a higher capacity to stay in an aerobic state are typically the best distance runners. However, once a runner reaches anaerobic respiration, oxygen is no longer readily available. This causes fatigue and forces the runner to slow down i.e. you’ve hit the infamous wall.

So, what does this have to do with nitrates in beets? Once the nitrates from beets are consumed, they are turned into nitrites by bacteria in the mouth or enzymes in the body. The digestive system absorbs the nitrites, which then flows into the bloodstream and is transformed into nitric oxide. Essentially, this nitric oxide provides a boost of supplemental oxygen to the blood.

The supplemental oxygen reduces blood pressure and allows for better circulation of blood to target fatigued tissues, including muscle tissues. This increases VO2 max (a numerical measurement of the body’s ability to consume oxygen). The bottom line is that high levels of nitric oxide provide a supplemental oxygen boost that enables runners to increase their ability to stay aerobic longer.

In plain English – when you consume beetroot before running, you will feel more energized, being able to run for a longer period of time without fatigue!

Are nitrates in beets and processed meats the same thing?

Processed meats are preserved with sodium nitrate, which gives the meat its pink or red color. Without the nitrate additive, the meat would turn brown very quickly. But, there are unique differences between eating processed meat and eating produce high in nitrates. (Other good produce sources of nitrates include spinach, radishes, lettuce, and celery.)

Nitrates themselves are relatively harmless until they turn into nitrites. The nitrites can either turn into nitric oxide (good for runners) or nitrosamines (bad for everyone). The nitrosamines are created when nitrites are exposed to high heat in the presence of amino acids (think cooking hamburger meat). Nitrosamines are carcinogens. In fact, nitrosamines are among the main carcinogens in tobacco smoke.

What does the research really say about beets for runners?

Research confirms that beets are extremely beneficial for runners. Beyond increasing VO2 max capacity, the performance benefits when using beets for runners include:

  • Maintains heart rate
  • Improves blood flow
  • Lowers perceived exertion

How many beets must a runner consume to achieve benefits to athletic performance?

First, know that a runner must consume beets either via juices, powders, capsules, or simply by eating raw beets. Eating cooked (heated) beets do not provide the same quantity of nitrates. The amount of beets needed to achieve the benefits during exercise have varied in research studies. Generally, 8 to 16 ounces of beet juice is recommended one to two hours before exercise. But, most studies show benefits when 16 ounces of beet juice is consumed 75 minutes to three hours prior to exercise. The peak supplemental oxygen boost occurs about one to three hours after ingestion.

Using concentrated beet juice (powders or capsules) can help get the juice down without subsequent digestive issues like diarrhea (an important consideration when using beets for runners’ performance!). You can find organic beet root powder here or purchase beet capsules here. When purchasing beet powders or capsules, follow the manufacturer’s dosage instructions and be sure to take the supplements one to two hours before running.

People with a history of kidney stones should avoid consuming high amounts of beet juice as beets contain oxalates and can crystallize in the kidneys forming kidney stones.


[1] How Beetroot Juice Can Improve Your Performance. USA Triathlon. Retrieved November 7, 2018.

[2] Br J Clin Pharmacol. 2013 Mar; 75(3): 677–696.

[3] J Acad Nutr Diet. 2012 Apr;112(4):548-52.


  • Sharron Obeng
    09/06/2020 at 6:33 AM

    For years, people have touted the powers of superfoods. Thought to benefit your overall well-being, these foods have been linked to a sharper mind, clearer skin, a healthier immune system, and more. And while many dietitians have questioned superfoods, there is no arguing that some fruits, vegetables, and proteins offer more health benefits than others.

  • Williams Emily
    10/13/2020 at 6:24 AM

    study, for example, found that people who regularly drank beetroot juice before exercising were able to improve their maximum cardio output (called VO2 max) and endurance significantly more than those who took a placebo. The researchers found that the beet drinkers’ muscles used ATP (chemical energy) more efficiently, so the beet juice-drinkers needed less oxygen to perform, which is why they were able to go harder and longer. Additonally, that nitric oxide-induced increase in blood flow can contribute to ‘muscle pump,’ the appearance of larger, more defined muscles that often comes with an intense strength-training session—a look treasured by many a fitness enthusiast.

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