If you’re in the market for a pre workout, there’s a good chances you’ve seen the letters N.O. emblazoned on many a tub. (Usually surrounded with terms like “insane pump” and “extreme performance.”)
Those two little letters, which stand for nitric oxide, became the hallmark of pre workouts everywhere and with the promise of a boost in N.O. comes promises of better muscle pumps, better circulation, and better performance.
So how does it work and how might the lowly beet be a key to those N.O. gains?
[Learn more about the ins and outs of supplements in our guide to the best pre workouts!]
Editor’s note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems.
What Is Nitric Oxide?
It’s a signaling molecule made from nitrogen and oxygen and it seems to play a big role in relaxing blood vessels, which has a lot of implications for blood pressure and erectile dysfunction, as well as athletic performance.(1)
For athletes, higher levels of circulating nitric oxide has some links to a few areas. This isn’t concrete — most research has been done on rodents — but there’s also an impressive amount of human data to suggest that more N.O. may improve performance in high intensity interval training and prolonged aerobic training, reduce the amount of oxygen required for exertion, and affect the rate of perceived exertion.(2)(3)(4)(5)(6) The extra blood flow is why it’s also linked to a better “pump” and bigger muscles during a workout, one reason it’s often highlighted for bodybuilding supplements.
And all of those cited studies suggesting those benefits had the participants — who were human — consuming beets.
[Read more: 6 pre workout ingredients you can take for a better pump.]
Beets and Nitrates
Besides Vitamin C, folate, and carbohydrates, beets are a really good source of the organic compound nitrate.
“Nitrate gets reduced to nitrite which subsequently gets converted to nitric oxide,” says Dr. Trevor Kashey, an Ohio-based biochemist and nutrition consultant. “Acute and frequent supplementation can improve exercise efficacy by increasing the physiological response in fast twitch muscles, improving high-intensity short duration performance, and helping mitochondrial efficiency — and therefore oxygen economy, among other things.”
Dosage is tricky to work out as some studies use concentrated juice, some used whole juice, some have athletes munching on whole beets. A double blind, placebo controlled study in Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics had eleven “recreationally fit” athletes were tested with one group consuming 200 grams of beetroot that contained 500 milligrams of nitrate or more.(5) It found that during the last 1.8 kilometers of a 5-kilometer run, the beet munchers had a lower rate of perceived exertion. Independent nutrition research website Examine.com agrees that around 500 milligrams of nitrate seems to be a sweet spot.
“Strictly speaking, nitrate is not a “drug,” you shouldn’t be able to “feel” it working and it can’t be compared to a “high” one might experience from consuming stimulant drugs or supplements,” says Kashey. “Realistically, for the strength athlete, the benefit is an extra rep or two here or there. If an athlete is fastidious enough, they may be able to track this difference. I take the position that sort of difference has a meaningful impact on overall development with logically programmed training.”
But Aren’t Nitrates Bad for You?
Is this the same nitrate that everyone is scared of in bacon and processed meats?
“Yes, the nitrate in beets and the nitrate in meats are bioequivalent,” says Kashey.
Nitrate from mass-produced salts and nitrate from plant material both raise blood levels of nitrate. At one point, there was a fair amount of press about cancer and cured meat consumption. However, a similar correlation can be found in red meat with no incorporated nitrate. Evidence for nitrate consumption and cancer is weak.
He calls this “the naturalistic fallacy at work” — beets seem more “natural” than cured meats, so beets don’t get the same negative press. It’s worth remembering that in cured meats there’s usually a lot of sodium (from sodium nitrate) and decreased antioxidant intake (as the nitrate is coming from inorganic salts rather than plants). A high consumption of cured meats also typically coincides with a not-all-that-healthy lifestyle overall. Keeping a high amount of vegetables and exercise in your routine has an enormous impact on disease risk.
[Learn more: 7 micronutrients that are extra important for athletes.]
However you slice ‘em, beets are a healthy food and it’s worth adding them to your diet.
“The benefits of nitrate supplementation on the cardiovascular system have been known for some time before it came into the sports realm,” adds Kashey. “It stands to reason there would be a benefit to the cardiovascular system, and possibly peripheral musculature, as well while during exercise.”
There are plenty of preworkouts out there that also help with nitric oxide but if you’re wary of powders, beets seem a pretty solid option.
1. Moncada S, et al. The discovery of nitric oxide as the endogenous nitrovasodilator. Hypertension. 1988 Oct;12(4):365-72.
2. Wylie LJ, et al. Dietary nitrate supplementation improves team sport-specific intense intermittent exercise performance. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2013 Jul;113(7):1673-84.
3. Lansley KE, et al. Dietary nitrate supplementation reduces the O2 cost of walking and running: a placebo-controlled study. J Appl Physiol (1985). 2011 Mar;110(3):591-600.
4. Kelly J, et al. Effects of short-term dietary nitrate supplementation on blood pressure, O2 uptake kinetics, and muscle and cognitive function in older adults. Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol. 2013 Jan 15;304(2):R73-83.
5. Murphy M, et al. Whole beetroot consumption acutely improves running performance. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2012 Apr;112(4):548-52.
6. Lansley KE, et al. Dietary nitrate supplementation reduces the O2 cost of walking and running: a placebo-controlled study. J Appl Physiol (1985). 2011 Mar;110(3):591-600.