Beetroot boosts sporting performance in athletes UniSA research study finds

Noah D’Unienville, PhD candidate and Research lead at University of South Australia

It’s the bright-red root veggie more often found in a borsht than a breakfast smoothie, but the humble beetroot could become one of the next go-to foods for athletes as UniSA research shows it can provide a competitive edge when it comes to playing sport.

Evaluating the performance effects of foods thought to have benefit on aerobic performance, researchers found that beetroot, grapes, sour cherries, and pine bark extract, which contribute to nitric oxide availability in the body, boost endurance exercise performance.

Why did beetroot stand out during the study?

Assessing research data from 118 studies involving 1872 participants from 25 different countries, the meta-analysis evaluated the effect of consuming nitrate-rich foods (typically green leafy vegetables), foods that contain polyphenols (such as berries, cherries and cocoa), and L-Citrulline (found in watermelon) on exercise endurance performance.

The study found that the nitrate levels in beetroot, which have been shown to boost blood flow and increase the delivery of nutrients and oxygen to muscles during exercise, helped athletes perform better more quickly. Similarly, the polyphenols in grapes, cherries and pine bark extract helped protect nitrate from degradation in the body, boosting stamina.

Despite L-citrulline boosting nitric oxide production in the body, consuming watermelon (high in L-citrulline) did not boost exercise performance. Lead researcher and UniSA PhD candidate Noah D’Unienville says the study provides evidence of foods as natural endurance enhancers.

What are researchers’ thoughts on the study?

“There’s a lot of interest in nitrate-rich and polyphenol-rich foods because of their potential to boost exercise performance, but just because they contain these elements, doesn’t mean this will translate into improved exercise performance. While our study shows that beetroot (among other foods) can boost performance, other nitrate-rich foods such as red spinach, Swiss chard and rhubarb, did not show similar benefits,” D’Unienville commented.

“While grapes, pine bark extract, and sour cherries aid athletes do better, we found no effects for other polyphenol-rich foods; like blackcurrant, cocoa, ginseng, green tea or raisins.”

Co-researcher, UniSA’s Prof Jon Buckley says that while these foods were effective in boosting exercise performance and building stamina, their effects did discriminate.

“The results did show that more significant effects among athletes who were less fit, and also that men were more likely to benefit from these foods than women,” Prof Buckley says.

“There were some limitations with the sample size of women, but this finding does suggest further investigation is warranted. We know that trying to get fit takes time and effort but add a glass of beetroot juice to your training schedule and you just might see the difference.”