Nitrate: the natural performance enhancer?

Research suggests nitrate could make riders two percent quicker

What would a two percent performance enhancement make to your cycling? A string of personal bests on Strava? Nipping in under the five-hour mark in a 100-mile sportive? Unlocking a win in the club 10 TT?

Well, your new best friend – if it’s not already – could be beetroots and cabbages, because they are a rich source of NO3. The three characters are chemists’ shorthand for nitrate, which has been identified as a significant and measurable natural performance enhancer in endurance sports.

Nitrate’s endurance enhancing properties were roughly isolated by Swedish researchers in 2007 while they investigated the molecule’s positive impact on blood pressure.

The results piqued the interest of Andy Jones, professor of applied physiology at Exeter University (with the appropriate handle of @AndyBeetroot over on Twitter). He wondered what impact nitrate had on endurance athletes’ performance.

The extra two percent

So his research team started experimenting and the results were impressive. For a series of studies published in the Journal of Applied Physiology between 2009-2011, Jones and his team found athletes on nitrate could extend time to exhaustion by between 16 and 25 percent when performing high intensity, aerobic exercise.

Some scientists say nitrate can extend time to exhaustion by more than 15 percent. This person is clearly exhausted

But while lengthening the time to popping is useful, it doesn’t indicate whether the subject is actually getting faster.

Jones, who is also a special advisor to the English Institute of Sport on endurance sports, subsequently conducted a crossover study on some club level time trialists. The riders were were given beetroot juice with the nitrate content intacts and asked to perform a TT. Then the test was repeated with the nitrate content depleted, though on each occasion the cyclists were unaware which 'recipe' they were riding on. The result was a measured improvement of speed by about two per cent. In a sport that obsesses about marginal gains, that’s an eye-opening improvement. No wonder nitrates have been cropping up in nutrition products recently.

How does it work?

Strictly, it’s not the nitrate that’s the performance enhancer but a simpler molecule nitrate is converted into inside the body – first nitrite, and then nitric oxide.

Nitric oxide is the potent one. It has two effects. First, it widens the blood vessels that deliver oxygen rich blood to working muscles – a process called vasodilation. More oxygen delivery means muscles can work harder. Second, during sub-maximal exercise, nitric oxide enhances oxygen efficiency.

Jones told BikeRadar: “That’s really quite a surprising finding because somehow muscle efficiency has become better. There aren’t many things that improve exercise economy and muscle efficiency… theoretically, if you can improve those things then you ought to be able to improve your performance.”

Researchers are still to get to the bottom of how nitric oxide works. There are two main hypotheses. The first is that that the cell’s power stations, called mitochondria, are able to produce more energy with less oxygen, and the second is that that less energy is needed to contract the muscle. Both lead to the same outcome: there is a smaller oxygen requirement for a given workload.

Either way, said Jones, “There does seem to be some sort of magic effect happening within muscle cells.”

Who could benefits most from nitrate?

If you're Chris Froome or Vincenzo Nibali, you can probably turn away now; in Jones’ tests NO3 shows less enhancement to elite riders’ performance. Instead, according to Jones, nitrate appears most potent for what he calls recreational performers – athletes who aren’t so highly trained – which should be music to the ears of sportive riders and weekend warriors.

“We’re not really quite sure why some people respond better than others,” said Jones. “A lot of the things that nitrate may be able to help with might already be pretty well adapted in the athlete anyway.”

However, while the effect of nitrate appears to be reduced in elite athletes, Jones said around 20 to 25 percent of elite athletes with a VO2 max of more than 70 ml/kg/min showed some form of improvement.  

How to get the maximum effect from nitrate

Jones admitted that while the principle that nitrates offer a performance benefit is “reasonably sound”, the mechanics of how it works are less well understood.

 “I think it certainly 'does stuff' and I think people are now trying to find out how and why and in which circumstance and which types of activity,” he said.

Jones recommends that users consume the nitrate source up to three hours before their event. And if you’re wondering what nitrate-rich foods are out there, examples will be dishes containing lettuce, spinach, parsley, cabbage and beetroot (obviously).   

Beet It has harnessed the power of nitrate for athletes

“The most palatable way to get it is through some nitrate-containing foodstuff rather than through any pill or crystal,” Jones said, adding that there could possibly be benefits in consuming during a long event.  

“We think if it was a much longer event, like a several hour race or a stage race, then it’s possible taking [a beetroot juice shot] en route might be alright – nobody’s ever investigated that.

“It has to be two to three hours before [it takes effect] because it takes that long for your body to actually process it.”

Beetroot, radishes and kohlrabi might seem a laughable secret weapon in pursuit of a PB at the club 10, but the work of Jones and his team suggests that humble vegetables and the nitrate they contain could give riders just a little more edge in their timed efforts. Have you given it a go yet?

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