A Diet Packed With Nitrate-Rich Foods Can Help You Can Go Faster for Longer. Here’s Why
- According to a research review published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise>>>P, eating a nitrate-rich diet can improve your performance, especially if you are a recreational athlete, by boosting your blood flow and muscle function.
- Nitrate supplementation is most beneficial in situations where oxygen demand exceeds oxygen supply, such as when you are exercising at altitude and/or during very high-intensity exercise like sprinting and track cycling.
- Evidence shows you can store nitrates much like you can store glycogen, so you have them on board when you need them. You also can use them shortly before exercise. The recommended dose is 300 milligrams for optimum performance.
Having high levels of nitrates coursing through your veins is like having a hidden (or not so hidden) motor in your bicycle—you can get more speed and power out of the effort you put in because of the way nitrates can boost your blood flow and muscle function.
A diet full of nitrate-rich foods, like beets and leafy greens, can also lower your blood pressure and even improve brain function>>>P, according to a research review published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise>>>P. And there’s evidence that you can stash away nitrate in your muscles, similarly to how you store glycogen when eating carbs, to improve your health and boost performance when you need it, according to the review>>>P.
Here’s a look at how nitrate can benefit cyclists; what these recent findings mean for riders looking for a performance boost, and some practical takeaways you can use.
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A Primer on Nitrate
When you exercise, cells in your blood vessels and muscles produce nitric oxide (NO), which widens your blood vessels, allowing more oxygen and nutrient-rich blood to pour into your working muscles. That effect continues after you’ve wrapped up your workout and toweled off, leaving you with a lingering blood pressure-lowering response.
Eating foods that are rich in nitrates can, in turn, boost your levels of NO; your body converts the nitrates you consume to nitrites, which then get converted into NO through a metabolic chain of events. This explains why eating nitrate-rich foods like arugula, spinach, red beets, and celery can lower your blood pressure—you always have enough NO on board to keep those vessels open, so your blood can circulate freely. This also supports one of the theories as to why the Mediterranean diet is so good for you: it’s naturally rich in nitrates.
Evidence from animal studies shows that nitrates may be particularly beneficial for improving blood flow and contractions in your fast-twitch fibers>>>P, which are the muscle fibers you use to generate big watts.
Like glycogen, your nitrate stores get depleted during exercise. Also, like glycogen, your muscle nitrate stash becomes“supercompensated” when you eat a diet high in nitrates for a few days following a period of nitrate deprivation, or eating a diet that’s low in nitrates.
Interestingly, the bacteria that live in your mouth are very important players in the nitric oxide production line. Research shows that bacteria allows your body to produce the nitrate it needs to relax your blood vessels. Practically speaking, that means you should avoid antibacterial mouthwash unless you’ve been prescribed one by your doctor or dentist.
What Are the Cycling-Specific Benefits of Nitrates?
Nitrate supplementation has been shown to boost cycling performance. In one study>>>P, recreational cyclists who drank concentrated beetroot juice (a natural source of nitrates) used about three percent less oxygen—meaning they used less energy to pedal the same pace—during exercise tests, and they extended the time they could pedal before fatiguing by 12 percent, compared to those drinking a placebo drink.
Research generally shows that nitrate supplementation is most beneficial for moderately fit (as well as untrained) riders, and that elite athletes benefit less because they already produce ample amounts of nitric oxide naturally, since exercise training increases your capacity for NO formation>>>P.
That said, more recent investigations show that nitrate supplementation is most beneficial in situations where oxygen demand exceeds oxygen supply. So less-trained athletes benefit in a wider range of situations, but even highly trained athletes can benefit when exercising at altitude and/or during very high-intensity exercise like sprinting and track cycling.
Other research suggests that highly trained riders may also get benefits from doubling the usual recommended dose>>>P, since their bodies already produce high levels of NO on their own. Elite riders in one study who drank two doses of concentrated beet juice for a week improved their average power by about five watts and hit the finish on a 10K time trial 1.6 percent faster.
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How Much Nitrate Do You Need?
Though research is ongoing, based on the evidence so far, the researchers of this review conclude that everyday riders can benefit from taking in >300 mg of nitrate. Though eating a diet rich in nitrates on a regular basis is the best way to keep your stores topped off and reap the blood pressure-lowering benefits, you can get performance benefits by taking one big dose before you need a boost.
To optimize the benefits, researchers recommend taking beetroot juice at least 90 minutes before you’re ready to go so it has time to take full effect. If you’re getting your nitrates from whole foods, give yourself a minimum of three hours for them to digest and get into your system. Because you need to eat quite a lot of whole foods to hit that 300 mg mark, juicing and/or using a concentrate is the easier way to go.
For reference, a study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reports the following foods as the richest sources of nitrates:
- Very high: > 250 milligrams per 100 g serving — Arugula, red beets, lettuce (particularly butter leaf), celery, cress (such as watercress), and spinach
- High: 100 to — Chinese cabbage, endive, fennel, kohlrabi, leek, and parsley
- Medium: 50 to — Cabbage, dill, turnip, savoy cabbage
You have to eat at least a cup of these veggies to get 100 grams, and in the case of leafy greens like spinach and arugula, it takes three to five cups. That’s why juicing and blending greens into smoothies makes it easier to get the amounts you need for performance gains.