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Runner’s Plate: Beets– the new training food?

Posted Jun 05 2012 10:21am

Beets from the Copley Farmer's Market in Boston

Beets have made it into the foodie spotlight. Consistently making appearances on restaurant menus, at juice bars, and in food-blogger recipes, it appears the once ignored root vegetable is here to stay. This makes those of us in the nutrition world very happy as 1 cup of beets packs in 4 grams of fiber; 37% of your daily needs for folate; a good amount of potassium, manganese, vitamin C; and a small amount of iron, all for only 60 calories. But, could beets also improve running performance?

Back in January, an article published in The Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics caught my eye. This study piqued my interest for two reasons – the use of whole food in a scientific study (as opposed to an individual nutrient) and the focus on beneficial nitrates. Yes, nitrates – the preservative often found in processed meats that have been linked to increased risk of cancer– may prove beneficial to endurance athletes. It turns out that nitrates found in some vegetables such as beets, radishes, turnips, and lettuce may improve athletic performance. They may also reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer.

This particular study tested the effects of beetroot on running speed, heart rate, and rating of perceived exertion (RPE) during a 5k timed trial on a treadmill. Interestingly, the researchers found that both male and female runners that consumed the beet mixture 75 minutes before running were able to complete the 5k an average of 41 seconds faster than they did after eating the placebo (cranberry relish).  The largest benefit appears to have occurred in the last third of the run, which may indicate effects for longer distances.  RPE and heart rate were similar after consuming both foods, which suggests that the subjects weren’t necessarily working harder when their speed increased.

This was a small study (5 men, 6 women) conducted in a young, healthy population so further research among different populations to support this data is necessary to confirm the benefits. However, the results suggest that eating beets pre-run may provide ergogenic effects, which the study authors believe is derived from the nitrates found in the beets.

Aren't they beautiful inside?

If you haven’t jumped on the beet bandwagon, I suggest giving them another try. They are best if purchased fresh and most flavorful if they come from a local farm. Canned beets (the ones often found on salad bars) are the reason they’ve had such a bad rap as the dirt vegetable for so many years. Fresh beets have an earthy, yet sweet taste and are complimented well by a strong cheese (blue, feta, goat), dried fruit (cherries and cranberries are great), and a fresh greens (I like them with arugula or watercress).  I usually roast them with a bit of olive oil, salt, pepper, and some herbs like rosemary and thyme and then toss them on salads or slice them thin to add to a sandwich. They are also delicious on their own as a side dish. I’ve even put them on top of pizza !

Looking for some beet inspiration in the kitchen? Try my wheat berry and beet root salad:

Ingredients

Salad:

½ cup dry wheat berries prepared per package instructions

4 medium or 2 large beetroots

1 cup arugula, chopped into bite sized pieces

2 tbsp crumbled goat cheese

1 tsp olive oil

¼ cup toasted pecans, chopped

2 tbsp chopped dried cherries (optional)

1 sprig fresh rosemary (or 2 tsp dried)

Salt & Pepper

Dressing:

2 tbsp red wine vinegar

2 tsp olive oil

1 tsp honey

Salt

Pepper

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 400F
  2. Cook wheat berries per package instructions.
  3. Peel beets and cut into slices ½ inch thick. If large beets, cut in half as to make half circles. Toss beets with 1 tsp olive oil, salt, pepper, and rosemary. Roast in oven for 15-20 minutes, until slightly soft yet still crisp.
  4. While wheat berries and beets are cooking, whisk dressing ingredients and set aside. Chop any other ingredients, as necessary.
  5. When wheat berries and beets are done cooking, remove from heat and let cool to room temperature.
  6. When cooled, add all ingredients together and toss with dressing.

Serves 2 as a main or 4 as a side.

Nutrition Facts (per half recipe without dried cherries): 365 calories, 15g fat, 47g carbohydrates, 7g fiber, 11g protein. 

Wheat berry and beet salad

Notes:

  1. Wheat berries can be purchased in the bulk section of many grocery stores. They can also be found near the rice or grains. If you can find wheat berries or prefer another grain, this recipe also works well with pearl (Israeli) couscous or quinoa.
  2. Many recipes say you have to soak the wheat berries overnight – I found that I didn’t need to, and I just boiled them for about 45 minutes with 2 cups of water (beginning with 1 cup  and adding ¼ cup as needed).  Click here for some directions.
  3.  For extra flavor, you can cook the wheat berries in vegetable broth instead of water.

Do you eat beets? How do you prepare them? Have you heard about them being an ergogenic aid?

(Sarah holds an MS in Nutrition Communication from Tufts University Friedman School in Boston. She is working towards becoming a registered dietitian and will begin her nationally recognized dietetic internship at The Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston this fall. Sarah is a certified spin instructor and an avid runner and regularly participates in road races from 5k to a 1/2 marathons. Follow her on Twitter  @SpinnerSarah  and at her personal blog  Food and Fitness Friend .)

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