Just beet it

Getting your fill of the ruby-hued veg pre-workout may put speed in your stride.

Hitting the juice bar before a run? When you order, remember: The redder, the better. It turns out that earthy, delicious beets might help take your workouts to the next level.

A recent study from Saint Louis University in Missouri reveals that when fit men and women ate a cup of cooked beetroot about an hour before running 3 miles, they achieved a pace 3 percent faster than runners who were given a pre-race placebo.

“It's not enough of a benefit to turn a recreational runner into an Olympian, but it’s certainly enough to improve finishing position by several places in a 5k race,” says Edward Weiss, Ph.D., assistant professor of nutrition and dietetics at Saint Louis University and lead author of the paper.

This is good news for competitive athletes, but also for fitness enthusiasts trying to turn a sluggish end of their cardio session into an energetic final burst. The difference in speed was greatest toward the end of the run, with beet eaters finishing the last mile 5 percent faster than study subjects who didn’t get the pre-run boost.

Why beets? They contain nitrates, which the body converts into nitric oxide, a powerful molecule that dilates the blood vessels allowing more oxygen and nutrients to reach your hard-working muscles. These are the same nitrates as the dangerous ones you may have heard are found in products like deli meat and bacon, but not to worry: Something in nitrate-rich fruits and vegetables (perhaps the fiber, perhaps the antioxidants) keeps the stuff from turning carcinogenic, as it does when consumed as a preservative in cured meats.

The circulation-improving effect of nitrate-rich foods — which also includes celery, radishes and spinach — peaks within three hours after you eat them. But some studies have shown that consuming them daily for an extended period (say, 15 days) may allow you to hold on to the benefit for a full week, says Georgie Fear, a registered dietician with Toronto-based company Precision Nutrition.

Eating beets regularly can also protect your long-term health, Fear says. “Beets contain antioxidants and anti-inflammatory phytochemicals that work to fight chronic disease.” Specifically, epidemiological studies show that people who eat more vegetables — including those that are nitrate-rich — are less likely to suffer from cancer, degenerative brain disease and cardiovascular problems.

Add that to the extra heart pumping you’ll get from your beet-powered exercise routine, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for life.