At the start of England’s 2015-2016 Premier League soccer season, a small, century-old football club from Leicester was favored for relegation (a process in which the bottom three teams in the league are demoted and dropped into a lower league). Leicester City FC wrapped the season as Premier League champions for the first time since the club’s founding in 1884. English soccer fans across the country (and the world) were excitedly bewildered — but the result puzzled analysts and obliged British bookmakers to make the most significant payout in the sport’s history (the odds were 5,000 to one).
Following the win, many wondered how a team with such limited resources could produce such an unpredictable outcome. Smart management certainly played a defining role, but so did, according to an investigation by the BBC, an unorthodox training program. That program included cryotherapy — immersion in chambers that can cool to as low as minus 300 degrees Fahrenheit — and the regimented consumption of a particular food: beets. Or, more specifically, beetroot drink shots.
The use of beets and beetroot as an athletic performance enhancer isn’t entirely new. Ryan Hall, the recently-retired Olympic runner and the American record holder for the fastest half marathon, championed a beet-filled training diet that included beet pancakes, beet oatmeal and of course, beet shots. He was by no means the only high-profile endurance runner showing up at major races with lips stained crimson. Eliud Kipchoge, the 2016 Olympic gold medal marathon runner, is another purported beet juice drinker. So is the University of Virginia football team.
But how does a colorful root vegetable actually boost athletic performance? The answer lies in the dietary nitrate found in the veggie, which, when consumed, is converted into nitric oxide, which can increase blood flow and reduce the amount of oxygen needed for muscles to operate at an optimal level. Essentially, the body functions more efficiently and performance increases, so goes the thinking. Numerous studies corroborate that thinking; one example showed increased performance in a Dutch soccer team after six-days on a beetroot juice supplement. Another from researchers at the University of Exeter showed a boost in prolonged intermittent sprinting performance and even decision making, too.
Scientists are still digging to uncover beetroot’s athletic potential while runners, cyclists and football players on both sides of the Atlantic continue to guzzle the stuff, but some within the athletic community are skeptical of just how much of an effect the vegetable really has on performance. A 2016 study by researchers at the Canadian Sport Institute Ontario published in the scientific journal Sports Nutrition and Therapy found that concentrated doses of beetroot juice, in fact, did not improve endurance among elite triathletes during a middle distance 30-minute cycling time trial.
The key word in the CSIO study is “elite.” In the introduction, the authors argue that “the majority of research studies reporting exercise benefits of NO3-supplementation have been conducted on moderately/recreationally active subjects,” or in other words, amateurs. According to the researchers, when it comes to professional and elite athletes who have already achieved peak fitness levels, athletes competing at a high enough level in which a 0.6% increase in performance might realistically impact race results, beetroot shots do nothing.
Nevertheless, athletes are still drinking the stuff before consequential races and new studies on its potential benefits come out every year. Beet products are even showing up on shelves in new forms as dedicated sport supplements.
AltRed is one of those products. It was developed by Sur PhytoPerformance, a company who has made a mission of creating clean, plant-based supplements and is owned by a seven-generation farming family. AltRed’s approach to unlocking the beet’s potential is unique; its capsules are filled with a pale powder that, when wet, instantly turns a deep red. It’s pure beet betalain, a naturally-occurring chemical and the pigment that gives beets their vibrant hue.
Where beetroot shots (and pretty much every other beet-themed athletic food) are basically a delivery system for the plant’s nitrate, which is believed to increase athletic efficiency, the primary assertion behind betalains is that they’re totally isolated from every other part of the plant — no sugars, no nitrates. And because AltRed doesn’t rely on nitrate and its conversion to nitric oxide to increase blood flow, most, if not all previous studies of beets’ role in athletic performance don’t apply, whether the results were positive or negative.
So is AltRed just more beet-colored snake oil? And where do betalains get their kick? The answer goes beyond Chem 101, and as with beetroot shots, involves oxygen. Basically, the antioxidant properties of betalain allow it to neutralize reactive oxygen molecules in the blood called superoxide radicals, which leads to an increase in the availability of nitric oxide. It’s a different path to the same endpoint of the chemical process that results from drinking the beetroot shots, and it results in increased blood flow to the muscles. Supposedly.
Sur PhytoPerformance’s claims that AltRed is capable of increasing an athlete’s output and efficiency while reducing muscle damage and promoting a quicker recovery aren’t unsupported. Two University of California Davis studies so far have documented betalain’s success: one involving competitive male distance runners competing in a five-kilometer time trial and another in which triathletes completed 40 minutes of cycling followed by a 10-kilometer time trial and a subsequent five-kilometer recovery trial the next day. The results of both studies showed faster times in all cases when subjects used betalains.
The studies supporting AltRed fall into the same trap revealed by the CSIO researchers — none of the participants were elite athletes. But that doesn’t mean the research is inconclusive; it did, after all, provide results. And it did so without relying on the nitrates inherent in the veggie.
And so what if beets — either as juice shot or pigment capsule — only benefit amateurs? Sure, the first-time marathon runner won’t stand to benefit from a three percent increase in performance as much as Eliud Kipchoge might, but it also can’t hurt. Beets are healthy! They’re filled with important nutrients like folate, Vitamin C, manganese and potassium. Perhaps their only downsides are a moderately earthy flavor, and an unwavering tendency to dye everything purplish-red.