Athletes have used steroids, amphetamines, hormones, and who knows what else in search of an unnatural advantage, and no sport is more notorious for doping than professional cycling. The newest potential performance-enhancer is safe, legal...and yeah, maybe a little ridiculous.
So, how did we get to the point where beetroot juice, of all things, could be considered a performance enhancer? Well, researchers at the University of Exeter gave nine competitive but non-professional cyclists some of the juice before they took part in time trials on 2.5 and ten mile courses. The cyclists did each time trial twice, and in all four cases they were given half a liter of beetroot juices right before the race. However, only half the time were the cyclists given normal beetroot juice - the other half, the juice was missing nitrate, one of its key ingredients.
The researchers monitored the cyclists' oxygen consumption levels to see just how much energy the cyclists were expending. When they had drank normal beetroot juice beforehand, the cyclists consistently showed that they had a higher power output without any extra effort, suggesting the nitrate in the juice helped their muscles and cardiovascular system work at higher efficiency.
This isn't surprising - nitrate is known to widen blood vessels, which lowers blood pressure and in turn allows blood to flow more easily. It also enables muscles to do the same amount of work with less oxygen. Together, these effects combined for what were on average 11 seconds faster times in the 2.5 mile trials and 45 seconds faster in the ten mile. In both cases, that's nearly 3% faster than normal.
Researcher leader Andrew Jones comments:
"This is the first time we've studied the effects of beetroot juice, and the high nitrate levels found in it, on simulated competition. The findings show an improvement in performance that, at competition level, could make a real difference — particularly in an event like the Tour de France where winning margins can be tight."