When I crossed the finish line of the NYC Half Marathon, I couldn’t believe the time on my watch: Not only had I nailed the PR I was chasing, but I also did it by five minutes, a huge margin for my 12th half. And while there are a number of things that could have contributed to my personal best performance that day (a good training block, focus on my form, weather so cold I ran a little faster), there was one thing I intentionally did differently leading up to race day: Beet juice. I had choked down beet juice shots every morning for the week prior because I read somewhere that it can make you run faster, and the internet was actually right.
It’s not just randos on the internet that claim drinking beet juice can boost your speed and endurance. Science has long shown the benefits of beets for athletes: Runners who threw back a beet juice shot before racing cut 1.5 percent off their 5K race times, found a study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology. Drinking beet juice for seven days also resulted in faster sprint times, according to the European Journal of Applied Physiology. After drinking about 16 ounces before cycling, people were able to ride 16 percent longer than before, discovered researchers at the University of Exeter. And a 2017 meta-analysis of 23 beet juice studies found beet juice can improve cardiorespiratory endurance in athletes by increasing efficiency, which improves performance and increases time to exhaustion.
How this seemingly-magic crimson elixir works has to do with the nitrates in beets. Nitrates, often found in dark, leafy greens are naturally converted into nitric oxide in the body. “Nitric oxide acts on muscle cells and blood vessels, and being able to produce more nitric oxide might both improve muscle efficiency (and therefore running economy) and improve blood blow to muscle,” explains Andrew Jones, the Associate Dean of Research in the College of Life and Environmental Sciences at the University of Exeter, who has researched the effects of beet juice on sprint performance.
In other words, “nitric oxide improves your cardiorespiratory endurance—your heart and breathing endurance, or your long-term endurance—by decreasing the oxygen needed to do what you were already doing, especially in a situation, like running, where oxygen is in pretty limited supply,” explains Lauren Antonucci, R.D.N., a nutrition consultant for the New York Road Runners and director of Nutrition Energy.
Joe Holder, a Nike trainer and USATF-certified running coach, partially attributes his recent Boston Marathon-qualifying time at the Los Angeles Marathon—his first 26.2-mile race—to the power of beets. “I always eat a diet high in nitrates, but I ramped it up before LA. I juiced the beets myself, and tried to drink it twice a day for two to three weeks before the race,” he says. “Without a doubt, it helped me reach that BQ goal.”
The speed-boosting power of beet juice isn’t a new discovery; Holder says he’s been drinking it since his days as a college football player at the University of Pennsylvania; the University of Southern California’s basketball team had also credited it for their success on the court, and Auburn University’s football team members have also been devotees.
It’s not like downing beet juice shots is going to turn you into Desiree Linden or Eliud Kipchoge, but it could be worth trying if you’re competitive—even just with yourself. “For someone who a one to two percent decrease in time is going to make a big difference in their life, this can help,” Antonucci says. “But if 20 to 30 seconds off your 10K or half marathon time isn’t going to do you any good, it may not be worth the time, energy, expense, or calories.”
I am competitive—especially with myself—and I was surprised to see just how profound an effect the juice seemed to have on my running. During that last week before the race, I felt a little faster and a little less tired during each training run. And during the race, I logged four miles under an eight-minute pace—something I’d never done before. I hadn’t put a lot of thought into my experiment beforehand. I just bought a bottle of Blueprint’s beet juice—despite my general aversion to beets (they’re just…gross)—and gulped down about three ounces each morning.
“One to two shots of concentrated beetroot juice taken two to three hours before exercise can work well,” Jones says. “And taking it for a few days prior to the race is likely to prove even more effective.”
And the best part of all of this is that research hasn’t found any negative effects. “Well, your pee might be a funny color, but that’s about it,” Antonucci says. “You do a shot, maybe you get 20 to 30 seconds off your time or maybe you don’t; the only thing you’ve lost is the cost of the product.” But runners should try it in training first, Jones warns; “a small minority can suffer gut issues,” he says. (I actually didn’t take a shot the morning of the race because I didn’t want to mess with my stomach.)
Even without knowing all the science ahead of time, I thought the placebo effect—the fact that I believed I was doing something good for my body—might be enough to fuel me to move a little faster on race day. And while that may be the case, beet juice does have a proven effect on performance, Holder, Jones, and Antonucci all assert.
It certainly can’t hurt, right? If I could take a shot (or three) of tequila, I could handle a shot of beet juice. And now that I’ve experienced firsthand what a difference it can make, you better believe I’m starting my beet juice shots at least two weeks before my next race.