by Brian Maslach
It’s a not-so-well-kept secret in endurance sports that elite athletes are loading up on nitrate-rich foods like spinach and beets to improve performance.
A study from the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology, Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden looked at the effect of supplemental nitrate on muscular force production in mice to get a better understanding of what’s going on. Researchers administered a dose equivalent to 200-300 grams of spinach or 3 to 4 beetroots in humans and tested force output.
…results show that fast-twitch muscle of Nitrate mice can be activated at a lower frequency to achieve the same force output, which would reduce the effort required for a given task. An additional benefit is that for a given torque or force output, the number of motor units needed to be recruited will be reduced without any increase in the time taken to achieve the target force.
This is extremely cool as beets and spinach are already loaded with nutrition for good health, so consuming greater amounts is a good thing. Now we know can improve our health and performance at the same time. As the researchers noted, the quantities we’re talking about can realistically be included in a healthy diet.
This is also interesting from a nutritional perspective since several leafy green vegetables are high in inorganic nitrate and the amount of nitrate used in the present study can be easily achieved by adopting a ‘green’ diet.
Now I know some readers will be thinking the same thing I originally did at the mention of beets — yuk! I can’t think of anything I found more repulsive as a child than beets. The thought still sends chills down my spine.
The good news is that beets don’t have to taste like that. They can be boiled, roasted, baked, steamed, microwaved, and even eaten raw. My current favorite route is to add steamed beets to my salads.
Here’s my recipe.
- 4 cups spinach
- 4 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 3 Tbsp Balsalmic vinegar
- 1/3 cup crumbled feta cheese
- 1 large lightly-steamed beet
- handful pine nuts (or crushed walnuts)
- sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Drizzle the olive oil and vinegar over the spinach leaves; add the feta, ground pepper, beets, and red onion; thoroughly mix everything, and then top pine nuts, salt, and black pepper.
This makes a big salad, so unless you have an oversized appetite like me it will serve two.
When I have this as my dinner entree, I'll usually add skinless chicken for protein.
Don't be afraid to get creative and add or subtract items to find what you like best. Sometimes I'll add fresh, sliced strawberries, apple, or sugar-free dried cranberries. Other times I'll use goat cheese in place of feta. Use this recipe as a starting point and let me know where you end up.
Now that you have at least one easy way to eat your beets and spinach, give it a try and let me know what you think in terms of taste and performance benefits. Most people will need to increase consumption of nitrate-rich foods for at least 3 to 7 days to begin seeing and feeling a benefit, so stick with it.