What Happened When I Swapped My Usual Pre-Workout For Beets

As a personal trainer, I’ve experimented with all sorts of sports nutrition supplements—from pre-workouts, to amino acids, to protein powders, to creatine—in order to my support my progress in the weight room. But it wasn’t until I started training for endurance running and obstacle course racing that a new and surprising performance-booster came onto my radar: beets.

I got absolutely hooked on racing after college (I finished more than 40 road and obstacle course events in four years), so when I saw elite athletes like Ryan Atkins and Amelia Boone touting the benefits of beets for race performance all over social media, I had to give them a try.

The Beet Backstory 

Yeah, yeah, I know what you’re thinking: Beets? As in, the vegetable? Well, hear me out.

Beets may not seem like the ultimate workout-booster, but in addition to potassium and fiber, they’re packed with a compound called nitrate. While, yes, nitrate is found in processed meats like bacon that can produce carcinogens when smoked or fried, we don’t do that to beets. Instead, when we eat beets—whether chopped on a salad, blended in a smoothie, or as a supplement—our body converts those nitrates into nitric oxide (N.O.), which dilates our blood vessels and increases blood flow (and the transportation of oxygen and nutrients) throughout our bodies.

What does that mean for your workouts? A notable performance and endurance boost. One Journal of Applied Physiology study, for example, found that people who regularly drank beetroot juice before exercising were able to improve their maximum cardio output (called VO2 max) and endurance significantly more than those who took a placebo. The researchers found that the beet drinkers’ muscles used ATP (chemical energy) more efficiently, so the beet juice-drinkers needed less oxygen to perform, which is why they were able to go harder and longer.

Additonally, that nitric oxide-induced increase in blood flow can contribute to ‘muscle pump,’ the appearance of larger, more defined muscles that often comes with an intense strength-training session—a look treasured by many a fitness enthusiast.

Trying Beets For The First Time

When I first started using beets for endurance racing, I would mix about a scoop of beetroot powder with water before training runs and races (which varied from three to 15 miles). The supplement helped my runs feel all-around smoother. In other words, I was more alert (better circulation means more oxygen to the brain, too, after all), could breathe more easily, and didn’t notice the distance as much. Who knew a little extra blood flow could make such a difference?

Before obstacle course races, I took either some beet powder, NAC (a precursor to the antioxidant glutathione), BCAAs (often Cellucor Alpha Aminos), or a combination of all three, for a boost of the endurance, strength, and focus I’d need to run through rocky terrain, jump over logs, and swing from bars.

Taking Beets Into The Gym

After a couple of years of racing constantly, a few injuries forced me to dial back on the endurance training, so my current routine consists mostly of strength training, group fitness classes, and a little hot yoga. As racing took a back seat, so did my beet-y pre-workout routine.

I started using caffeinated pre-workouts—like BPI Sports 1MR or Cellucor C4 Ultimate—to pump me up before hitting the weights or a class, and downing a coffee or energy drink later in the day as I powered through personal training sessions. It was a recipe for a caffeine dependency—and after one day without coffee left me with a splitting headache, I started to wonder if beets could help me kick the habit without sacrificing my performance in the gym and energy throughout the workday.

Related: 5 Of The Most Hardcore Pre-Workouts Out There

To wean myself off the caffeine, I mixed a scoop of Nu Therapy Power Beets beet powder into a little bit of Berry Splash BPI Sports 1MR (which actually contains 500 milligrams of beets per serving itself). The beets didn’t affect the color or flavor, and I still had enough caffeine to feel alert and power through a cardio- and core-heavy Daily Burn 365 workout.

A few days later, I attended a coaching workshop about barbell lifting technique. Knowing I’d be lifting some heavy weights, I again mixed a scoop of beetroot powder into some 1MR and sipped my concoction between every set. Though I was tired from a long night out and a morning of training clients, I felt pretty alert. I even hit 245 pounds on the bench press and 115 pounds on the overhead press, and held solid form throughout all of my sets.

A few days after that, I finally took the powdered beets on their own before heading to a hot yoga class. Though I usually found myself breathing heavily during these extra-hot flows, I felt in control and at ease.

The True Test

After knocking my caffeine dependence down a few notches and seeing initial results from the beets, I was ready to power a lifting session with beets and beets alone. I mixed myself up a cocktail of two scoops of beetroot powder, half a cup of Dynamic Health Beetroot Juice, and four ounces of water.

I downed my brightly-colored drink before hitting a high-volume chest and arms day—and hit a personal record on the dumbbell bench press! The beets totally mimicked a typical pre-workout, complete with ‘tunnel vision,’ ‘intense pumps,’ and ‘vascular’ veins. And I didn’t even need caffeine! I couldn’t believe it. I was so focused on my workout, it was like I was the only one in the gym. As my music bumped through my ears, I found myself in a total flow state, and banged out my sets and reps like they were nothing. It was a feeling I associated with being pumped up on regular pre-workout, but now courtesy of a simple, purple-y root vegetable.

Outside of my own workouts, I even started drinking beet juice before long days of training clients. It helped me keep my energy levels high all day long (which really says something considering I go pretty much rep-for-rep with my clients), as long as I’d gotten a decent night of sleep. On sleepy days, I either doubled up on beets with one of those beetroot cocktails or added some caffeine back into the mix for an extra bump. Still, I felt good about finding a new, all-natural way to up my energy.

The Verdict

Though I knew beets could help me get through long runs, I didn’t expect them to work such magic in the weight room, leave me with such a strong, satisfying pump, or help me stay energized throughout the day without worshiping caffeine.

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Now that beets are back in my life, I’ll continue to take them before group fitness classes and bodybuilding workouts. Of course, should I hop back into any endurance racing, I’ll turn to these ruby roots then, too. Even if I do take caffeine when I really need it, I feel good knowing that I’m still boosting circulation and loading up on antioxidants by incorporating beets into my routine. As long as I’m taking supplements to support my fitness (which will probably be forever), beets will hold a spot at the top of my list.

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