It's not news that foods high in nitrates, like celery, fennel, leeks, spinach, rocket lettuce and beetroot, can boost your performance. The nitrates in those foods turn into nitric oxide in the body. Nitric oxide is a vasodilator—a fancy term that means it relaxes the blood vessels, allowing blood to pump more efficiently, thus lowering the oxygen cost of exercise. The end result: it improves exercise efficiency.
What is news is how you can best use nitrate-rich foods to enhance your performance. It might be as simple as eating those foods more often.
According to information in the October 2013 issue of The International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, implementing a nitrate-loading phase of 15 days can yield a greater benefit to an athlete than one or five days of nitrate loading. In layman's terms, this means ramping up your intake of nitrate-rich foods over two weeks will improve your exercise efficiency more than a week's worth of loading, or a single day.
Athletes engaging in aerobic exercise can best use this nutrition hack: longer, steady states of exertion as opposed to short bursts of high intensity.
"I've got it being ideal for two to 40 minutes of exercise," says Kelly Pritchett, PhD, RD, and assistant professor in Sports Nutrition at the University of Georgia. "So your swimmers, track athletes or triathletes [can benefit from this]."
The only caveat is that if you don't know the bio-availability of nitrates in your food—i.e., the amount you take in combined with your body's ability to use it—you can't be totally sure if you're ingesting the appropriate amount. The athletes in the study chugged a half-liter of beetroot juice each day, but if you're not interested in that, Pritchett suggests a spinach, beets, goat cheese and candied walnut salad. "You want to get nitrates through your diet," says Pritchett. "It's a low-risk option that may enhance performance."
However you ingest them, getting more nitrates into your diet may help you perform at a higher level when you've loaded over two weeks. The research suggests approximately a 0.9 percent increase in performance after nitrate supplementation—a huge margin when you reach competitive levels. "That could be the difference between 1st and 3rd place," says Pritchett.
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