As plant-based diets have become more popular in recent years, you may have wondered whether fruits and veggies can actually contribute to your performance. After all, opinions around diets in general are pretty polarizing, so getting to a nugget of truth can be difficult to say the least!
We generally take a balanced approach here, so we wanted to take a look at what plants really offer in terms of performance (regardless of your diet preferences).
It turns out that thanks to epic, tiny compounds such as nitric oxide, plants actually do pack more power than one might think.
What Is Nitric Oxide?
Nitric oxide is a compound produced by your body that plays a crucial and beneficial role in hormone release and blood vessel health. It is a natural vasodilator, meaning it is responsible for relaxing and dilating your blood vessels. Because dilated blood vessels can result in better circulation (aka: more oxygen and nutrient flow), the athletic community has long loved using it to help improve recovery and give performance a boost.
What does this have to do with plants?
To make nitric oxide, your body uses various building blocks such as vitamin C, amino acids, natural nitrates, and other compounds. This is why nitric oxide “supplements” don’t actually contain nitric oxide, but instead contain amino acids and plant extracts like beet root extract and specific types of antioxidants to encourage your body to produce more nitric oxide.
And, while some clean supplements are fine to take, the building blocks for nitric oxide are naturally found in abundance in different veggies; choosing veggies over products can sometimes make avoiding sketchy ingredients easy! The reason plants are such powerhouses for nitric oxide production is that many naturally produce nitrate, which your body then converts to nitric oxide when you eat them.
Benefits Of Nitric Oxide For Performance
Just how true is the claim that nitric oxide can significantly boost performance? Interestingly, many studies show there is something beneficial going on between nitric oxide and our bodies. Let’s dive in a little deeper.
1. May Increase Endurance
Several studies on endurance athletes like cyclists and runners have shown that nitric oxide was able to enhance performance, revealing that nitric oxide may give endurance a boost. As we mentioned earlier, nitric oxide works as a vasodilator, relaxing and widening blood vessels. When blood vessels are widened, more nutrients and oxygen are able to be delivered to muscles during exercise, which can provide more muscle “fuel” for longer.
2. May Increase Strength
Interestingly, research has shown that beet root juice supplementation can increase muscle power output (strength). Why beet root juice? Beets contain very high levels of nitrate, which convert to nitric oxide! In the study, the participants’ high levels of nitric oxide production influenced their muscle shortening velocity, which increased their power output.
Another study also found that nitric oxide increased sprint performance, showing again how it may give power output a boost.
3. Can Improve Alertness During Exercise
If you’ve ever felt mentally fatigued during your workouts, nitric oxide may also be able to help. Studies have found that nitric oxide (again, from beets) can reduce the “decline of cognitive function” that occurs during long or intense workouts. This may be beneficial for endurance activities as well, since mental fatigue can have a huge impact on whether we can sustain any activity.
4. Can Enhance Recovery
More research has also shown that nitric oxide may help remove lactate from your body after exercise, which can reduce soreness and stiffness. Lactate buildup in our muscles is partly responsible for the soreness we feel after an intense workout, which is why we encourage cool-downs and mobility work to “flush” it out. As it turns out, nitric oxide may help with this process.
What Plants To Eat To Boost Nitric Oxide Levels
As you probably noticed, beets were often used in these studies to increase nitric oxide levels. This is because they contain some of the highest amounts of nitrates of all plant foods! However, they are far from the only plants that contain natural nitrates. Here is a full list:
- Beets (whole, as well as powder + juice)
- Leafy greens like arugula, spinach, chard and watercress
If you want an easy way to add a high amount of natural nitrates to your diet, you can try adding pure beet powder or juice to your pre-workout smoothie (or simply take it with water). You can also incorporate a handful of these leafy greens into smoothies, stews, and soups, as well as add them to salads. Not only will this nudge your nitric oxide levels higher, but also flood your body with other beneficial nutrients and minerals for overall energy and performance.
As you can see, there is definitely hidden power in plants. Cheers to that (with a glass of beet root juice), Tribe!