Bodywork

The Unbeatable Pre-Race Pesto

A growing body of research suggests the wildly unpopular beet is the endurance-athlete's new best friend.

Beet Pesto; Linguine with beet pesto; a side kale salad with Gorgonzola cheese; avocados and red bell pepper; and some sliced artisan bread with butter.

Linguine with beet pesto, a side kale salad with Gorgonzola cheese, avocados and red bell pepper, and some sliced artisan bread with butter.     Photo: Shalaya Kipp

Anatomy of the beet

Unbeatable Beet Pesto:

  • 2 medium sized red beets (baked)
  • ¾ cup olive oil
  • ¾ cup Parmesan cheese
  • ½ cup roughly chopped beet greens
  • 5 cloves garlic
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ cup chopped walnuts
  • Combine all ingredients in a food processor.

Powerade was the official sports drink of the 2012 London Olympics, but the 5K and 10K gold medalist in track and field, Mo Farah, was gulping down beetroot juice before his races.

Why? Over the last several years, studies have linked this non-starchy vegetable to endurance-related performance benefits. The tart purple plant is high in dietary nitrate that our bodies convert to nitric oxide gas, which widens blood vessels to deliver more oxygen-rich blood to muscle—and some impressive performance gains. (A 2012 study found that a single beat eaten 75 minutes before racing helped athletes run the final mile of a race 5 percent faster.)

You'll get the most bang-for-your-beet by eating them daily, says Fred DiMenna, a Columbia University researcher who co-authored a study on beets and their performance benefits. And you can do more than drink them. The leaves, root, and skin of the vegetable are full of nitrates.

Just don't swish with mouthwash right after eating. Many rinses kill the good bacteria on the tongue that convert the nitrates you eat into nitrites, DiMenna says. These nitrites are in turn transported down the throat via saliva, hit the acid in the stomach, and are eventually transformed into the all-important nitric oxide.

A pesto can be used across meals to help you eat beets for weeks without ever having to eat the same meal twice. Scramble it in with your morning eggs, smear it on a chicken sandwich for lunch, and add it to your pasta the night before racing.

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