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Race Fueling

Beets Increased My Power Output—But Nobody Knows Why

Beet supplements are nothing new, so why did I have my DNA and blood tested, and why did I flog myself on a trainer (twice!) in the name of beet science? Read on.

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Beet supplements are nothing new, so why did I have my DNA and blood tested, and why did I flog myself on a trainer (twice!) in the name of beet science? Read on. 

“First rule in roadside beet sales, put the most attractive beets on top. The ones that make you pull the car over and go, ‘Wow, I need this beet right now.’ Those are the money beets.”
—Dwight K. Schrute, The Office

Rainn Wilson’s quirkily severe character in the U.S. version of The Office gets a lot of things wrong. Sometimes his desk gets hidden in the bathroom, sometimes he offends clients, sometimes he stabs a CPR dummy in an effort to harvest its organs and wears its plastic face like a Silence-of-the-Lambs mask. But he gets one thing right: Not all beets are created equal—at least according to Sur PhytoPerformance’s new product, AltRed.

Yes, “Sur PhytoPerformance” may sound like the name of a brand that will someday rule us with robots in a dystopian future, but the company behind that mouthful of a company is actually Van Drunen Farms—a seventh-generation, family-owned wholesale farming business that sells fruits and vegetables as ingredients. This is important because their products are all grown and processed under their direct in-house supervision, so there’s no chance of a pesky supply-chain mixup somewhere between tainted vats in China and the supplement you so trustingly ingest.

But a family beet-farming link between AltRed and Schrute Farms is pretty much where the comparison ends. Using Sur’s own sourced ingredients as a jumping off point, the brand is solely interested on the effects of their beet extract on athletes and uses a deep well of scientific talent to understand which type of extract is most effective, why, and for whom. This is where I came in.

In March, I was invited out to FutureCeuticals Labs in Irvine, Calif. to perform an FTP test and have some of my genetic data tested and analyzed. A week before my visit, I did a standard 20-minute FTP test on my power-based bike trainer at home. Around that same time—before taking any AltRed—I also sent in a mouth swab for genetic testing. In the months leading up to the first home test, I had probably only been riding a day or two each week but running three to four days per week.

Though decidedly not in race shape, I have a background as a former professional triathlete who raced Olympic-distance events and shorter during my roughly decade-long career on the ITU, non-draft, and XTERRA circuits. For what it’s worth, I was one of the strongest runners in any given race, in the top 25 percent for biking, and usually in the bottom 25 percent for swimming among pros. (#humblebrag?)

The results of the at-home test were not great. When I was competing at my best, I usually averaged about 340-360 watts for a 40k in a tri. During the home test, I averaged 272 watts and felt like I was hanging on for dear life for the entire 20 minutes. The next day, I felt as sore as I expected but not incredibly tired. Despite not posting objectively terrible numbers, the test was relatively disappointing.

For the next week, I took the AltRed supplement each morning with food. I rode once or twice and ran three times, but did no focused workout sessions—just running/riding to get outside. I wouldn’t say my training felt any faster or better than usual, but of course, I wasn’t really pushing myself either.

The day of the test, I arrived at the lab and had blood drawn to get a pre-workout, pre-AltRed-for-the-day baseline reading, then took the supplement, waited roughly two hours, and began the test with the same protocol (my smart trainer reading power, my bike, same equipment). Results below.

While the results are obviously much, much better (“statistically significant,” the scientists administering the test assured me), I was actually more impressed with how I felt than the numbers. Near the end of the test, I felt like I was literally running out of gears and could have pushed harder, longer.

So what the heck happened then? The weird thing is, the scientists behind AltRed aren’t sure. Zb Pietrzkowski, the senior vice president of research and design at Sur has a doctorate in molecular biology, and it’s been his mission to understand why beets—specifically AltRed’s beet extract has such a strong effect on some athletes.

According to Pietrzkowski, one of the differences between AltRed and other beet supplements is a higher concentration of betalains, the phytonutrient that gives beets their red color and is likely at the core of their anti-inflammation properties. The other difference, he says, is their product’s lack of nitrates.

The claimed effects on responders (we’ll translate that buzzword momentarily) are diverse: reduction in knee-joint pain, faster recovery, higher power output, and even sinusitis relief. But the big trick is that while Sur points to two studies about improved times and improved recovery versus a placebo, Pietrzkowski admits the usual biomarker suspects aren’t consistently improved with betalains: Signs of lactic acid reduction and hematocrit increase were totally mixed during the studies, but the end-result was almost always positive. One of their interesting theories was that capillaries carrying blood essentially widen in the presence of betalains—allowing more blood to flow to and from muscles—but they had no conclusive proof yet. This is a long way of saying, “It works, but we don’t really know what it’s doing.”

Though my blood values are in no way a proper clinical study with multiple subjects, the results are below. Pietrzkowski and his colleague Tanya Reyes-Izquierdo—the senior scientist for FutureCeuticals who has a doctorate in biochemistry—were most puzzled by the jump in my hematocrit, in green, right before exercise, and even tongue-in-cheek teased me about using EPO right before the test (I didn’t!). Other interesting values to look at included a huge jump in post-test lactate, in red.

We also got a glimpse at my genetic testing results, but to this end the genetic information may turn out to be less useful to me and more useful to Sur and other supplement brands in the future.

“We’re trying to figure out who it’s affecting,” Pietrzkowski explains. “Some people do not respond.” This is the key to AltRed’s success (or the potential failure). Supplement companies like Sur, who have a great product that works—but they don’t quite understand why it works—need to first figure out who it works with. This is important for two reasons: While Pietrzkowski and Reyes-Izquierdo were emphatic that I was a responder, they want to find more responders and use only responders to conduct an effective study and finally figure out what the heck is causing beets to make us better; also, they say they want to use this information to someday market the supplement directly to responders only. Now cue your dystopian fears.

But this is actually a great thing. Imagine taking a test before you purchase a fairly costly supplement and knowing that, yes, this supplement will absolutely make you faster. While direct-to-consumer genetic testing is a long way away from being truly useful to athletes (see our story in Triathlete’s July issue), using genetic testing to help narrow down a study’s pool or helping athletes learn about which supplement will work for them is actually a very cool thing for the future.

So in the end, my trip to an obscure office park in Orange County may not have yielded the key to my genetic potential, but the testing process did help illustrate that the future of supplements may be nearly customized pills and powders. And to the question of how AltRed actually worked for me—am I now fast? Well, I’ll leave the answer to the world’s greatest beet poet, Dwight Schrute: “I am fast. To give you a reference point I am somewhere between a snake and a mongoose… And a panther.”