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There’s been a wealth of research published in the last decade on the beneficial effects of nitrate supplementation (predominantly in the form of beetroot) on different aspects of exercise performance. But one of the questions that remains unanswered is how effective nitrate supplementation is for improving performance in elite athletes.

The latest study to look at this issue took 3 groups of athletes; each with different fitness levels (see table below) and gave them 5.5mmol (i.e. 341mg) of nitrate in the form of sodium nitrate (as opposed to beetroot). The supplementation period ran for 6 days and included a placebo-controlled crossover, which was just a simple salt solution.

Fitness Group

VO2max Range (mL/kg/min)

Low Aerobic Fitness

28.2-44.1

Moderate Aerobic Fitness

45.5-57.1

High Aerobic Fitness

63.9-81.7

Because nitrate supplementation has been shown to improve both anaerobic and aerobic exercise capacity, subjects in the study were put through a battery of tests designed to test these different components of exercise performance. One test consisted of a ramp protocol (to determine VO2max and gas exchange threshold), while another consisted of two 6-minute bouts of moderate-intensity running, while the last test was a 3-km running time trial.

Aside from testing the effect of nitrate supplementation on some of these performance measures, the researchers were also interested in how nitrate supplementation affected oxygen utilisation and VO2max. What they observed was very interesting.

Effect of VO2max on Response to Nitrate Supplementation

To start with, there was the question of the relationship between VO2max and the effect of nitrate supplementation on economy of oxygen utilisation during steady state exercise. The graph below provides a good graphical depiction of the change in oxygen consumption following 6 days of nitrate supplementation - as a function of VO2max. The graph clearly depicts the positive correlation between a drop in the oxygen cost of exercise consumption and decreasing VO2max (i.e. aerobic fitness) values of individuals across the three different fitness groups.

effect of nitrate on oxygen consumption

As far as running performance was concerned, there was a similar trend in performance improvement relative to individuals’ VO2max. This is depicted in the graph below, where only the low and moderate fitness groups experienced a statistically significant decrease in running performance following 6 days of nitrate supplementation.

Effect of nitrate on 3k run time vs vO2max

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the study was the differences in resting blood levels of nitrate and how nitrate supplementation affected these relative to individuals’ VO2max. As depicted in the graphs below, individuals with higher VO2max had naturally higher resting levels of nitrate and nitrite (a derivative of nitrate). Moreover, when given nitrate orally, there was relatively less change in blood nitrate (and nitrite) levels as VO2max increased.

plasma nitrate in response to nitrate supplementation vs VO2max

Taken together the results of this study suggest that individuals with lower fitness exhibit both a higher reduction of oxygen cost of sub maximal exercise and a more relevant improvement in 3-km running time trial performance following nitrate supplementation in the form of sodium nitrate. Given that the bulk of research on nitrate has been conducted using nitrate from beetroot, it’s important to highlight that these results do not definitively suggest that nitrate from beetroot will display the same effect, however, on the weight of current literature, it would be surprising to see otherwise.

One of the explanations that the authors offer is that the effects of nitrate supplementation may be more pronounced in type II muscle fibers. And given that there is evidence of a correlation between VO2max and percentage of type I fibers, it could be hypothesized that the progressive blunting in the effects of nitrate as subjects’ VO2max increased might be linked to a lower proportion of type II fibers.

If this is found to be true in subsequent research, it could be good news for bodybuilders and individuals engaged in weight training who naturally posses higher proportions of type II muscle fibers. For the time being, if your in average condition, you're still likely to get a boost from nitrate supplementation.

 

Porcelli S, et al. Aerobic fitness affects the exercise performance responses to nitrate supplementation. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc. 2015;47(8):1643–1651.

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