Are You Juicing?
In the never-ending chase for (legal) athletic performance enhancement, there are a growing number of athletes turning to juice in hopes of finding that extra edge. And of course we're talking about the fruit and vegetable kind, not the euphemism where "juice" means some sort of nefarious product illegally obtained.
The idea of juice as athletic elixir has become so widespread that it even made an appearance in a recent New York Times blog that cited a study claiming that cyclists who drank beetroot juice before a 10-mile time trail were 3 percent faster than when they didn't drink juice.
It's not entirely clear what the juice does to make athletes faster, but one of the doctors involved in the study believes that the liquefied beetroot helps improve blood and oxygen flow to muscles, and also helps those muscles use the oxygen more efficiently.
But there have also been studies that debunked some of these claims, and beetroot, as you might imagine, isn't the best-tasting drink in the world.
Another concoction receiving attention is tart cherry juice, which some researchers claim can help athletes during the all-important recovery process. According to the same NYT blog, researchers at the Nicholas Institute of Sports Medicine and Athletic Trauma at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan have concluded that the juice from sour-tasting Montmorency cherries helped "reduce muscle pain and weakness" after intense strength training and after running a marathon.
Even if it turns out that none of this research will actually make a different in athletes' performance, there are other good reasons to juice. Indeed, it's a great way to get the important nutrients and vitamins without turning to supplements or other less organic methods. "Juicing is a great way for athletes to increase the nutrient density of the foods they eat without increasing the fiber load," explains Dr. Allen Lim, a sports physiologist who has worked as a nutritional consultant for a number of professional cycling teams.
Isn't fiber a good thing, though? For most of us, most of the time, yes — but not if you're a serious athlete starting a workout or race. "Fruits and vegetables contain a substantial amount of nutrition but also contain a lot of fiber. With a lot of the athletes I work with, they burn so many calories in a day and need to consume so much food to keep up with their nutritional needs that if they consumed all that nutrition in solid form, they would literally create a huge load on and in their gastrointestinal system because of all the fiber. So rather than fill them up with empty calories, I'd rather see them juice."
Lim recommends trying a variety of blends until you find something you like. "I like juicing fruits and vegetables that taste great in whole form, that are dense, and that contain a decent amount of water," he says. "Foods like carrots, oranges, kale, beets, apples, cucumber, red peppers, cucumbers, spinach, celery, pineapples, blood oranges, arugula, tangerines, peaches, nectarines, plums, grapefruit, and green peppers can all make a great base for a juice while ingredients like ginger, lemons, and limes can be a great flavor addition in small amounts."
As for timing, Lim recommends juicing in the morning, which normally means before a workout. "The rule of thumb is to limit the fiber load before the workout and maximize the fiber load after the workout," he says.
As for the athletes themselves, those I spoke to chalked their juicing habit up to primarily a quest for good health. "It's just good for you," says Jake Wells, a pro cyclocross racer for the Stan's NoTubes team, who also runs a coaching business. "You can get a lot of nutrition into a glass of juice versus eating a giant salad." Wells favors beet juice mixed with apple juice for better flavor. "I eat beets in all forms a lot," he says. "They are good for recovery because all the iron acts as a blood-builder."
Fellow pro bike racer Jeremy Powers sees similar benefits. "I definitely feel like I have more energy when I'm making different juices regularly," he says. "And it's good to know that I'm getting all of the different vitamins and minerals from them. But I guess we'll see this coming race season if it's had any real benefits."
Do you use vegetable and/or fruit juices to fuel your training or racing? If so, which ones?
— Jason Sumner, Bicycling Reporter
An avid cyclist, Jason has been writing about two-wheeled pursuits of all kinds since 2000. He’s covered the Tour de France, two Olympic Games, and numerous international cycling events. He’s also thrown himself into the fray from time to time, penning first-person accounts of adventures in British Columbia, Costa Rica, Peru, and Brazil, among others.