Beetroot Juice – worth the hype?

Beetroot juice has been one of the biggest stories in sports science in recent years, after researchers at the University of Exeter found it enables people to exercise for up to 16% longer.

The startling results have led to a host of athletes – from Premiership footballers to professional cyclists – looking into its potential uses.


Concentrated beetroot juice (shot)

When consumed, nitrate found in beetroot juice has two marked physiological effects.

  1. widens blood vessels, reducing blood pressure and allowing more blood flow.
  2. affects muscle tissue, reducing the amount of oxygen needed by muscles during activity.

The combined effects have a significant impact on performing physical tasks, whether it involves low-intensity or high-intensity effort.$T2eC16dHJGoFFvPOJJ3UBR0ZfTsjj!~~60_35

Professor Andrew Jones, from the University of Exeter, lead author on the research, said: “The findings show an improvement in performance that, at competition level, could make a real difference – particularly in an event like the Tour de France where winning margins can be tight.”

Beetroot juice is an easy way to quickly ingest a substantial amount of dietary nitrate. However, some may find the taste of beetroot juice unpleasant. Fortunately, beetroots are just one of many vegetables that are high in nitrate. Leafy green vegetables tend to be the top sources.

The dose of dietary nitrate used in the research to reduce the oxygen cost

of exercise, improve athletic performance, and lower blood pressure ranges from 300 to 500 mg. This is about 300-500ml of Beet It 100% Pressed drink.

This amount can also be obtained by eating the following foods:

Very high nitrate levels: celery, cress, chervil, lettuce, red beetroot, spinach, and rocket (more than 250 mg/100 g)images-3

High nitrate levels: celeriac, Chinese cabbage, endive, fennel, leeks, and parsley (approximately 100 to 250 mg/100 g)

Ultimately, eating beetroot, drinking beetroot juice, or eating foods high in nitrate is unlikely to increase your exercise endurance unless you are already an athlete and at the peak of fitness. Even for athletes, it is fundamental to get the basics of diet right before putting your faith in nitrates to improve performance.

For most of us, the best way to increase endurance is to exercise regularly so aim to work towards achieving the recommended 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise, five times a week.

Beetroot recipes


Beetroot Salad – high nitrates for athletic performance

High in dietary nitrates (a very good thing!), recent research has found beetroot improves performance in athletes by 16%. Here’s why.

This is a recipe my Mum has been making for as long as I can remember. I don’t know why it’s called Winter Salad, as we’d usually have it in the summer with quiche (how 80s!)


  • one apple chopped
  • about 5 slices of beetroot from a jar
  • 2 sticks of celery

Chop each ingredient in to small cubes and mix together in a bowl. No dressing needed!

Recovery – nutrition essentials for better performance

Between each workout, game or race the body needs to adapt to the physiological stress that has just been applied, so that it can recover and become fitter, stronger and faster. This can be challenging when an athlete has two or more session each day, for prolonged training periods and for multiple event sports.

What’s happening during recovery?

  • refuelling of muscle and carbohydrate stores
  • replacing fluids and electrolytes lost in sweat
  • manufacturing new muscle protein and blood cells
  • allowing immune system to manage damage caused by exercise

Nutritional management of recovery:

  1. Replace muscle carbohydrate (glycogen) – with in 1 hour of exercise: 1-2g/kg – this is when carbs are most efficiently utilised by the muscles. This is especially important if the next training session is within 8 hours.
  2. Rehydrate – dehydration negatively impacts on performance during subsequent sessions. Aim to replace fluids lost with 120% fluids with electrolytes. Sodium reduces urine losses and induces thirst, therefore encouraging increased fluid intake.
  3. Build and repair muscle – High intensity exercise leads to breakdown of the muscle. The recovery phase is an opportunity for building muscle. 15-25g high quality protein within 1 hour increases muscle building. Adding carbohydrate enhances recovery of muscle by reducing muscle breakdown.
  4. Protect immunity – immunity is suppressed by intense training, making athletes more susceptible to infectious illnesses. Carbohydrate is an immune protector as it reduces the stress hormone response to exercise. Carbohydrate also fuels the activity of the immune system’s white cells.

Supplements for recovery

Many athletes rely on sports supplements during and immediately post exercise, then double up with a meal soon after. This is fine if there are very large calorie needs, however, for moderate to low energy needs this is excessive. Food provides the same plus additional benefits to supplements eg. iron, calcium, fibre, antioxidants etc.

Good foods for recovery – providing carbohydrate & protein:

Rice pudding, milkshake, breakfast cereal with milk, beans on toast, cheese roll, jacket potato with cottage cheese, tuna wrap. Any balanced meal with protein, carbs and veg.


Post exercise shakes have their place, but watch the extra calories!


Next blog post: Recovery shakes – when to take, a comparison of the most popular, and making your own in one minute.

Nutrition for Young Athletes

Why a nutritious diet is needed:


  • Normal growth and development
  • Healthy, strong body
  • Energy for everyday activities – school, gymnastics training
  • Repair of muscles following demands and stresses of training and competition

Main components of the diet:



  • as important as food
  • Overheating and dehydration can be dangerous (heat stroke)
  • Low levels of dehydration: reduced strength, stamina, concentration


  • Supply energy for musclesSTARCHY
  • Immunity
  • Growth
  • Focus on wholegrain bread, pasta, rice, fruit, veg
  • Especially important before and after exercise for muscle energy



  • For muscular strength & power, muscle repair & maintenance
  • Focus on lean protein: chicken, fish, eggs,
  • dairy, beans, seeds, nuts

Healthy Fats:

  • Important for healthy heart, nervous system, hormones etc.
  • Focus on healthier fats from olive oil, oily fish eg. Salmon, avocado, peanut butter etc.

Vitamins & Minerals:

  • Calcium – strong bones
  • Iron – needed for blood cells to transport oxygen to muscles
  • Vitamin D – bone development, also implicated in long term health issues
  • B vitamins – energy production & protein metabolism
  • Omega 3 fats – oily fish, for brain development, heart health, vision etc.
  • Generally, supplements not needed if child has varied diet
  • Consider fish oil supplement (omega 3 fats) if intake of oily fish is less than once per week
  • Consider Vitamin D supplement if always wears sunscreen in summer

Pre – exercise fuelling:

  • Aim to have a meal or a substantial snack a few hours before:
    • Pitta/crumpets/toast with jam/honey/peanut butter + milk
    • Jacket potato + tuna/baked beansshutterstock_81803002
    • Baked beans on toast
    • Boiled egg and toast
    • Porridge, milk and raisins/berries
    • Breakfast cereal with milk
    • Bread roll with cheese/meat filling + banana
    • Pasta, rice or noodles with tomato sauce, lean meat eg. chicken, vegetables
  • Up to 1 hour before
    • Fluid for hydration: 200mls fruit juice/water/skimmed milk

 Early morning sessions: If training or competition is first thing in the morning, it is probably not possible to have a meal 3-4 hours before. In these circumstances, have a good meal the night before, then a snack and fluid 1-2 hours pre exercise eg. breakfast cereal and milk, fruit and yoghurt, smoothie or milkshake.

After exercise:

Ensure your child has a snack, or a meal following training. Carbohydrates replenish the muscles with glycogen for energy, while protein repairs and rebuilds muscle tissue. Sports protein shakes or supplements are unnecessary and not advised.

Post-exercise snack ideas (follow within a few hours with a meal):

  • Homemade shake – blend 200ml milk, tablespoon yoghurt, banana, tablespoon honey
  • Low fibre breakfast cereal  eg. Cornflakes/Rice Krispies and milk
  • banana and yoghurt/milk
  • Bread roll or sandwich with cheese/meat/fish filling


It is highly likely that your child will finish training with some degree of dehydration, therefore it is important to replace these fluids as soon as possible after the session. Aim for 200ml fluid with an hour of finishing.

Body image and Disordered Eating

In some sports there is pressure to ‘not get fat’/stay lean or to bulk up to enhance performance Eg. Gymnastics or rugby.

Any such pressure can have the opposite effect – unhealthy eating patterns, restrictive eating (anorexia), or bingeing (bulimia).

Poor nutrition, resulting in weight loss, can cause anaemia, reduction in muscle power and performance, weak bones, poor concentration and increased injury risk

Tips for parents:

  • Do not weigh your child (unless specifically asked to do so for medical reasons)
  • Do not discuss calories or fat, unless raised by your child.  Approach in a positive manner e.g. food gives us energy for exercising and being strong. Healthy fats are important for us to be healthy.
  • Talk about food being nutritious, for making us strong, repairing cuts in our skin, building our muscles, giving energy for running fast etc.

Written by Sarah Danaher, Registered Dietitian, Accredited Sports Dietitian

Registered Dietitians are the only qualified health professionals that assess, diagnose and treat diet and nutrition problems.

If you have any concerns regarding your child’s or family’s diet, then please don’t hesitate to contact me:

07758 100727

Boosting immunity to stop getting sick

It’s an unfortunate inevitability that at some time or another, illness will descend upon any work place.

Gastroenteritis can be difficult to avoid and in environments where there is close contact, it can spread like wild fire. Washing hands is vital to avoid infection, alcohol gel can also be used, but is not as effective as thorough hand washing. Here’s what the NHS says on medical treatment.

From a food point of view, it is especially vital for athletes to try to maintain nutritional intake to prevent muscle wastage and maintain energy levels. Easier said than done when you can’t keep anything down! If possible, and even if there is no appetite, small amounts of plain food and higher calorie fluids eg. toast, fruit juice, breakfast cereal, plain biscuits, or any food that you feel you can tolerate should be eaten.

It is possible that following recovery from gastroenteritis, the gut may have become intolerant to lactose (milk sugar), causing continued diarrhoea, and possibly abdominal pain and bloating. This is because the enzyme, lactase, which breaks down the lactose has been affected. Normal milk can be replaced with Lactofree Milk, tolerance to other dairy products varies. A dietitian can advise further on lactose avoidance.

In a previous post, I discussed the numerous reasons for lowered immunity during training for athletes:

  • repeated cycles of heavy exertion
  • exposure to germs and bugs
  • mental stress
  • lack of sleep
  • poor nutrition
  • weight loss

The first two points, repeated cycles of heavy exertion, and exposure to bugs certainly apply to the London Irish squad in pre season training, hopefully less so the mental stress, lack of sleep, poor nutrition and weight loss.

So what can be done to reduce the possibility of becoming ill?

Nutritional immunology is a rapidly growing area, and four key principles have emerged:

1. Almost all nutrients in the diet play a crucial role in immunity. A varied, healthy diet provides all these nutrients in most healthy adults, and mega doses of vitamin/mineral supplements do not “boost” immunity above normal levels.

2. Poor energy and nutrient intake can reduce the immunity and susceptibility to germs and bugs. Poor protein intake reduces immune function and strongly increases risk of various types of infections.

3. Some nutrients (glutamine, arginine, fatty acids, vitamin E) provide additional benefits to immunocompromised persons (e.g. the frail elderly) or patients who suffer from various infections. Currently there is a lack of evidence to support the use of these in preventing exercise-induced immune suppression and protection from infection.

4. Some supplements may prove useful in countering immune suppression for healthy adults during unusual mental and physical stress e.g. omega-3 fatty acids from fish oils reduce inflammatory responses.


Of the various nutritional countermeasures that have been evaluated so far, carbohydrates before, during, and after prolonged or intense exertion has emerged as the most effective way to ensure less of a negative effect on the immune system. Athletes intent on reducing body fat by avoiding carbohydrates should be aware that this may impact on their immunity.

shutterstock_85815004Strategies to ensure good carbohydrate stores to optimise immunity:

  • Have a carbohydrate-based snack before you start high intensity training, particularly hard morning training.  If you are unable to tolerate something before you start exercise, have a source of carbohydrate during the session such as a sports drink (6-8% carbohydrate)
  • Have a carbohydrate-based snack shortly after training to start the recovery process.  This is of particular importance for athletes training more than once a day with limited time to recover for the next session.
  • Base meals around nutrient-rich carbohydrate-containing foods and fluids.  Rice, pasta, bread, cereals, fruit, starchy vegetables and low-fat milk and yoghurt are nutrient-packed carbohydrate-containing

    Balanced meals with carbs, protein & veg

    Balanced meals with carbs, protein & veg

    choices. The aim is to match daily carbohydrate needs with an appropriate amount of carbohydrate-containing foods and fluids throughout the day.



Probiotics may benefit athletic performance indirectly by maintaining gut function and health, preventing the immunosuppressive effects of intense exercise, and reducing susceptibility to illness. Substantial evidence exists indicating that probiotics can reduce susceptibility to acute infectious diarrhoea (athletes may be particularly susceptible during foreign travel). Probiotics come in tablet or liquid form eg. Yakult. Tablets tend to be more potent, and are available from health food shops.

A balanced and nutrient rich diet is fundamental to avoiding illness for those undergoing intense physical exercise. Current opinion is that athletes should invest in nutrient-rich foods and fluids that provide sufficient energy and a wide range of vitamins, minerals and other important chemicals, such as phytochemicals, found naturally in foods. When this is not possible the use of supplements such as multi vitamins and omega-3 fish oils.

Pre-season Overload Week – we’re on a high. Why?!

Mid-way through the intense Overload week of pre season rugby training, and Dec’s exhaustion levels don’t seem too extreme.

He was even able to hold a conversation last night, and levels of irritability appear low (at dinner he soldiered on admirably when there was no pesto for the pasta – he rescued it with a dollop of hot pepper sauce).

Possible reasons for being cheerful: 

  1. the old body is feeling good: during previous pre seasons he was heavier, weighing in at up to 110kg, making training a bigger effort and therefore more tiring. The attention to diet may be making a difference to fatigue levels…..a balanced intake of real nutritious foods, rather than over emphasis on high protein, low carbohydrate and supplements.
  2. pre season training is going well, with the squad bonding
  3. today was a day off training, just a pilates session and physio
  4. he’s enjoying coaching the boys at Ealing Rugby two nights a week…..a new routine is as good as a holiday!
  5. our two eldest children are in N. Ireland with their Granny and Grandpa for a week. This means a bit of peace (we do like to spend time with our children, it’s just that these two nutters are the antithesis of the ‘children should be seen and not heard’ parenting philosophy)
  6. he’s beside himself with joy at the birth of the nation’s new Prince

So last night’s dinner was rescued with some hot pepper sauce. It had me thinking, what are the food items we always have in the fridge or cupboard? The “Desert Island” products (idea poached from Radio 4 Desert Island Discs, this is my Kirsty Young moment). Obviously we do eat other things, like the staples of meat, fish, vegetables and pasta/rice etc.

Our Desert Island List:

    1. Oats – for the porridge in the morning, essential slow release carbohydrate for the training day ahead. Made with milk for calcium and protein, raisins and some sugar for faster releasing carbs and to make it taste better. Also use oats to make biscuits, flapjacks and in smoothies.image
    2. Eggs – powerhouses of nutrition. One of the best sources of protein, containing all the essential amino acids, including leucine (big selling point of many protein supplements). Don’t worry about the cholesterol as it is poorly absorbed by the body. Scrambled, boiled, omelettes, egg fried rice.
    3.  Yoghurt – I prefer to buy natural unflavoured yoghurt as it has no added sugar and usually has probiotics (good for gut health and immunity). Any brand will do, but I’m a fan of the massive tubs from Lidl (about £1.50 for 1kg). I can add berries/chopped fruit/put in smoothies etc. Dec likes the new Danone ‘Danio” higher protein yoghurts (13g protein/pot) which are sweetened with fruit and sugar.2013-04-01 15.58.55
    4. Fruit – for snacks, no explanation needed for the benefits of the vitamins, antioxidants, fibre, carbohydrate etc.
    5. Nuts – a handful of almonds as a snack, or peanut butter on toast. Healthy fats (cholesterol lowering), high protein so filling and good for muscle repair/building
    6. Coffee – for a wake up kick, afternoon kick, evening kick. Means we don’t have to physically kick each other to wake up! Contrary to imagepopular belief, it’s not dehydrating and has many health benefits. Also useful to have pre training as caffeine enhances performance (ergonomic)! At London Irish, some of the boys are in their Coffee Club, where they enjoy a swift Nespresso before hitting the training field/weights room.
    7. Hot Pepper Sauce – as previously discussed, this can rescue a meal

      Hot Pepper Sauce

      Hot Pepper Sauce

      that may be lacking in flavour. Used like tomato ketchup. Personally, I think it destroys any hope of actually tasting the food you put it on (mmmm, not saying a lot for my cooking skills, is it?!)

    8. Cherry Diet Coke – this is the Desert Island luxury item, Dec’s ‘treat’. I get a bit twitchy and Food Police when he reaches for the 3rd or 4th can of the day. There’s not much good to say about Diet Coke, it’s nutritionally sparse, and there are question marks over it’s long term health affects.

So here’s hoping the happy state remains with us until Saturday when a week off training starts, watch this space!

Pre season training – a day in the life……

7 weeks in to pre season training, and we’re starting to feel the physical strain. Pre season (June-August) is the time when fitness and strength training are pushed to the extreme in preparation for the playing season ahead. I say ‘we’re’ starting to feel the strain as having a husband in pre season training is like adding another child to the equation. His exhaustion at the end of the day renders him pretty much helpless!

This morning, Monday 22nd July, sees that start of ‘Over-load Week’, when the boys are pushed even more physically, with the reward of a week off from Sunday. As I sit here typing at 6am, Dec’s alarm is jolting him out of his comatose state. With the first training session at 7.15am, he needs to be up with enough time to fit in the first meal to allow it to digest. Here’s the schedule for today:

7.15am: 45 minutes weights (‘hypertrophy’ short, sharp and intense lifting, to increase muscle mass)

8am: breakfast

8.30am: stretching session

10am: 1 hour rugby training

11.30am: 1/2 hour conditioning (fitness/running)

12pm: lunch

2.30pm: Weights (legs)

4pm: afternoon meal

4.30pm: physio/massage

6ish +: return home

So it’s a long day of weights, rugby and fitness training. The forecast for today is 32 degrees C………… on top of food and snacks, fluid, fluid, fluid is as important to maintain hydration.

After the long day at the Sunbury training ground, Dec will return to (ahem) our tranquil home. Perhaps I will rephrase that. Dec will return home to the tears and tantrums lively and spirited debates between our two girls (6 and 3), and our 1 year old toddler, who is going through a clingy/moaning phase. All the poor man wants to do is just sit down and zone out (reminds me of that quote from Winnie the Pooh: “Sometimes I sits and thinks, sometimes I just sits).

With 3 kids entertain, shopping, cooking, cleaning etc. etc. an extra body sitting near comatose on the sofa can be, to be polite, frustrating. However, I have to remind myself that recovery and rest are a fundamental phase of training, as important as the physical sessions throughout the day.

The huge calorie intake needed to meet the requirements of the extra physical activity AND to promote weight gain, can be tricky to achieve. Even with a personal dietitian who also happens to be his wife at his disposal.

I always say that an athlete can meet their nutritional needs using real food, with supplements eg. protein/recovery drinks/bars, used to support the diet if necessary. Real food gives a multitude of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, phytochemicals, fibre, fatty acids, as well as probably many other substances that science not discovered yet. A manufactured product simply cannot replace a meal for nutrition.

Dec, being Dec, has taken this on board, wanting most of his nutrition to come from food, with recovery/energy drinks used a few times during training. In theory, this is music to the ears of a dietitian. However, in practise this means 5 meals per day, which is tedious (shopping, cooking, cleaning up), not to mention expensive.

Rob, the Strength & Conditioning coach at London Irish, has the boys on strict diets to meet their various nutrition and training needs. Dec’s aim is to increase weight from 100kg to approximately 105kg, while maintaining body fat at 10%. He’s on target, having upped the weight to 102.5kg (that half kilo is VERY important!)

Meals yesterday: porridge; bagel & scrambled eggs; salt beef ciabatta; pasta with pesto, chicken, pepper & spring onion; salmon, rice, happy carrot salad; wrap with chicken & coleslaw.

happy carrots

happy carrots

Snacks/training: apples, yoghurts, almonds, recovery drinks, energy drinks.


almonds, yoghurt, apple