3 Research-Backed Running Performance Boosters in Your Kitchen Right Now

In this post, we'll explore running performance boosters backed by legitimate research that you probably already have in your pantry right now: caffeine, beets, and baking soda.

3 Research-Backed Running Performance Boosters in Your Kitchen Right Now
Photo by Natalia Fogarty / Unsplash

If you're looking to take your running performance to the next level, you might not have to look much further than your own kitchen. Surprisingly, some common kitchen staples have been scientifically proven to enhance your endurance and speed. In this post, we'll explore running performance boosters backed by legitimate research that you probably already have in your pantry right now: caffeine, beets, and baking soda.

You may be skeptical (and as a general rule, you should be!), but each of these performance boosters are backed by vigorous scientific research, and are often used by professional athletes.  While the focus of this post is on running, these boosters have been shown to impact performance in a wide variety of strength and endurance events.  

If you do choose to try out these performance boosters, keep in mind some ground rules: listen to your body, don't try anything new on race day, and start conservatively to see how your body reacts–even with these common foods, it's definitely possible to overdo it!  And remember, this is not medical advice.  If you have any questions or concerns about these substances, consult your physician before embarking on a new supplements or superfoods intended to improve performance.

Caffeine: The Runner's Pick-Me-Up

Coffee lovers, rejoice! Caffeine is a well-known performance enhancer for athletes, including runners.  The primary mechanism behind caffeine's boost to running performance lies in its ability to stimulate the central nervous system. Caffeine binds to adenosine receptors thus blocking the action of adenosine, a neurotransmitter that promotes relaxation and drowsiness, leading to increased alertness and reduced perception of effort during exercise.

Caffeine is so common that you may already be using it in your daily training and racing routine in the form of morning coffee.  Still, it's worth digging into the research to make sure you get the details right to maximize performance.

First, let's look at the timing of caffeine consumption as a performance booster.  Aim to consume caffeine approximately 30-60 minutes before the start of your endurance event. This allows enough time for caffeine to be absorbed and reach peak levels in your bloodstream when you need the performance boost. The exact timing can vary from person to person, so it's a good idea to experiment during training to find the ideal window for your body.  In long endurance events, like a marathon, you can continue to take caffeine during the race, often in the form of caffeinated energy gels.

As for dosage, a common recommendation is between 3 and 5 mg of caffeine per kg of body weight.  For a 70 kg (154 lbs) athlete, this works out to between 210 and 350 mg of caffeine, or 2-3 strong cups of coffee.  If you don't drink coffee habitually, I would definitely start at the lower end of this range to see how your body reacts.

Beets: A Natural Nitrate Source

Beets might not be everyone's favorite vegetable, but they may help eke out extra performance in runners. Beets are rich in nitrates, compounds that have been shown to improve endurance by enhancing the efficiency of mitochondria, the powerhouses of our cells. Nitrate is converted to nitric oxide in the body, which dilates blood vessels, improving blood flow and oxygen delivery to muscles. A meta-analysis published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition (2021) revealed that dietary nitrate supplementation, often sourced from beets, can significantly enhance endurance exercise performance. Some studies show a reduction in perceived exertion and increased time-to-exhaustion, but no actual improvements in running economy or VO2max.

The dosing & timing recommendations for beetroot consumption are somewhat varied, and the optimal approach to beetroot supplementation is not entirely clear.  Some studies use a single pre-exercise dose of beets (usually in the form of  a high-nitrate beetroot juice), while others use a longer supplementation period such as daily consumption for 14 days before an event.

Furthermore, the exact types of activities that benefit from beetroot supplementation are also unclear: some studies show big improvements for shorter more intermittent efforts such as sprinting but less for longer endurance activities like the marathon.  So if you are interested in trying beets as a performance booster, be prepared to experiment with different dosages, schedules and training activities to see what works best for you.

Baking Soda: The Kitchen Alkaline Buffer

Baking soda, the versatile ingredient often used in baking, can also give your running performance a boost. Also known as sodium bicarbonate, baking soda works as an alkaline buffer, helping to reduce the buildup of lactic acid in your muscles during intense exercise.  The beneficial effects of sodium bicarbonate have been documented and analyzed in a wide variety of studies, including a recent meta-analysis study published in the European Journal of Sport Science (2023).

Baking soda supplementation has a great deal of strong evidence backing its efficacy, but a strong word of warning: it can lead to a range of significant gastrointestinal issues ranging including discomfort and diarrhea.  Use extra caution when trying out baking soda.  Start with small doses to see how your body reacts and definitely do not try this for the first time on race day.

The most common strategy is to consume about 0.3 grams of baking soda per kilogram of body weight a couple of hours before an event. For example, if you weigh 70 kg (154 lbs), you would aim for about 21 grams of baking soda.  Given the potential side effects, I would start much, much lower to see how your body reacts.  Additionally, the flavor of baking soda is pretty unappealing, so mixing in a pinch of salt or other flavoring may help you get it down.

While baking soda definitely has the data to back it up as a performance enhancer, I wouldn't blame you for being wary of it given the side effects.  Fortunately, some gel manufacturers are starting to release products which promise to deliver sodium bicarbonate without the undesirable side effects.  Maurten's Bicarb System, for example, "contains groundbreaking mini bicarb tablets designed to offer far greater control. They allow for a slower release of bicarbonate in the intestine — which can both help reduce stomach issues and lengthen the duration of the bicarb effect".  Unfortunately, these advanced products are often quite pricy, at $50+ for four servings, compared to the dozens of servings you might find for $1 in a box of baking soda.

Conclusion – Kitchen Superfoods

Caffeine, beets, and baking soda each offer unique mechanisms that can help you run faster and longer. While these kitchen staples may not make you an elite athlete, their research-backed benefits can certainly give your running performance a noticeable boost.  It may not be a lot, but if you're like me, experimenting with food & nutrition to squeeze out a couple of minutes off a marathon is worth the effort.

Just every other aspect of training, the performance enhancing effects of these foods is highly individual, so be prepared to experiment and to dig deeper into the research to optimize your approach. So, the next time you lace up your running shoes, consider adding a cup of coffee, some beet juice, or a pinch of baking soda to your pre-run routine. Your kitchen might already be holding the secret to reaching that next personal best.