The ancient Aztecs credited cacao with a range of magical, spiritual and even economic powers. Today, some scientists believe that the key ingredient of chocolate may provide significant benefits to cyclists and other athletes.
So can you improve your performance on the bike by munching on delicious chocolate bars while you’re off it?
At the end of last year, a group of researchers from London’s Kingston University published a study that suggests that eating dark chocolate may indeed do the trick.
They asked several “moderately-trained” young men to replace one dessert or snack in their regular diet with 40 grams of dark chocolate every day for two weeks. Then they made them do a ramp test on an exercise bike, asking them to pedal at increasing intensity until they were exhausted.
More efficient oxygen usage
After a rest period, the test subjects did a 20-minute ride at 80% exertion, followed by a two-minute time trial sprint. When the scientists compared the cyclists’ performance with measurements taken under the same conditions prior to embarking on the dark chocolate diet, they noticed some significant improvements.
It appears that the cyclists’ bodies had become more efficient at using oxygen during exercise, allowing them to increase their work rate by 21 percent and to cover 17 percent more distance during the two-minute time trial.
The study concluded that including dark chocolate in your eating plan may be an effective way of achieving better results during short-duration, moderate-intensity exercise.
According to lead author Rishikesh Patel, “We found that people could effectively exercise for longer after eating dark chocolate – something that’s not been established before in this way.”
The facts on flavanols
The reason for dark chocolate’s performance-boosting powers appears to be its richness in flavanols, a group of naturally-occurring chemicals that are particularly concentrated in cocoa.
Flavanols are known to increase the bioavailability of a substance called nitric oxide which in turn widens blood vessels, lowers the amount of oxygen required by the muscles and helps to regulate glucose uptake and muscle contractions during physical exercise.
But before you place a bulk-order for dark chocolate bars, you’d probably be well advised to moderate your expectations just a little.
Dr Adrian Rotunno of the Sports Science Institute of South Africa who acts as a team doctor for the Dimension Data pro-cycling team notes that while there have been a number of studies on the effects of dark chocolate supplementation in athletes over the last few years, the results need to be interpreted cautiously.
“Whether or not dark chocolate is more beneficial in elite versus recreational athletes remains to be seen and requires further study. The current thinking is that dark chocolate containing at least 70 percent cocoa is likely to be more beneficial. It must, however, be remembered that chocolate of any form is also high in fat and caloric content, thus long term use may lead to weight gain and other health problems.”
Other flavanol rich foods include black tea, apple skins, beetroot and ground coffee.