Typically when we think of performance enhancing foods we think of super foods. We think of protein, and healthy fats, and lots of fruits and veggies. We think of eggs, quinoa, acai, and kale. We think of bananas and almond butter. Heck, we even think of oatmeal. One thing we definitely don’t think of is chocolate. However, it may be time to forget what you know. Dark chocolate has been shown to actually enhance performance.
We’ve known for a while that dark chocolate has its benefits. Its got antioxidants. It’s relatively low in sugar. It cuts out a lot of the crap found in milk chocolate. What is often overlooked is dark chocolate’s epicatechin content, a nutrient found in cocoa. As it turns out, epicatechin improves blood flow and cardio performance by stimulating the linings of blood vessels to release nitric oxide. Nitric oxide causes vasodilation (the expansion of the veins and arteries), allows muscles to take up more blood sugar for energy, and increases the amount of oxygen transferred to cells. All of these things are very, very good for athletes. Up until now, athletes have been fueling with beet juice and nitrate supplements (the benefits of which are unproven) to stimulate the release of nitric oxide. A recent study may change this habit, and athletes may get to munch on something actually enjoyable for a change.
Although chocolate has been known to contain epicatechin, it has been overlooked as a performance enhancing food. Perhaps this is because chocolate can cause weight gain, or maybe it’s just because chocolate seems too delicious to be that healthy. Researchers at Kingston University were the first to have a hunch that chocolate may be able to offer the same benefits as other foods containing epicatechin, provided it was consumed in limited quantities.
Researchers designed a study to test whether or not chocolate helped the performance of cyclists. Eight male recreational cyclists were recruited for the study. These cyclists were first tested for their baseline fitness and oxygen uptake during all out sprints and moderate rides on a stationary bike. From there, cyclists were given about a square and a half (40 grams) of chocolate each day before a ride for two weeks. Half the group was given Dove dark chocolate and the other half was given white chocolate. Both portions contained the same number of calories. After two weeks, the groups switched. The same tests were performed, but the individuals consumed the other kind of chocolate.
The results were crystal clear. All cyclists performed better after the two weeks consuming dark chocolate, regardless of whether they hadn’t eaten chocolate or whether they had eaten white chocolate in the weeks before. The dark chocolate, which has a much higher concentration of epicatechin than white chocolate, helped the cyclists use oxygen more efficiently, which in turn boosted their performance.
Although surfing is distinct from cycling, the two have enough similarities in my book to justify eating chocolate before a session. They both combine steady exertion with brief sprints. Cyclists may peddle steadily for 10 minutes and then sprint for 5, just as surfers may paddle steadily out to the lineup and then sprint to catch a wave. Both incorporate varying degrees of resistance. Cyclists peddle flat land and up steep hills, just as surfers have to paddle through calm waters and against strong currents. Both require endurance and stamina… the list goes on. I’d keep going, but I’d rather eat some chocolate and go surf.