Can chocolate boost your running performance?
Updated: Apr 8
As a runner, you're constantly seeking ways to enhance your athletic performance and decrease recovery time. One potential strategy that has been gaining attention in recent years is the use of cocoa flavanols. Cocoa has been touted for its potential health benefits, particularly dark chocolate, which is high in cocoa content. In this article, we'll investigate the research regarding benefit of chocolate for athletes and help you decide whether another Easter egg is worth reaching for!
What are the potential benefits of cocoa flavanols?
Polyphenols are a class of compounds found in many plant foods, which have been extensively studied for their potential health benefits. Flavanols, a type of polyphenol, are found in cocoa, red wine, berries, tea and coffee.
Studies have shown that cocoa flavanols may have several potential benefits for athletes, including:
Improved vascular function: Epicatechin and catechin (types of polyphenols found in cocoa) can enhance blood flow to muscles during exercise and have a positive impact on heart health.
Reduced oxidative stress: Cocoa flavanols may help reduce exercise-induced oxidative stress, which can lead to muscle damage and inflammation.
Improved fat and carbohydrate utilization: Research suggests that cocoa flavanols can alter fat and carbohydrate utilization during exercise, potentially leading to improved endurance.
Early Studies on Cocoa Flavanols and Athletic Performance
While there is still much to learn about the benefits of cocoa flavanols for athletes, early studies have shown promising results:
A 2015 study of recreational cyclists found that consuming 40g of dark chocolate (containing around 6 squares) daily for 2 weeks resulted in a 17% improvement in distance covered during a 2-minute time trial and a 6% improvement in VO2max.
A placebo-controlled study involving 10 weeks of cocoa supplementation (5g daily) in 32 well-trained endurance athletes found that cocoa had a small but significant effect on reducing body fat percentage, without any impact on performance.
Another study found that supplementation with cocoa flavanols for 8 weeks had a positive impact on proteins involved in regulating muscle growth, which may improve muscle strength.
Other nutritional benefits of chocolate
Chocolate provides some minerals that support immunity, cell production and muscle function, including magnesium, phosphorous, zinc and copper. For athletes with a high training load and/or seeking weight gain, chocolate can also be part of your strategy to increase energy intake to meet your goals.
What are the considerations for athletes incorporating cocoa into their regimen?
The right supplementation for the right situation
Overall, the effects of polyphenol supplementation on athletes depend on various factors such as the type of training, quantity and type of polyphenols, dietary habits and training status. Athletes with lower intakes of dietary polyphenols are likely to respond more favourably to polyphenol supplementation. Hence, increasing the consumption of plant-based foods in the diet can be a great way to increase polyphenol intake.
Proper nutrition, training and recovery practices are key for performance
It's essential to understand that eating chocolate alone won't make you a better athlete. Athletes need to follow proper nutrition, training, and recovery practices to achieve optimal performance. However, adding high-quality dark chocolate to your diet may offer some benefits.
Not all chocolate is created equal
When selecting chocolate, look for high-quality dark chocolate with a high percentage of cocoa. The higher the percentage of cocoa, the more flavanols it will contain. Milk chocolate and white chocolate, on the other hand, contain very little cocoa and therefore very few flavanols.
Be mindful of too much of a good thing
Lastly, we should not forget that whilst dark chocolate is high in cocoa flavanols, it is also an energy dense food and high in saturated fat and sugar. Excess consumption of chocolate can therefore have a negative impact on body composition, depending on your goals. Eating chocolate after a meal or snack can help to make sure it does not displace your appetite for other nutrient rich foods. Enjoy your chocolate mindfully and go for quality over quantity.
Chocolate is a source of caffeine (~24mg caffeine in 40g - equivalent to a cup of green tea). This may make sleep difficult for those sensitive to caffeine. Eating chocolate earlier in the day can reduce the impact of caffeine on sleep.
Lastly, the cocoa polyphenols and oxalates in chocolate can reduce absorption of non-haem (plant-based) iron. Athletes with low iron can improve iron absorption by avoiding chocolate at the same time as a meal or snack containing non-haem iron foods (e.g. tofu, legumes, fortified cereals, nuts, seeds and leafy greens)
Research suggests that consuming cocoa flavanols may offer several potential benefits for athletes, including improved blood flow, reduced oxidative stress, improved immunity, body composition and strength. While more research is needed to fully understand the effects of cocoa flavanols on athletic performance, incorporating high-quality dark chocolate into your diet in moderation may be a simple and enjoyable way to support your overall athletic goals. So, go ahead and enjoy a little dark chocolate this Easter, and who knows, it might just help you run a little faster or recover a little quicker!
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Garcia-Merino et al 2020, Chronic flavanol-rich cocoa powder supplementation reduces body fat mass in endurance athletes by modifying the follistatin/myostatin ratio and leptin levels, Food & Function, vol. 11, pp. 3441-3450.
Goncalves et al 2022, 'Effects of functional phenolics dietary supplementation on athlete's performance and recovery: A review', Int. J. Mol. Science, vol. 2, iss. 9, https://doi.org/10.3390/ijms23094652.
Massaro M et al 2019, 'Effects of cocoa products and its polyphenolic constituents on exercise performance and exercise-induced muscle damage and inflammation: a review of clinical trials', Nutrients, vol. 11, iss. 7, https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11071471.
Patel RK, Brouner J & Spendiff O 2015, 'Dark chocolate supplementation reduces the oxygen cost of moderate intensity cycling', Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, vol. 12, iss. 47, DOI 10.1186/s12970-015-0106-7.