SSA Blog: Federer's dark secret

Even the most disciplined athlete might be forgiven for reaching for a chocolate egg or two at this time of year. Whatever your preference, it is hard to avoid the plethora of treats available over Easter. But is this such a bad thing? Could athletes actually see some benefit from indulging in a little chocolate over the Easter holiday?

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Chocolate has an established place within the sport sponsorship family. Winter sport, in particular, has benefited from a long-term relationship with Milka across mainland Europe. Not to be outdone the American Ski and Snowboard Association has partnered up with Hershey’s. In the UK, Cadbury has experienced an up and down relationship with sport. A successful sponsorship of the London 2012 Olympic Games prompted its recent confidence to sign up as the Official Snack of the Premier League. However, back in 2003 Cadbury had to endure a backlash to it's partnership of the Youth Sport Trust, which the Food Commission criticised for “encouraging unhealthy behaviour” with its proposed school sports rewards scheme.

Whilst a little of what you like is said to be good for you, remember that not all chocolate is born equal. Dark chocolate is rich in cocoa-derived phytochemicals that may have bioactive properties including caffeine and flavanols (Stellingwerff et al, 2014) and the potential health and performance benefits of these flavanols is currently of great interest within nutritional research.

The dietary flavanols that occur naturally in cocoa powder (namely Epicatechin, Catechin and Procyanidins) have been found to provide anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant and cardiovascular health benefits - such as decreased blood pressure and improved blood circulation. The last of which has been identified as a potential means of enhancing nutrient and oxygen delivery to the working muscles and removing waste by-products, potentially enhancing performance and recovery.

In an earlier blog, we examined how Roger Federer is able to maintain such incredible levels of performance well into his mid 30’s. Interviews across national and international media discussing the various factors such as genetics, training adaptations and psychological maturity followed. But did we miss a contributory factor? Perhaps the secret of Federer’s success is linked to one of his long-term sponsors, the Chocolateries’ Lindt…

Dark chocolate consumption has now been identified as an alternative means of raising the bioavailability of nitric oxide, the compound thought to be responsible for the health and (albeit mixed) performance benefits associated with beetroot juice. But how does eating a bar of dark chocolate translate into performance benefits for athletes and could it be the secret behind Federer’s success?

The reality is, at present the literature is in its infancy and, subsequently, is sparse. Stellingwerff et al (2015) and Decroix et al (2017) have observed that acute doses of dark chocolate can have an effect on key processes that could lead to performance benefits. However, both studies failed to establish a link to improved exercise performance.

It may be the case that dark chocolate needs to be consumed over a greater time-period for the physiological changes to provide performance benefits. Patel et al (2015) examined the impact of supplementing both dark and white chocolate (40g/day) for two weeks. The authors found that in a subsequent bike test, the gaseous exchange threshold (during sub-maximal exercise) and time-trial performance (2-minute max sprint) both increased following the supplementation of dark, compared to white chocolate. Unfortunately, as the flavanol and nitric oxide concentrations were not directly measured, the causality of these performance benefits could not be definitively established.

So even if Roger Federer has been an avid consumer of Lindt’s Excellence dark chocolate it’s difficult to link his continued performance excellence with this new area of nutritional interest. However, with Easter upon us and many hoping to enjoy a traditional chocolate treat, it seems that if you manage to fit in a few training sessions and then opt for dark chocolate, you can justify it as part of the latest nutritional research.

Even if a positive performance impact is still to be established, if it’s good enough for Roger…

Happy Easter  

 Sport Science Agency works with brands, broadcasters, rights holders and agencies to create insight, experiences and content from the latest sport science research. If you want to know more just drop us a note via info@sportscienceagency.com and we can arrange to meet and share a bar of dark chocolate or go for a healthy performance boosting drink. 

SSA Blog: The diet of a champion

The Formula 1 season kicks off today in Australia with all eyes on World Champion and pole sitter Lewis Hamilton. Hamilton is, without doubt, the sports biggest draw and maybe it’s only true crossover star. He goes into the season chasing a 5th world title, which if he achieves it would move him up to joint second on the all time list.

Midway through last season, a different spotlight was shone on Hamilton after he announced his decision to follow a vegan diet. Many questioned the wisdom of this lifestyle change at such a time, but any criticism was soon overshadowed by his imperious form following the mid-season break, which saw him storm to the driver’s crown with two races remaining.

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Hamilton is by no means the first major sports star to promote the virtues of a vegan diet. Perhaps the most famous advocate of a vegan, or predominantly vegan diet, is NFL star, Tom Brady. Brady, at the age of 40 has the most super bowl wins of any current NFL player. His longevity and continued success have created considerable attention around his diet and training practices. Brady’s diet is reportedly vegan throughout the year except during the winter playing period when he introduces limited lean meat to help with protein intake.

But are there performance benefits to such a diet for athletes?  

In a 2010 paper, Drs Fuhrman and Ferreri suggest potential training and recovery benefits linked to a vegan diet. They attributed this to high antioxidant, micronutrient and carbohydrate rich foods that a plant-based diet would provide. A recent review by David Rogerson, based at the Academy of Sport and Physical Activity at Sheffield Hallam University, also highlighted evidence a vegan diet could promote health in non athletics populations. To substantiate the claim, he points to lower rates of obesity and reduced incidence of heart disease and cancer among vegetarians and vegans. However, the same review outlines that individuals following vegetarian or vegan diets tend to be more health-conscious and therefore other lifestyle factors (e.g. exercise) may confound these effects. Rogerson concludes that currently when examining athletes, there is a lack quality scientific evidence to support any major performance benefit linked to a vegan diet.

There can be no doubt, however, that veganism is becoming more visible. It’s not only Hamilton and Brady that feel they are benefiting from a shift in traditional nutritional strategy, David Haye and Venus Williams have also moved to a plant based diet. Often this is linked to a desire to extend their careers and an increased focus on health. With all of them now past their 30th birthday it provides a new avenue for commercial partnerships beyond sport.

The growing influencer trend across social media has left sport stars with fewer traditional endorsements opportunities in the later stages of their careers. This is due, in part, to their lack of relevance among digital natives who look to people like them for product reviews, lifestyle tips and day to day information about health, diet, exercise and fitness.

However, major dietary changes and health based transitions focused on conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and cancer are the domain of the middle aged. These audiences are looking for role models to support a change in their behaviour rather than, in the case of generation Z, a behaviour to follow in the first place.

This trend opens the door to athletes maintaining a career into their late 30’s and even early 40’s who can create an opportunity for themselves by highlighting their switch to vegan or plant based diets. Moving away from their sporting glories, instead showcasing their story of change, the process of adoption and the shift in behaviour, adapting to a new lifestyle for health and performance reasons.

Now 33, Lewis Hamilton’s status within Formula 1 and across the globe as a sporting icon is secure. The narrative surrounding his two year transition to veganism creates a new, less performance focused story providing the extra ingredient that maintains his relevance to fans and even opens the doors to a new, older and more affluent target audience away from the track. Watch this space for the Lewis Hamilton cookbook and range of vegan ready meals!

 Sport Science Agency works with brands, broadcasters, rights holders and agencies to create insight, experiences and content from the latest sport science research. If you want to know more just drop us a note via info@sportscienceagency.com and we can arrange to go for a healthy performance boosting drink.

  

SSA Blog: Sports ethical line

The spotlight of doping in elite sport shines on. Over recent years, heroes have fallen, state-sponsored doping has been uncovered and numerous high-profile athletes have been sanctioned, stripped of medals and banned from competing following evidence of doping violations. Last week, Sir Bradley Wiggins and Team Sky were back in the news, casting further aspersions on the reputation of elite cycling…

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On 5th March 2018, the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) select committee released a statement declaring that, Team Sky ‘crossed an ethical line’ in their use of Therapeutic Use Exemptions (TUEs). Specifically, the DCMS allege that the drugs administered, whilst therapeutic, were also devised and delivered to boost Wiggins’ performance levels.

"Drugs were being used by Team Sky, within World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) rules, to enhance the performance of riders and not just to treat medical need,"                              DCMS Select Committee (05/03/18).

This ‘ethical line’ presents a problem for sponsors and partners. Brands showcase their vision and values through their sponsorships to create a favourable position with the sports’ fans. How then to rationalise that sponsorship when a sports person or team follow the letter of the law, breaks no rules, but cross an ‘ethical line’. Practices are either legal or banned.

This might seem like a cynical stance, but literature from elite sport supports it. Smith and Stewart, in their 2015 overview of doping in sport, highlighted how athletes are pressured to use substances to enhance their performance whilst remaining ‘clean’. This includes the possibility for an athlete benefiting from elevated doses of a banned substance via a TUE. Athletes know natural talent is not sufficient to reach the top echelons of performance and competition. To reach this level, advanced training, coaching, supplements and substances were cited as a necessity. Before financial incentives even figure, the concept of sporting failure is less desirable than the threat of sanction for a doping violation or the potential risk to their health

Herein lies the issue with TUEs; most banned substances are those devised to cure illness but may also produce a performance enhancing effect. Like anyone, athletes get ill, suffer from chronic ailments and pick up injuries. A TUE is then required for the necessary medicine to help the athlete recover and the grey area of performance enhancement opens. A grey area that athletes, teams, doctors and organisations can venture into to pursue ‘legitimate’ marginal gains. In this pursuit, morality and ethics do not form part of the equation, legality, as stated by Overbye and Wagner (2013) in the international journal of drug policy, is the name of the game.

The researchers argue that whilst TUEs are less efficient than using banned substances in enhancing performance, manipulating the system to gain a TUE is infinitely more accessible, safe and low-risk. Indeed, they highlight that in a cohort of 638 elite athletes in Denmark, only 2% had ever applied for a TUE and had that application rejected. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that a general distrust of the TUE system’s effectiveness in anti-doping exists.

With TUEs increasingly under the spotlight, brands partnering with elite sport must consider a response strategy to stories such as the one involving Wiggins and Team Sky. Whilst the DCMS’ conclusion over Team Sky’s TUE use may seem reasonable to many, it concludes that no rules were broken. In elite sport, this is all that matters to teams when it comes to doping.

Brands face a quandary. Should they stand by teams and athletes whose use of medication is questioned? Should they support athletes that fail tests due to innocent mistakes rather than deliberate cheating?

Controversially, Head and Nike stood by Maria Sharapova following her positive test for Meldonium in 2016. Porsche and Tag Heuer in contrast, terminated their contracts with the Russian star. Can the direct sporting performance values of Nike and Head help explain their stance vs those of Sharapova’s more lifestyle-based partnerships and the subsequent lack of negative backlash for all?

Athletes deserve the right to compete on a level playing field and to be safe when doing so. Anti-doping regulations and the TUE system should exist, but both apparently require more stringent regulation and enforcement to protect clean athletes and the sponsors involved in the sport. The idea that an athlete ends up on the right side of the rules but the wrong side of a so-called ethical line should be an anathema to all parties involved.

Only the governing bodies of sport can make the rule changes required to protect both athletes and sponsors. However, they seem unwilling or unable to make those difficult decisions. It may be time to take that responsibility away from organisations that are so intimately linked with the public perception of the sports they are policing. Maybe supporting organisations such as WADA could provide the next sponsorship opportunity for a forward-thinking brand.

Sport Science Agency works with brands, broadcasters, rights holders and agencies to create insight, experiences and content from the latest sport science research. If you want to know more just drop us a note via info@sportscienceagency.com and we can arrange to go for a healthy performance boosting drink.