Performance Lifestyle

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 performance benefits of beer

Beer companies have a long history of sports sponsorship. Beer remains a fixture within the top ten spending categories across the sponsorship industry. Major deals exist across high profile sporting properties such as the Football, Basketball and Rugby World Cups, which are synonymous with hospitality and fan engagement programmes.

But one beer brand used the 2018 Winter Olympic Games as a platform to showcase another activation strategy. Like many of the athletes in the aerial events, Erdinger tried something different and managed to grab the attention of sports fans all over the world.

How..? By claiming beer was beneficial for performance.

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Linking beer with elite performance is brave, but it enabled Erdinger to create cut through that many of its peers have failed to do. Indeed, back in 2016 Hans Erik Tuijt, Head of Global Sponsorship at Heineken described the Olympic sponsorship programme as “too cluttered, making it hard for the biggest sponsors to stand out from smaller ones”.

So how did Erdinger manage to become the talk of the Games with articles published across the globe about beers performance enhancing properties?

Firstly, the beer they are linking to a performance advantage is non-alcoholic. Secondly, they created a performance link by supplying the joint table-topping German team with gallons of it, thirdly and most importantly, they have some scientific research which shows they might just be onto something.

The impact of alcohol, particularly on delaying muscle recovery after exercise is well documented. It can also impact on the cardiovascular system and inhibit a number of other post-exercise processes associated with fitness gains. This means if you are training for any major activity, including the Olympic Games, the traditional couple of pints after a session isn’t ideal.

Erdinger has tried to create a position across active sport for a number of years. They have a presence spanning running, triathlon, cycling and biathlon all over the world. They target an active, health-conscious audience who want to enjoy the taste of beer without worrying about the impact of alcohol on their training.

But their latest activity has taken this message one step further to claim that non-alcoholic beer can actually provide a performance advantage.

In a well-developed study lead by Dr Scherr, who is also the doctor for the German ski team, a team of German researchers put the beer to the test. They took a large group of runners and asked them to drink a litre of non-alcoholic beer each day for 3 weeks prior, during and 2 weeks post the Munich marathon. The results showed that those drinking the beer had less post-race inflammation and suffered fewer coughs and colds when compared to the control group. Anyone who has taken part in a major endurance event will know that coughs and colds are par for the course. Indeed, research shows that elite athletes suffer from more ‘upper respiratory tract infections’ than normal members of the population. So, anything that helps reduce the impact of illness and supports improved recovery is surely good for athletic performance.

But what is the beer doing to produce this effect? The authors conclude it’s due to the organic properties within ingredients such as barley and hops. These ingredients contain polyphenolic compounds, similar to those found in vegetables and fruit and are associated with antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and antipathogenic properties.

But don’t go swapping your recovery drink for a pint just yet. During the study, the runners were all required to adhere to a restricted diet, which was necessary to ascertain any direct impact from the beer. The question remains, would the beer have had any significant effect if runners were enjoying a normal balanced diet with vegetables, fruit and other sources of antioxidants?

As this research is yet to be done, for now, enjoy your training, enjoy a balanced diet and you can even enjoy a few pints of Erdinger without worrying about the negative effects on your training and recovery.

  

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 how we could help you just drop us a note via info@sportscienceagency.com

SSA Blog: Sport Science in 2017

With 2017 drawing to a close we look back at three significant stories that shaped the sport science year and will continue to have an impact into 2018, both inside and outside the performance arena. 


Nike Breaking 2
Without doubt the biggest sport science story this year was Nike’s attempt to break the 2 hour marathon barrier. The 2 hour barrier is one of athletics last great challenges. Indeed, it was postulated as long ago as 1991 that a time of 1.57:58 was possible under perfect conditions. Nike’s project was four years in the making and brought together some of the best minds in sport science as well as an interesting group of 3 athletes who had been drawn from an initial 60 strong cohort. 

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The combination of Nike’s financial backing, scientific excellence and some of the world’s elite performers lead many to believe a sub 2 hour time would be possible.   
As the project developed, it became clear that this would not be a legitimate world record attempt during one of the major marathon events. From a sport science point of view, this didn’t matter. If anything, it makes it more exciting as it allowed the sport science team to think the unthinkable and take the athletes outside the usual constraints of racing in order to seek the limits of human endurance.


Every aspect of performance was examined with an obvious emphasis on the training and preparation of the athletes.  Areas such as VO2max, Lactate Threshold and Running Economy were all evaluated at the start of the project to identify who the researchers thought were the athletes with the physiology capable of sustaining the training load and having a realistic chance of hitting the sub 2 hour goal.  


But physiology is only part of what makes an athlete great. Other areas the researchers looked at included the course, environmental temperature, humidity, altitude and obviously, being Nike research, the shoes. The researchers also became increasingly interested in the psychology of their runners. Ultimately the effort didn’t manage to produce a sub 2 hour performance - Eliud Kipchoge came within 25 seconds of achieving the goal. That is less than a second per mile.


When evaluating the effort, the main performance benefit seemed to come from the drafting formation, developed using support runners throughout the record attempt. Nike commissioned wind tunnel research to ensure they positioned support runners in the most effective formation to maximise the drafting effect. This finding may have huge potential for distance running in the future. In cycling, drafting and protecting the GC rider is a long-established principle. Running has always been seen as a more individual sport and while runners will often train together, rarely do they compete in such a strict team formation.


Nike’s Breaking 2 didn’t manage to achieve athletics' last great barrier, but with its drafting and team formation research, it has provided a model for how it might be achieved both in a scientific experiment and ultimately in a major city marathon.         

The Rise of the Aging Athlete
As human beings live longer, and medicine and sport science continue to develop, it should be no surprise that athletes have been able to take advantage and extend their careers. Roger Federer, Tom Brady, Zlatan Ibrahimović and Serena Williams have all dazzled fans, media and fellow performers this year despite their relative age, which has left people searching for the secret elixir of these supposed super agers.

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As with much in sport at the elite level, an athlete’s ability to maintain performance into their 4th decade is a mix of genetic and lifestyle factors. Generally, the key anabolic hormones associated with muscle growth and maintenance begin to decline in the mid to late 30’s. This can have a particularly profound effect on an athlete’s ability to produce power which inevitably has an effect on performance elements such as sprinting, acceleration, striking force and change of direction speed.


New developments regarding training, diet, injury prevention and recovery strategies have allowed more athletes to maintain their careers into their early to mid 30’s. However, the ability to perform at the highest level needs to be supported by a strong motivational drive to train and also the emotional intelligence to accept limitations and plan in order to peak for specific periods during the year. 


Sport science will continue to elongate athlete’s careers. Better understanding of the genetics, training responses, diet and recovery will combine to support the physiological demands. But the greatest elements in the near future will be development of psychological and intellectual understanding to further help athletes develop the mental skills needed to cope with managing the latter stages of sporting careers.


This generation of athlete, with the support of developing sport science, has proved that age is no longer the barrier it once was. This has altered perceptions as to the impact older athletes can have. It will pave the way to extending athlete contracts and the age profile within which elite sport operates.
       
Welfare and Winning
Athlete welfare hit the back pages this year following a number of allegations made by athletes within the Olympic sport system. The cyclist Jess Varnish lead the wave of criticism directed at National Governing bodies funded by UK Sport and subscribing to the so called ‘no compromise’ strategy focused on Olympic and Paralympic success. 


The treatment and culture within which athletes were expected to perform began to come into question. Had the ‘no compromise’ system that has seen unprecedented Olympic success over the past decade been at the expense of athlete welfare? Or is an elite performance environment just that and not everyone can handle the demands they are faced with?


Athletes and coaches were asked for their opinions and experiences with many defending the systems that had helped them achieve their sporting goals. But the allegations kept coming.  


National governing bodies have employed performance lifestyle experts for a number of years in order to support the wider lifestyle aspects of athletes. The goal was to support athletes in developing world class performance habits while they are away from the track, pool or velodrome. However, for some, when the sport becomes all encompassing it can easily become too much, pressure builds, motivation dips and performance inevitably suffers. 


Across sport, coaches and athletes will have different approaches, views, interests and motivational strategies. This is no different from any workplace. In the major professional sports, players have the ability to move and perhaps find a team that ‘fits’ their outlook and personality. Within the Olympic system in the UK, each sport generally only allows athletes one major training environment within which they have to adhere to the culture and expectations that are often entrenched. 


Performance systems are key to producing success. The continuity that exists across the British system has turned Team GB into a global sporting powerhouse (compare this with the relative reactionary approach seen within football). However, these systems need to continually evolve and develop in order to support athletes from a broader talent pool, often that broader talent pool is a consequence of their own previous success. 


Elite sport is tough. Many with the physical talent, simply don’t have the psychological resilience, drive or desire to sustain the training load and lifestyle sacrifices needed. Pushing athletes mentally as well as physically is part of the selection process. It allows coaches and performance managers to assess how athletes perform under pressure and ultimately evaluate if they are developing the required skills to win on the biggest stage. This will mean athletes taken out of their comfort zone, it will mean pressure to perform in training and it will mean being able to meet high standards across everything they do, with consequences if these challenges cannot be successfully met. 


The challenge of sport science is to recognise the individuality of athletes and create systems that can dial up or down the support and challenges that athletes need in order to progress their careers, be that within the sport or leaving it to focus on other challenges.


As we look forward to an Olympic year in 2018 the trajectory for sport science is only upward. The increase in financial rewards across professional sport, the global attention an Olympic Games brings and the continuous health challenges we face, all look to sport science for support. The development in technology, the increased interest in psychology and advances in genetic medicine will provide new avenues for sport Science to explore in the coming years. Who knows what 2018 will bring, but you can be sure sport science will be at the forefront.