Chocolate

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.