Can chocolate milk make you go faster? How about nicotine? Should you really have as low body fat as possible? Sports science reasearch reveals that the answers may not be as obvious as you think.
One for the chocoholics
A study by scientists at Indiana University showed that chocolate milk is very effective in recovery after hard exercise. They compared the effects of chocolate milk against a series of commercially produced recovery drinks. To their surprise, they found that the chocolate milk more than held its own.
On three separate days, nine male, endurance-trained cyclists performed an interval workout followed by four hours of recovery and, finally, a time-to-exhaustion test. The men drank equivalent volumes of chocolate milk, fluid replacement drink (FR), or carbohydrate replacement drink (CR) immediately after the first exercise bout and two hours into the recovery. The chocolate milk and CR had equivalent carbohydrate content.
The results showed that time to exhaustion and total work were significantly greater for chocolate milk and for FR trials than for CR trials, suggesting that chocolate milk is an effective recovery aid between two exhausting bouts of exercise.
"Our study indicates that chocolate milk is a strong alternative to other commercial sports drinks in helping athletes recover from strenuous, energy-depleting exercise," said coauthor Joel M. Stager in a news release.
"Chocolate milk contains an optimal carbohydrate to protein ratio, which is critical for helping refuel tired muscles after strenuous exercise and can enable athletes to exercise at a high intensity during subsequent workouts."
Patch it up
Nicotine probably isn't the first substance you'd think of as being popular among cyclists, but according to researchers at Birmingham University, wearing a nicotine patch before and during exercise may significantly increase endurance performance.
It has long been known that nicotine improves co-ordination and cognitive performance, but its effects on endurance hadn't been previously studied. The Birmingham researchers had 12 moderately-trained, non-smoking individuals, cycle to exhaustion wearing either a regular 7mg transdermal nicotine patch for eight hours before and during exercise, or a replica placebo.
To their surprise, the scientists found that 10 out of the 12 subjects cycled for longer with the nicotine patch on, resulting, on average, in a huge 17% improvement in time to exhaustion. Because they could find no difference in other physiological markers, such as perceived exertion, heart rate, concentrations of plasma glucose, lactate or circulating fatty acids, they concluded that the improvement must be down to the nicotine sending a message to the brain rather than any boost to the muscles or cardiovascular system.
"The results are similar to those who have looked at the effects of caffeine on exercise who also found similar improvements," says Dr. Matt Bridge, one of the main researchers on the study. "Both nicotine and caffeine are well known to be central stimulants and to provide a 'kick' that leads to exercise feeling more pleasurable and a subsequent increase in effort and performance."
You don't have to be a smoker trying to kick the habit to benefit. Dr. Bridge insists that there are no inherent dangers in using nicotine patches, though he suggests that cyclists consult their doctor first.
Bring back the lactic!
Everyone has always believed that lactic acid is the enemy. It's regarded as a harmful by-product of anaerobic respiration - or, to put it more simply, the stuff that turns your legs to jelly just when you're really pushing hard in those last few miles.
But now scientists reckon that lactic acid may actually be our friend, providing us with an additional source of energy when we most need it, and that the pain we feel is actually caused by something entirely different.
"Lactic acid is a partly broken-down carbohydrate molecule containing lots of energy," says Dr. Louis Passfield of the University of Glamorgan.
"If we exercise very hard, the body doesn't have time to break down glucose fully, so it breaks it down only as far as lactic acid, which is then used to provide lots more valuable energy. The pain experienced is more likely to be caused by nerve endings in the muscles being stimulated."
Mind over matter?
Endurance athletes tend to believe their sports are entirely physiological, leading to the appealing conclusion that the harder you train, the better you'll get. While this is certainly true up to a point, it's clear from several strange and surprising scientific studies that the mind can have a huge effect on performance over and above the physiological.
For example, a recent study by the American Council on Exercise tested 32 runners, ranging from competitive to recreational standard. The subjects watched a short video detailing the purportedly beneficial effects of super-oxygenated water and how their performance might be enhanced by drinking it before an endurance running race. But really it was just tap water.
The researchers found that the subjects ran an average of 83 seconds faster over five kilometres when they thought they were receiving the performance-enhancing water, even though heart rate, perceived exertion and blood lactate levels were virtually identical, whether they'd drunk the water or not.
"Over the years, placebo studies have shown that subjects who believe they are receiving beneficial treatment often experience a variety of positive outcomes," said Dr. Cedric Bryant, ACE chief exercise physiologist. "There is clearly a strong connection between the mind and body as it relates to physical performance."
Greed is good
The fact that Lance Armstrong reckons his cancer-caused weight loss turned him from a good rider into a great one, has led some of us lesser mortals to become obsessed with weight-related matters. The belief that every extra pound slows you down is commonly held, and although it may be true come race day, for the rest of the year, having a little extra fat may actually be of benefit.
The problem, as research adequately demonstrates, is that getting too thin can result in illness, injury and overtraining syndrome. So how should cyclists maintain the right balance?
An elegant solution is proposed by Dr. Arthur Stewart, an expert in the little-known field of kinanthropometry, which looks at the relationship between anatomy and movement.
"Fat gets a very bad press and many endurance athletes have developed an almost pathological desire to reduce body fat by as much as possible," says Stewart. "But fat plays many useful roles: it's crucial in maintaining energy balance, in repairing tissues after training and in preventing injury."
Stewart recommends that cyclists periodise their muscle/fat ratios in the same way as they would the rest of their training schedules. The idea is to 'peak' at ideal racing weight for that race only, and the rest of the year, a little extra fat should help to stay healthy and injury free.
"It's like mountaineering," says Stewart. "You can only be at the summit for a while and to stay longer is dangerous. So you have to make sure that you build up to it slowly, and then remember to climb down again afterwards!"
Cometh the hour
Amazingly, the hour at which you do your training or racing is likely to have a significant effect on your performance. Many riders feel sluggish in the morning but most put it down to last night's curry or having slept badly. In fact, research shows that many of our bodily functions follow so-called 'circadian rhythms', which means they fluctuate on a 24-hour basis.
"Practically every bodily function shows daily rhythmicity," says Dr. Roberto Refinetti, Chief Editor of the Journal of Circadian Rhythms. "So that means, in theory at least, you can improve your ability to do something simply by selecting the right time of day to do it."
In total, we have more than 100 different circadian rhythms controlled by the suprachiasmatic nucleus, a biological clock in a part of the brain called the hypothalamus. Although scientists have yet to pinpoint the exact mechanism it uses to pace your body, they know that daylight, social contact and meal-times are all factors.
Crucially for cyclists though, nearly all the variants affecting exercise performance are at their worst in the early morning and peak in mid to late afternoon. For example, body temperature tends to peak in the late afternoon, meaning that the muscles are naturally more supple and cycling at speeds that feel tough in the early morning will feel slightly easier.
A team at the Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New York carried out a study which showed that lung function is also improved by almost 7% in the late afternoon and evening, compared to other times of the day.
Some other, not so scientific, methods...
Cyclists used to puff on cigarettes before climbs, in the belief that it opened up the lungs. Funnily enough, you don't see Bradley Wiggins sparking up. Needless to say, this method wasn't practiced for long.
At the turn of the last century it was believed a foul concoction of egg white and strychnine (a strong poison) could stave off exhaustion. Instead, it tended to induce some fairly severe stomach cramps!