Its commonly known that chocolate milk’s combination of antioxidants, protein and carbohydrate makes for a great recovery drink. But chocolate – or rather cocoa ﬂavanols, a speciﬁc group of ﬂavonoids – consumed pre-exercise can improve performance too, according to nutritionist Christine Bailey.
According to 2012 research from Australia, consumption of a cocoa ﬂavonol-rich drink may help to lower blood pressure, boost blood ﬂow to the muscles and lessen the demands placed on the heart during exercise.
In the study carried out at the University of South Australia and published in the British Journal of Nutrition, researchers recruited 21 overweight, middle-aged people and split them into two groups. The ﬁrst consumed a cocoa ﬂavanol-rich beverage containing 701mg ﬂavanols, while the second drank a low-cocoa ﬂavanol beverage.
Two hours later, the participants cycled for 10 minutes at 75 percent of their maximum heart rate. Results showed that while there were no differences in blood pressure before exercise, there was a signiﬁcant difference afterwards. In fact, increases in diastolic blood pressure were 68 percent lower in the high-ﬂavanol group, while mean blood pressure was 14 percent lower.
The researchers said that the ﬁndings suggest the consumption of cocoa ﬂavanol-rich drinks could allow for safer and more efﬁcient exercise performance, placing less stress on the cardiovascular system.
Analysis of 10 studies, published in the American Journal of Hypertension, conﬁrmed the blood pressure-reducing properties of cocoa – and you don’t need to eat loads either. Eating less than half an ounce of dark chocolate a day – only about 30 calories – was associated with a lowering of blood pressure without weight gain or other adverse effects, according to a study undertaken in 2007 and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
But cocoa contains a range of nutrients that may beneﬁt your performance, including B vitamins, calcium and magnesium, amino acids and a number of other antioxidants. Cocoa also contains caffeine, which is known to improve cycling performance – in part due to a stimulation of fatty acid mobilisation and sparing the body’s limited carbohydrate stores.
Research has shown that caffeine lowers the perception of effort and fatigue too, both for endurance efforts and sprints. Typically, a hot chocolate drink contains around 10mg caffeine, while a milk chocolate bar (50g) holds about 40mg. While this is nowhere near as much as the 100mg in your morning espresso, cocoa also contains appreciable amounts of the related compound theobromine. Although this is less pharmacologically active, the high content gives it an equivalent effect to that of caffeine.
For the most noticeable beneﬁts, choose chocolate with high levels of cocoa – look for darker chocolate that contains at least 70 percent cocoa solids. The new kid on the block, though, is raw chocolate. This is the bean, or nib, of the cocoa bean in its natural state – not cooked, over-processed or mixed with cheap ﬁller ingredients.
Also known as cacao, it’s available in the form of bars, nibs, powder, raw cookies and brownies. Often fused with coconut butter or agave syrup with dried fruit and nuts, it creates an amazingly healthy bar that’s perfect for before and after exercise. Importantly, as it isn’t heated above 42°C, it tends to be richer in health-promoting antioxidants too.
The benefits of cocoa
If you eat the right kind of cocoa in carefully measured quantities there are a wealth of health and recovery benefits to its ingestion. So what are the ways in that gnawing on the tasty brown stuff can do your body some real good?
Enhanced energy production: Cocoa is rich in B vitamins, which are needed for a variety of metabolic processes, including energy production.
Bone and joint health: It’s also a great source of the minerals copper, calcium, magnesium and zinc, all of which play a role in supporting bone health, cartilage and collagen production.
Muscle recovery and soreness: In addition to the ﬂavonoids, cocoa contains the potent antioxidant vitamins C and E to combat free radical damage, which can contribute to both inﬂammation and muscle soreness.
Immune support: During endurance exercise or heavy ongoing training, your immune system can be suppressed, making you more vulnerable to infections. Flavonoids, vitamins C, E and zinc help support healthy immune function.
Muscle growth and repair: Cocoa contains several amino acids (including leucine), which are known to be essential for the physical demands of athletic activities. Amino acids are necessary for muscle growth and repair.