Researchers at the University of California, San Diego, have discovered that epicatechin, a component of cocoa which is commonly found in dark chocolate, can significantly boost heart and leg muscle performance in mice.
Their findings are said to be applicable to humans and therefore suggest that consuming a small amount of dark chocolate on a regular basis can enhance leg strength and endurance as well as providing benefits at a mitochondrial or cellular level.
Consuming epicatechin is already known to decrease the likelihood of a person suffering high blood pressure, heart disease or strokes. This latest research appears to show that it can have a much shorter term benefit when it comes to athletic performance.
In the study, mice were divided into sedentary and active groups which were sub-divided into epicatechin- and water-fed groups.
After a 15-day control period, all four groups were exercised on a treadmill to the point of exhaustion, and their performance analysed.
Predictably, perhaps, the water-fed sedentary mice became exhausted first. But the sedentary epicatechin-fed mice outperformed their active water-fed counterparts. The active epicatechin group, however, were able to cover around 50% more distance on the treadmill than the active water-fed control group.
When biopisies of the leg muscles were carried out, both groups of epicatechin-fed mice were found to have undergone “structural and metabolic changes in skeletal and cardiac muscles resulting in greater endurance capacity.”
So it appears that even the sedentary epicatechin-fed mice showed physiological changes that mimicked the effects of exercise. It is this potential clinical application that the San Diego researchers believe warrants further investigation.
As far as those interested in endurance sports are concerned, it appears that the consumption of small amounts, and only small amounts, of epicatechin will have a positive effect.
“A very small amount is probably enough,” Dr. Francisco Villarreal, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Diego, and one of the authors of the study told the New York Times. That small amount, he suggests, is just five grammes of dark chocolate per day.
“More could lessen or even undo” the benefits, he added, suggesting that anything greater would overload the muscles’ receptors.
So, despite what initially appears to be good news for chocolate-loving athletes, it seems the potential for cyclists and others to take advantage of this new research may depend as much on self-restraint as it does on science.
The research has been published in the Journal of Physiology and you can read an abstract here.