Lifestyle07 Jul 2021

The Athletic Life: why chocolate is a runner's superfood


Chocolate-fuelled runner (© Christel Saneh)

Kate CarterChocolate has lots of benefits for runners and athletes. No, really. Hear me out...

Kate Carter (@katehelencarter)


Deep in the distant past, when I was a small child, there was a TV campaign in the UK by the Dog’s Trust charity to encourage responsible pet ownership. “A dog is for life, not just for Christmas” ran the slogan. Well, I feel much the same about today’s World Chocolate Day. Chocolate is far too important to relegate to just a single day. Chocolate is for life, not just a day in July.

I wish I was the kind of person who could open a large bar of chocolate and have just a few squares before putting it away for the next day, but I am not and never will be, and frankly I’m not sure those people deserve chocolate anyway. I once went to visit my sister and her family in summer and she still had Easter egg chocolate in the kitchen cupboard. It’s incredible that I share DNA with her.

If we had the chocolate Olympics – and really, we should – then my podium places would go to Lindt Excellence Extra Creamy, Marks and Spencer’s Swiss milk and Hotel Chocolat Dizzy pralines. But though I am a milk chocolate devotee, it’s the dark stuff that I probably ought to consume more of, not least because it really is good for you – and good for running.

Bear with me, I promise this is not funded propaganda for Lindt or Hotel Chocolat (though I am entirely open to offers from both) – there is plenty of evidence to back this claim up. For a start cocoa, which of course dark chocolate is higher in, has been shown in some studies to improve vascular health. It’s thought that’s because it is loaded with polyphenols, and they help the body to fight inflammation, reduce oxidative stress and increase the formation of nitric oxide – which in turn causes blood vessels to dilate. So better blood flow = better vascular health.

But wait! There’s more. Lots of runners will have heard that milk is a good post-run recovery drink because it has just the right mixture of protein, carbs, water and nutrients. Well, chocolate milk is even better. The ratio of carbs to protein is better than in most sports drinks, it’s easily absorbed (those with dairy allergies clearly notwithstanding) and the added chocolate not only makes it taste nicer, but the added sugar actually boosts the carb content: an 8oz glass of normal milk has about 12g of carbs, whereas chocolate milk has about 30-35g.

Then there are the studies that show that chocolate can even improve your VO2 max – essentially how fast your body can use oxygen. Researchers found that 20g of dark chocolate a day for three months given to sedentary people improved their Vo2 max score by 17%. The fact that that research was done in Mexico, historically speaking the home of chocolate, is surely no coincidence…

Perhaps more surprisingly, chocolate turns out to be a good source of running fuel as well. Of course as runners we know that sugar = fuel, but chocolate is surely a far nicer source than the sticky gels that marathoners will be all too horribly familiar with. Back in 1996 a study fed some lucky college students dark chocolate before a moderate intensity run, and found that their blood sugars stayed higher, fuelling them for longer. Compared to the poor non-chocolate-fed group, they also showed a lower rate of perceived exertion and better blood lactate levels.

Seriously, where does one sign up to be a subject in chocolate-based trials? There's a brand called 80Noir Chocolate that was devised by an ultra-runner who used chocolate as fuel for years. I've never tried it, but would like to volunteer as a guinea pig for any researchers looking for willing victims to test the effects. 

Chocolate has antioxidants, a bit of caffeine, a hit of iron, soluble fibre, vitamin D, manganese, copper, magnesium … it’s basically a superfood and I’m now wondering if I should eat some more of it. After all, it is World Chocolate Day, right?

Chocolate is for every day, but perhaps even more of it today.