The health benefits of chocolate: can chocolate really help cyclists?

Can chocolate be good for cycling?

Porridge oats, poached eggs, rice and pasta; repeat. It's important that a cyclists' diet is right. But doesn't it all get a bit boring? Is a sneaky chocolate bar every now and then actually that bad for bike riders? Before you go throwing away your secret stash of sweets away for fear that you'll need a gruelling, up-hill ride just to work them back off again, can chocolate actually help your performance on the bike?

Isn't chocolate bad for your health?

Who doesn't love chocolate? For those of us with the tiniest hint of a sweet-tooth to full-blown chocoholics, a chocolatey treat has to be one of the guiltiest of pleasures. Your average chocolate bar contains high amounts of sugar and saturated fat, two big no-no's when it comes to everyday nutrition. Of course, a treat is fine every now and then - particularly if you've just set yourself a new personal best – but everything should be in moderation when it comes to sugary snacks. Avoid chocolate with a high sugar content and instead look for high amounts of cocoa. Surprisingly, cocoa - the plant from which chocolate is made - is packed full of anti-oxidants and other nutritional benefits which can be useful for any upcoming trail rides or sportives that you've got on the horizon. Be aware though that a lot of these anti-oxidants can be lost in the process of turning cocoa into chocolate.

How can chocolate help for exercise?

Chocolate which is made up of a higher percentage of cocoa can be an effective recovery source after you exercise. Cocoa contains anti-oxidants which can help to treat inflammation and muscle soreness. After you've finished a particularly demanding course, you're going to need to recharge your body with carbohydrates and protein. Tired muscles need protein to build and repair, while a serving of carbs is needed to refuel and replace muscle glycogen. Chocolate, as with all sweets, contains a large amount of carbohydrates. In order to get a boost of protein, chocolate milk as a post-workout recovery drink seems to be popular among riders looking to get their fix of the sweet stuff while still keeping themselves in racing shape.

Can chocolate improve your riding?

But can eating chocolate really help how you exercise? You can be forgiven for thinking that stuffing yourself with dozens of chocolate bars isn't necessarily going to be the best way to make you the fastest rider at your local cycling club. Interestingly though, small portions of dark chocolate may actually boost your levels of stamina.

Or at least, a study by Kingston University seems to think so. The experiment looked into the effect that flavanols had on the body during exercise and had nine ‘moderately-trained' cyclists replace a snack with 40g of dark chocolate in their daily diet for two weeks. Dark chocolate is particularly rich in flavanols, a group of natural compounds from plants which have anti-oxidant-like effects on the body and can also be found in things like tea. The study suggested that the riders may have become more efficient at their own oxygen usage after adding dark chocolate to their diet. It may be that, for short-duration, moderate-intensity exercise, dark chocolate might help people exercise for longer.

Another study into the effect of flavanols also suggested that dark chocolate may improve the circulation in the body. The report from 2014 found that the flavanol content of dark chocolate may help to restore the ‘flexibility to the arteries'. On the professional racing circuit, it's not uncommon to hear of riders developing problems with their arteries, often referred to as exercise induced arterial endofibrosis.

Can chocolate be good for muscle growth?

We've already discovered that cocoa is a powerful anti-oxidant, with studies suggesting that it might also be able to control your cholesterol levels. An American study carried out in 2017 seemed to find that dark chocolate, along with almonds, managed to reduce the levels of "bad" cholesterol in the body.

So, while small amounts of dark chocolate may be beneficial for those of us who would like to keep our waistline in check, what about those who are looking for a little helping hand when it comes to muscle growth? While dark chocolate on its own isn't going to build-up the power in your legs for those long and arduous hill climbs, it may be able to help you prepare for it. Cocoa, it's been found, also contains a number of amino acids. Some of these amino acids – notably leucine - are needed for muscle growth and repair.

Dark chocolate vs milk chocolate: which is healthier?

So, we know that both milk and dark chocolate taste great, but which of the two is actually the healthiest? Dark chocolate is a great source of iron and magnesium. Iron is an essential nutrient that's used to carry oxygen around your body and for the creation of red blood cells. Iron deficiency can lead to fatigue and even anaemia, so you'll need to keep your iron levels topped up to be at your racing best. So, in summary, not only can dark chocolate:

  • Give you anti-oxidants that build and protect your muscles
  • Improve the circulation in your body
  • Better your oxygen usage during exercise
  • Boost your iron levels

But it also tastes delicious! Now, we don't want to crown a winner in the hunt for confection perfection, but we think the evidence has been laid out. Next time you want to enjoy a delicious, chocolatey-snack, now you at least have an excuse to use all in the name of a nutritious, chocolate-fuelled training plan.



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