Despite being labelled unhealthy for the general population, sugar and refined carbs are often uppermost in the minds of sports scientists who plan elite performers’ diets. While this isn’t a green light to eat every meal in Burger King or Nandos, there are occasions when you can indulge an appetite for refined or sugar foods.

Chocolate

Paula Radcliffe was a fan of it during her competitive days and it seems there’s not much wrong with adding a few squares of dark chocolate to your daily diet. In addition to satisfying a sweet tooth, it may even enhance performance in the same way as beetroot shots, suggest researchers. Many of the health benefits of dark chocolate are linked to the presence of a plant nutrient called epicatechin found in cocoa beans. Levels of epicatechin tend to be much lower in milk chocolate, which contains little cocoa, and white chocolate contains none. Epicatechin is known to trigger cells that line blood vessels to release extra nitric oxide, the very substance in beetroot that has been shown to enhance endurance, sprint and recovery times. For a study published in The Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition in 2016, a team of scientists at Kingston University found that 40g a day (about one and a half squares) of dark chocolate did indeed enhance performance in a group of recreational cyclists after two weeks.

Compared with those who had consumed white chocolate, the dark chocolate riders were shown to use less oxygen when cycling at moderate pace and to cover more distance during a two minute, all-out time trial, suggesting that their anaerobic ability had been enhanced. "We found that people could effectively exercise for longer after eating dark chocolate – something that's not been established before in this way,” said Rishikesh Kankesh Patel who led the study.

White rice, pasta and bread

Refined carbs remain an athlete’s top food for fast and effective energy supplies immediately before they train or compete. Because of their high glycaemic index of the refined products, they are rapidly absorbed by the body which means they are quickly available as an energy source. “We recommend a lot of athletes consume white pasta and rice before a race — these are quickly absorbed,” Cashin says. “The key is to eat them at times when the body uses them to best effect for fuel and to eat wholegrain versions at other times.”

Jam and honey

Jam and honey are a perfect pre-training or recovery fuel, Cashin says. Studies suggest that honey — made up of natural sugars (8%), water (18%), and minerals, vitamins, pollen and protein (2%) — might be even better. One paper published in the journal Experimental Biology showed honey to perform as well as glucose-containing sports gels. In the three-week trial, researchers at the University of Memphis found that both honey and glucose improved cycling speed and produced 6% greater cycling power.

 

This article was first published in Athletics Weekly. For more of the latest running and athletics news, plus performance features and much more, grab a copy of the magazine or check out www.athleticsweekly.com