Chocolate and athletic performance, interview of a London's Kingston University researcher

We had an interview with Rishikesh Kankesh Patel - London's Kingston University to discuss his amazing study on chocolate and its effects on athletic performance. 

Could you introduce yourself in a few words?

Hi, I’m Rishikesh Kankesh Patel, an exercise physiology lecturer in the Faculty of Science, Engineering and Computing at Kingston University in London. I’ve just completed my PhD investigating the efficacy of cocoa flavanols as ergogenic aids for exercise performance – basically, looking at whether dark chocolate can help athletes cycle for longer. Previous to that, I did my undergraduate degree here at Kingston in sport science. My research follows on from my dissertation project which I worked on during my degree and resulted in an article published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. The initial positive results I found during that undergraduate project was the main reason I went on to do my PhD in this area.


What inspired you to choose this research topic?

Who doesn’t like chocolate! Exercise is my passion, I enjoy exercising and exploring the use of ergogenic aids – supplements that can improve performance. There has been quite a bit of research done on nitrates that resulted in very positive findings, but when you think about the commonly used nitrate supplements, you are talking about things like beetroot and spinach.  Research showed the dark chocolate and beetroot juice had a similar effect on vasodilation, so I found myself wondering whether chocolate and exercise might be a really good combination to explore. The possibility of having something so associated with pleasure actually prove to be beneficial for exercise was really interesting to me.

What’s a typical day at work like in your lab/office? / What are your specific roles in your lab?

I’m currently writing up my PhD studies into manuscripts for publication at the moment and have little time to carry out research as my current role is a full-time teaching position. But during my PhD, a typical day would involve carrying out testing between 6am and 9am on participants supplemented with dark chocolate. They would come in, consume the chocolate provided, I would then wait two hours before taking blood and running basic measurements such as blood pressure, glucose, cholesterol, body mass and stature. They would then take part in a two-hour exercise protocol on a cycle ergometer. After they had left, I’d have the somewhat arduous task of filtering and inputting the data. I would then repeat the process with other participants in two further sessions during the rest of the day. 

As a lecturer, I teach modules on ergogenic aids and extreme environments, where we go over different ergogenic aids and how they can be beneficial for exercise and performance, as well as looking at different environments and how athletes can adapt to those to optimise performance and health. I also teach an introduction to exercise physiology module, covering core concepts, as well as a module about research methods, going over how to conduct experiments and analyse data. A lot of this is similar to what I’ve been doing during my PhD, which is great as it shows my students that within three or four years they could be doing exactly the same thing as me – there’s a pathway there

According to your research, how can chocolate help to boost athletic performance?

During my undergraduate project, we wanted to see whether dark chocolate could provide a similar benefit to athletes as beetroot juice. Beetroot juice is rich in nitrates, which are converted to nitric oxide in the body. This dilates blood vessels and has been shown to reduce oxygen consumption – allowing athletes to go cycle more economically.


Dark chocolate contains a substance called epicatechin – a type of flavanol found in the cacao bean, that also increases nitric oxide production in the body. We used a commercially available chocolate which a previous study had established was relatively rich in flavanols and carried out a study using nine amateur athletes, looking at the effect on performance after eating 40g of the dark chocolate each day for two weeks. What we found was that the gas exchange threshold, which is a measure of anaerobic threshold, was improved after eating dark chocolate. Basically, the riders used less oxygen when cycling at a moderate pace and also covered more distance in a two-minute flat-out time trial. 

What is your target when you continue your research on chocolate?

My postgraduate research has been focusing on finding out whether the boost in performance comes from a single dose or repeated consumption over a longer period, as well as whether there is an optimal flavanol level. I’m interested in how this could be used in an applied context – I come from an athletic background, I used to swim. That really got me interested in sport science, being able to improve performance through biomechanics, form, technique and exercise physiology. We want to refine our findings, establish where the best effect is found within cycling and then translate that across sports.

Do you follow any online scientific personalities (youtube channel/researchers/specific blog...)?

At Exeter they have a big research group which does a lot of work around beetroot juice headed up by Professor Andrew Jones. I also keep up with the Gatorade Sports Science Institute website, which contains various findings that translate research into more applicable terms. Aside from that, I watch a lot of interesting stuff on Netflix about doping – Icarus is amazing, as well as cycling and Lance Armstrong documentaries. On Youtube, I watch conferences posted up by The Physiology Society and the European College of Sport Science.

Do you recommend any scientific events?

The American College of Sports Medicine is the biggest sports conference you’ll find me at, along with the European College of Sport Science.