You may have seen some blog posts about using chocolate milk as a recovery drink, or perhaps your pal in your running group swears by it. But is chocolate milk after workouts a big myth? Or is there actual science behind this chocolatey deliciousness?
Today, let’s break down why chocolate milk does in fact make a good recovery drink, and when you might consider using it.
Disclosure: This post is sponsored by the dairy farm families of New England. As always, all opinions are my own.
Why chocolate milk makes a good recovery drink
It all comes down to what your body needs after a workout. After a long endurance session, your body needs mostly carbohydrate along with some protein. The carbohydrate will restock your muscles with energy, while the protein will help start the muscle repair and recovery process.
You can work with a sports RD to calculate exactly how much you need after an intense workout. But a good rule of thumb is that endurance athletes generally want somewhere around a 3:1 to 4:1 carbohydrate to protein ratio. That means you might aim for around 15-20 grams of protein and 50-80 grams of carbohydrate after a tough, intense workout.
Guess what falls right in that range? A tall glass of chocolate milk!
Most commercial brands of chocolate milk will clock in around 50-60 grams of carbohydrate and 16 grams of protein in a tall, 16-ounce glass. When you’re tired from a tough effort and you don’t feel like eating anything, that drink can be an easy way to get nutrition in quickly.
In addition to the carb/protein combo, chocolate milk also helps replenish fluids, provides calcium and Vitamin D, and is rich in leucine. Leucine is an amino acid that is particularly relevant for active folks – you can read more about leucine benefits here.
Myths about chocolate milk after a workout
Alright, so you know it fits the macronutrients needed in that post-workout time frame – but there’s still some other pieces of misinformation out there about dairy and chocolate milk. I thought it might be helpful to dispel some of those myths when it comes to this topic.
Myth 1: Chocolate milk has too much added sugar.
Let’s be real, we all need to take a hard look at our added sugar intake and try to minimize it on a daily basis. But when it comes to the post-workout time frame, that quickly digestible added sugar can be quite beneficial for endurance athletes. That added sugar is what actually gives chocolate milk that ideal carbohydrate to protein ratio.
For example, I took a quick glance at brand of chocolate milk at my grocery store. It contained 29 grams of carbohydrate and 8 grams of protein per cup, for a carb:protein ratio of 3.6 to 1.
Unflavored skim milk, on the other hand, contains 13 grams of carbohydrate and 8 grams of protein, thus giving us a carb:protein ratio of less than 2:1.
While the regular skim milk would certainly be a healthier choice for everyday nutrition, for recovery we need that additional boost of carbohydrate. That can be achieved easily by using commercially available chocolate milk.
It’s not the only way though, of course. If you are passionate about minimizing your added sugar intake, you can create your own chocolate milk smoothie instead. Simply combine white milk, a frozen banana, and cocoa powder. That would eliminate any added sugar but still give you the chocolatey sweetness you’re craving, all naturally sweetened with the banana.
Myth 2: There’s no research showing any benefit to chocolate milk after a workout.
I’m not sure why this myth gets floated around, because it couldn’t be further from the truth. There are actually many studies showing benefits to chocolate milk consumption after a workout. Here are just a few examples:
- Cycling: Both chocolate milk and carbohydrate-electrolyte beverages had the same beneficial effects on recovery among cyclists in one study (Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, 2009). In another study, though, chocolate milk led to better subsequent exercise performance after a 4 hour rest period compared to a carbohydrate-only or fluid-only beverage (Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, 2009).
- Runners: A group of male runners did two running trials separated by 1 week. Those that drank chocolate milk after the workout, rather than a carbohydrate-only beverage, experienced improved time to exhaustion and also showed markers of potentially more muscle protein synthesis (Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 2012).
- Climbing: A study examined the impact of chocolate milk versus water after climbing to exhaustion, and then repeating the same task 24 hours later. Chocolate milk resulted in better performance and less muscle soreness (The Journal of sports medicine and physical fitness, 2015).
- Judo: Drinking chocolate milk instead of water after training sessions enhanced certain aspects of recovery and performance, and did not affect making weight. (Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, 2015)
- Teen athletes: One study compared a standard sports drink versus a chocolate milk beverage among adolescents in a strength and conditioning camp. The chocolate milk group had a greater increase in strength from start to finish of the camp compared to the sports drink group (Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 2019)
Pretty cool, huh?
Now, I think it’s important to note that many of these studies focus on comparing chocolate milk to water or a carbohydrate-only beverage. Clearly, the combination of energy, carbohydrates, and protein in the chocolate milk make a difference – but it’s certainly not the only food that could provide this trio and be used as an approach for recovery. (The caveat is that you would typically need to combine multiple foods to achieve this, versus the all-in-one package of chocolate milk.)
I personally love chocolate milk because it’s convenient and easy, but you can experiment with other carb/protein combos to see what works for you. I think any kind of dairy protein can be great after a workout because of its unique amino acid profile including leucine.
Myth 3: Dairy is not healthy; we’re the only mammal that drinks another animal’s milk.
This is not directly related to chocolate milk after a workout, but I want to address it because this is thrown around all the time on social media. I’d like you to ask yourself – why does this matter?
Think about it. We’re also the only mammal to blend up kale smoothies, or cook meat in an oven, or order takeout pizza, but no one seems to complain about these things.
If you’re not personally a dairy fan that’s totally cool – we are all open to our own beliefs and choices! – but I think we need to get past using this as “evidence” for why others shouldn’t have dairy.
On the contrary, several recent studies have shown overall health benefits related to dairy consumption, providing evidence for why dairy does fit into a balanced diet:
- A 2019 review found that dairy intake was linked to better waist circumference, body weight, and a beneficial effect on insulin resistance.
- Another 2019 umbrella review found “Convincing and probable evidence of decreased risk of colorectal cancer, hypertension and cardiovascular disease” with total dairy consumption.
- A 2018 review found that fortified milk is a major contributor of Vitamin D to the diet, providing around 28-63% of Vitamin D intake. Not only is Vitamin D involved in bone health, but it also plays a role in immunity and some studies suggest it plays a role in exercise performance/recovery.
Practical tips for workout recovery
We’ve dispelled the myths, and now you know that chocolate milk can make a great recovery drink (or any kind of milk when combined with additional carbohydrate!). Now how do you put this into practice?
Let’s start with when to even worry about a recovery meal or snack.
You want to focus on recovery meals/snacks in three scenarios:
1. You are doing 2-a-day training workouts.
This is for all my hardcore Ironman folks out there – or even those of you who might be multisport competitive high school athletes. If you’re stressing your body in the morning and at night, you want to ensure recovery between your first and second workout.
2. You have just completed a very long workout (>2-3 hours) – or an intense shorter workout (>1-1.5 hours).
Did you just do a 6 hour bike ride? Coming back from a 3 hour run? Bangin’ out a crazy tough track interval session over 2 hours? These are times when it’s important to focus on recovery.
3. You just completed an event and have another one tomorrow.
I know some of you love back-to-back Saturday-Sunday racing (y’all are crazy, haha), and in this scenario you’ll want to focus on recovery after your first event.
Those are the 3 key scenarios really when recovery is essential and you want to grab that recovery drink like chocolate milk.
Most research has shown that for a recreational athlete who’s not engaging in these types of workouts above, you don’t have to put a ton of focus into the immediate post-workout recovery meal.
Why? Your everyday diet will help you recover before your next session.
Now, if you’re not planning to eat for several hours after your shorter or less intense workouts – it’s certainly wise and beneficial to toss in a small snack like a glass of chocolate milk or some yogurt and fruit. But if you do a short run and you’re planning to have lunch an hour or two later, there’s really no major concern over getting an immediate recovery snack.
Lastly, here are a few other helpful practical tips when it comes to chocolate milk after a workout:
- For the best results in the three scenarios above, try drinking your chocolate milk recovery beverage within 30-60 minutes of finishing up. The muscles act like a sponge during that time, ready to soak up that energy.
- If you’re going to drink chocolate milk as a recovery beverage, aim for the low fat or nonfat versions, as in that immediate post-exercise period you are most concerned about getting enough carbohydrate and protein quickly. You don’t want to “crowd those out” or slow down uptake with too much fat.
- Keep in mind there are lots of other great dairy-based recovery options, so if you don’t like chocolate milk – or you don’t feel comfortable with the added sugar – you have many choices. This could include a smoothie made with milk or whey protein powder, a glass of milk alongside a sandwich, or a yogurt parfait loaded up with fruit.
That’s it – everything you need to know about drinking chocolate milk after a workout! If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to leave ‘em in the comments section below.
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