I’ve had a number of clients ask me about the benefits of chocolate milk as a recovery drink, a beverage many runners enjoy the convenience of post-run. In fact, it’s a popular choice to be found at the finish line of many races. Does chocolate milk live up to it’s hype? Let’s take a look. But first, what we should be reaching for nutritionally after completing a long or hard run?
Components of Recovery Nutrition
It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise the best foods to eat immediately following a hard or long run or strenuous workout include ones that:
- Are antioxidant rich – or in other words contain the vitamins A, C and E, minerals zinc and selenium as well as phytonutrients (to combat post muscle soreness and manage the healing process);
- Are carbohydrate rich, ideally containing between 50-75 grams of carbs – or about 1g carb per kg of bodyweight (to refuel depleted glycogen stores);
- Contain a bit of protein, in a 4:1 (or 3:1) ratio of carbs to protein (which doubles the insulin response that is required for manufacturing glycogen and also aids in muscle synthesis) and specifically the amino acid glutamine (supports the immune system and prevents protein breakdown by blunting the rise in cortisol, a hormone released when you exercise intensely) and the amino acid arginine (makes glucose more available for glycogen synthesis);
- Contain electrolytes – minerals including sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium which are lost in sweat and are required for muscle contractions;
- Are low in or free from fat (which would slow rehydration and glycogen replenishment);
- Include water (for rehydration).
You also want to ensure that you reach for this food/drink combo within 30 minutes of completing your run or workout. Now, if you wait too long and miss the window it’s not the end of the world, it will just take you about twice as long to refill your glycogen stores, meaning it’ll likely be about 48 hours before you’re back at full capacity for a good run.
So you can see that if you run and work out 3 or 4 days a week, you needn’t worry so much about being strict with post-run nutrition. You’ll likely recover in time for your next workout even if you miss the 30-minute window.
However if you exercise everyday and especially if you run/workout twice a day, nutrient timing becomes very important. In a nutshell, if you fail to adhere to the 30-minute window and include the proper nutrients in the ideal ratios, then you’ll dig yourself into a chronically depleted glycogen stores hole which will translate into low energy and declining performance.
Now the question is, what do you reach for within that 30-minute window that meets the above requirements? Chocolate milk?
Chocolate Milk: The Hype, The Questions and The Facts
At first glance, low fat chocolate milk looks great. It contains carbohydrates and protein in the ratio of just over 3:1, as most 1 cup standard servings have 25-29 grams of carbs and 7-8 grams of protein. Drinking 2 cups, or 500mL, contains 50g-58g of carb thereby meeting the requirements of consuming 50g-75g of carb immediately post-run. Additionally, chocolate milk contains chocolate and chocolate is a source of antioxidants (although milk proteins have been shown to inhibit absorption of the antioxidants, making dark chocolate the better choice). And let’s be honest, it’s chocolate milk… Did anyone even need an excuse to drink this rich and creamy beverage? Furthermore, chocolate milk has been scientifically proven to help you recover faster after working out. In fact, a popular 2006 study promotes chocolate milk as an ideal recovery drink.
- The study received funding from the Dairy and Nutrition Council. Essentailly, the point of the study was to promote chocolate milk.
- The study followed 9 cyclists. Nine. Not nine-hundred or nine-thousand. Nine.
- The study compared low-fat chocolate milk, Gatorade, and Endurox R4 (a carb replacement sports drink). What’s to say there’s not something out there that is better than these three choices?
The dairy industry sponsors athletes who in turn promote the consumption of chocolate milk as an ideal post-workout recovery drink. It makes chocolate milk sound so good. And elite athletes touting chocolate milk make it sound even better. But who’s to say that chocolate milk is behind their performance. “Most top athletes perform in spite of their diet – not because of it” –Brendan Brazier, author of Thrive Fitness and creator of Vega. In other words, maybe good genetics rock regardless of what you eat.
And The Facts
- Chocolate milk contains added, refined sugar (sucrose), naturally occurring lactose, and many varieties even contain high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which is called glucose-fructose in Canada. Sugar in the form of sucrose / HFCS / glucose-fructose is present in chocolate milk in amounts of about 5 teaspoons, or 24 grams, per 2 cup serving. Sugar has been shown to cause inflammation, feed cancer, cause weight gain, diabetes and heart disease, and shut down the immune system for up to 5 hours after consumption. Yikes… Wow… Okay then. Did you catch that? Sugar causes inflammation. Sugar feeds cancer. Sugar causes heart disease. Sugar lowers immunity. This goes beyond chocolate milk – sugar is found many places and chocolate milk is only one of them. And possibly worse than sugar, HFCS/glucose-fructose is behind many disturbing metabolic health problems. You absolutely require carbs (glucose) upon finishing a run but it may be most beneficial to consume it in forms other than refined sugar.
- Chocolate milk contains ingredients other than just milk, sugar and cocoa, such as ‘milk ingredients’, ‘colour’, ‘modified corn starch’ and ‘artificial flavour’. I can’t tell you exactly what these ingredients are but I can tell you they are not added in order to benefit our health. In fact, quite possibly they may be detrimental to our overall long-term health.
- Milk contains the naturally occurring sugar lactose (26 grams per 2 cup serving) and many people are lactose intolerant to some degree. Approximately 20% Caucasians, 70% African-Americans, 80% Aboriginals, and almost 100% of Asians are estimated to be lactose intolerant. Among the Caucasian population there may be others that suffer from lactose maldigestion who do not attribute their symptoms to a problem with lactose or don’t experience classic symptoms. Intolerances and maldigestion of food compromise the digestive system which can inhibit post-run recovery by causing excess inflammation.
- Casein makes up over 80% of milk protein. A 2007 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (that is used by the dairy industry to promote the consumption of chocolate milk) hypothesized that it is the casein content of milk that explains why milk was shown to promote muscle growth after exercise. It’s interesting (and scary) to note that casein is the protein that strongly and consistently promoted all stages of cancer growth in Dr. T. Colin Campbell’s The China Study (BenBella Books, 2006).
- Milk consumption provides extra hormones that are a cause for concern. Dr Walter Willett of The Harvard School of Public Health describes in his book Eat, Drink and Be Healthy how elevated levels of these naturally occurring hormones such as estrogens and progestins, androgens, and insulin like growth factors have been linked to cancer, as well as to chronic acne (Free Press, 2001).
- Dairy may or may not increase the risk of osteoporosis, but neither does it prevent osteoporosis. Plenty of evidence shows that drinking more milk does not reduce bone fractures or osteoporosis. Not necessarily a reason not to drink milk, but more a reason why milk isn’t necessary.
- Lastly, should we really be drinking milk? Milk, the lactating liquid of a mother cow meant to fatten up her baby cow. Humans are the only mammals who drink the milk of another mammal.
Wholesome and Healthy Recovery
To answer the question of what to reach as ideal post-run recovery nutrition, I’ll be the first to admit that making a better choice is not always the most convenient choice. You’ve heard it before… If it was easy we’d all be doing it. But neither is eating well overly difficult. It usually just comes down to a little planning. My top recommendation for recovery nutrition comes in the form of my blueberry recovery shake. There is no sugar, no colouring, no artificial flavouring, no HFCS / glucose-fructose. Just the naturally good for you whole foods ingredients. Here’s what it contains and why:
- Coconut water: The water of young green coconuts rich in electrolytes and phytonutrients; also contains carbohydrates.
- Blueberries & strawberries: Contain carbohydrates and are one of the richest sources of antioxidants known.
- Banana: Contain carbohydrates and electrolytes.
- High quality plain unflavoured non-denatured whey protein powder: A highly bioavailable complete source of protein that includes the conditionally essential amino acids arginine and glutamine.
- Chia seeds: omega-3 fatty acids to help manage inflammation and the healing process.
- Kale leaves or greens powder: An amazing and unparalleled source of phytonutrients, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. The importance of phytonutrients cannot be understated.
I drank this shake immediately following hard or long runs without fail in training for my fastest marathon. It contains about 59 grams of carbohydrate and 16 grams of protein in the ideal ratio of about 3.5 to 1. I’d throw all the ingredients in the blender upon walking in the door. Or, if I knew I couldn’t get to my blender right away, I’d make the shake in advance and pack it with me in a cooler bag.
After much research and as a holistic nutritionist educated to understand food and how it affects the human body both in the short and long-term, it has become clear to me that chocolate milk may not be our ideal post-run recovery drink. I’d like to see you become the best runner you can possibly be… And for that I’d recommend treating yourself to a blueberry, a strawberry banana, or a tropical recovery shake within 30-minutes of finishing a hard or long run. I personally go back and forth between blueberry and tropical these days. Recipes below!
Happy running 🙂
Sarah J Cuff, RNH, PTS
Recovery Shake Recipes