By PCG Nutritionist Jen Sommer-Dirks
Most of us endurance athletes of any kind have heard long ago about the use of chocolate milk as a post-workout recovery beverage. It started with a study that compared chocolate milk to typical sports drinks such as Gatorade and found that chocolate milk was superior for recovery. Ever since, many cyclists have touted it as the “perfect” post-workout beverage, and magazine ads and commercials promoting chocolate milk are everywhere.
So what’s the big deal? First of all, it’s important to understand the concept of a recovery beverage and why and when it is necessary. Here’s the simple version.
When we exercise we burn a mix of fat and carbohydrate. Lower intensity exercise burns mostly fat, and even the leanest athlete has plenty of that stored up. Higher intensity exercise burns mostly carbohydrates, which the body can only store so much of (in the form of glycogen). On average, a person will burn through all of their body’s glycogen stores during two to three hours of exercise. That’s why we endurance athletes have to consume a carbohydrate source of some kind to keep going during activities of that duration or longer. That is also why it is important to consume carbohydrates as soon as possible (ideally within thirty minutes) after strenuous exercise in order to replenish our bodies’ glycogen stores. It is also recommended to consume some protein post workout to aid in muscle recovery. Fail to do so, and your next workout will probably suck.
So why would chocolate milk be superior?
Carbohydrates, Protein, and Amino Acids
First of all, it’s a good source of carbohydrates. It is also a good source of protein, and it specifically contains a good amount of the branch chain amino acids (leucine, isoleucine, and valine), which are particularly important for recovery from exercise.
Another benefit of chocolate milk is that it’s a liquid. A lot of athletes suffer from GI distress or suppressed appetite after workouts and have a hard time eating solid foods during that all-important recovery window thirty to sixty minutes after exercise. Liquids are often more easily tolerated by these athletes.
And a bonus: it’s super affordable. Sports nutrition supplements can get pricey, but a whole gallon of chocolate milk will set you back only about four bucks.
That being said, not everyone needs to be concerned about a post-workout recovery beverage (or meal). If your workout is one hour or less and at a moderate intensity, you don’t need to worry much about post workout recovery nutrition. Your next meal or snack, as long as it’s well balanced, should provide adequate carbohydrate and protein for your body to recover. Be particularly careful if your workout is less than one hour and your goal is weight loss, as an 8-ounce serving of low-fat chocolate milk still packs in 200 calories. This is why it annoys me to see personal trainers at the gym pushing hefty protein shakes on overweight women who are likely doing less than an hour of exercise; they don’t need it, and it might actually contribute to weight gain, probably in direct opposition to why these women are at the gym!
So what’s my final verdict? Although I don’t personally use it, I think chocolate milk is a quality post workout beverage for those who actually need it. It’s a good source of the nutrients you need, it’s easy to digest, it’s cost effective, and it tastes pretty good (in my opinion). I’m actually not sure why I don’t use it! Maybe I’ll start.
However, chocolate milk is by no means the only good post-workout beverage, and I don’t believe that it is necessarily superior to some of the other options out there. If you dislike the flavor, there’s no need to choke it down. There are plenty of other ways to get in the nutrients you need after a workout. If you don’t know what those are, speak to a sports registered dietitian like me!
Before we go, how exactly does chocolate milk stack up?
Here are some good post-exercise nutrition recommendations:
- Carbs: 1-1.5 grams per kg body weight
- Protein: 10-20 grams
- Electrolytes, particularly sodium (1 pound of sweat loss contains about 100 mg potassium and 400-700 mg sodium)
- Fluids: 16-24 fluid ounces for every pound lost
8oz Glass of Low-Fat Chocolate Milk
And here’s how an 8-ounce glass of low-fat chocolate milk measures up, though numbers will vary slightly by brand:
Carbs: 28 grams
Protein: 9 grams
Electrolytes: 154 mg sodium, 422 mg potassium
Fluid: 8 ounces (duh!)
Jen Sommer-Dirks is a Peaks Coaching Group Nutritionist and has a BS in Nutrition. She has her MS in Exercise Science and is a Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics.