Chocolate Milk: Can a Childhood Fav be Fitness Fuel?

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Wake up, check the weather, get dressed and maybe grab some light breakfast. Lace up your shoes and out the door you go. You’re about to start a long run and know what to expect, whether it’s 10 miles or maybe more. Either way, you start running.

A few miles in and you’re feeling pretty good, but a few miles later you hit a wall, slowing down, breathing heavy and feeling pretty gassed. Two miles later and you’ve got a second wind. You are breathing easier, lengthening your stride and eating up the pavement. A couple miles to go. You’re tired, but it’s that kind of satisfied tiredness that you know and love.

Gradually your feet slow down, and your pace relaxes. Cool down mode and you’re done. For today at least. But physically finishing this run is just the beginning of the next one. Ensuring proper recovery from one run is the key to making the next a success (and feeling better too!)

What does the body need to recover?

Well, water is a good place to start since you have probably sweated a ton on your run. Rehydrating is essential and is the reason so many recovery foods are in drink form: protein shakes, sports drinks and smoothies. 

In terms of refueling with calories, the right mix of macronutrients is key to recovery. Seek sources that offer carbohydrates and protein in a three or four to one ratio to most to efficiently replenish glycogen and rebuilding muscle. Although they don’t have calories, micronutrients are no small element to recovery. You’ve lost essential electrolytes like potassium and sodium through sweat, so be sure to replenish these as well.

And to make things a little bit more challenging, all of these should be consumed within a couple of hours post-exercising.

 What is a good recovery food/drink?

Turns out, a great option is a beverage that most of us probably associate with childhood: chocolate milk. A 2012 study found that drinking chocolate milk immediately after exercise and again two hours later, supports recovery and may reduce rates of muscle damage. It has been touted as the perfect combination of protein, carbohydrates and some key micronutrients. It’s also affordable, convenient and tasty.

What is the nutrition breakdown of chocolate milk?

In one cup (250 grams) of low-fat, chocolate milk there are 24 grams of carbohydrates and 8 grams of protein, which is the three or four to one carbohydrate to protein ratio that is recommended for recovery. It also has 430 milligrams (mg) of potassium and 162 mg of sodium.

Regular milk’s carbohydrates come in the form of naturally-occurring sugar (lactose). Chocolate milk’s carbohydrates come in the form of lactose and added sugars (e.g., sucrose). Dietary Guidelines recommend keeping added sugars to less than 10% of your total calories, which means less than 50 grams of added sugars per 2,000 calories. You’ll use up some of your added sugars allowance with chocolate milk, so keep that in mind when putting together meals and snacks for the rest of your day.

Is chocolate milk the only option to support recovery?

While chocolate milk is a convenient option that strikes the right ratio of carbohydrates and protein, other foods and beverages can help support recovery, too. Even several hours after exercise (especially a long run), your body’s metabolism will still be running pretty high. Getting the right amount of carbohydrates, protein and water throughout the day will help make sure that you can power through your next workout without feeling too drained.

Your body needs a steady stream of protein to run at peak performance, so a spacing your intake across the day is best for maximizing the ability of your muscles to repair and rebuild. To help with this, aim for 25-30 grams of protein per meal.

Keeping well hydrated is always important. Consistent fluid intake before, during and the rest of the day after strenuous exercise will allow you to feel less tired and recover faster, in addition to helping your body perform its normal daily functions like helping to digest food and absorb nutrients. The National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine recommend that most women need about 2.2 liters of fluid per day (about nine cups), and men need about three liters of fluid per day (about 13 cups). In addition to gender, fluid needs also depend on a variety of factors like age, activity level and heat exposure.  

Finally, make sure you eat a steady amount of carbohydrates. The carbs you eat immediately following lengthy endurance training will mostly go to replenish your muscle glycogen stores that you’ve tapped into. Getting the proper amount of carbs (including fiber) in your diet will help to maintain blood glucose levels and keep you ready to go with both quick and lasting energy for your next big run.  

If you are looking for a convenient, affordable and possibly nostalgic option to help support recovery after a hard work out, chocolate milk may be a great option for you. If chocolate milk isn’t your jam, look for alternatives that contain carbohydrates and protein in a three or four to one ratio and key electrolytes like potassium and sodium.

This blog post includes contributions from University of Maryland Dietetic Interns Adam Sachs and Julia Werth.