Last August, I stumbled across the finish line of a 100k foot-race through the Wasatch mountains satisfied, but definitely depleted. The race director thrust a sweaty plastic bottle in my hands and told me, “Have a chocolate milk, it’s the best way to recover.” Sitting down exhausted, I internally debated whether or not I should even engage in a discussion about processed dairy. He had no idea that if I took his advice I’d likely leave the contents of my bowels right there at his finish line.

Open any national magazine about triathlon, cycling, or running and it’s hard to miss the plethora of professional athletes jumping on the milk bandwagon. The explosion in popularity of chocolate milk for athletes as a recovery drink was kicked off by Indiana University physiologist Joel Stager. In 2006, he published “Chocolate milk as a post-exercise recovery aid” in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism. His research was done on “nine male, healthy, non-smoking, highly-trained cyclists” who performed two training sessions in the same day. The first was a 4-hour session, followed by the various recovery drinks. The second session was performed at 70% V02 max to exhaustion. His results showed that chocolate milk was almost twice as effective as the recovery product Endurox, and equaled the results garnered by Gatorade.

Sports scientists have figured out that immediately after exercise our bodies are hyper-efficient at replenishing our depleted energy stores. This on-board energy source, called glycogen, allows us to run/bike/swim for about an hour without having to take in carbohydrate energy from food. Research also shows that giving the body protein right away helps the muscles repair faster from the micro-tears caused by exercise. To put it simply, carbs in the 30 minute window after exercise will refuel you, and protein will repair you.

So sports nutrition companies have been trying for years to create the perfect drinkable blend of carbohydrates, protein, and micro-nutrients to help athletes recover. The faster you can recover after each workout the sooner you can train again. More training in a shorter period of time means more fitness.

What makes milk such a great recovery drink? Cow’s milk is designed to grow a calf into a 1,200 pound cow, so needless to say it’s full of growth-producing nutrients. With the goals of recovery products being to replenish carbohydrate stores (glycogen), to give the torn muscle fibers the building blocks to rebuild stronger, and to rehydrate—chocolate milk seems custom made for the task. Kary Woodruff, Sport Dietitian at The Orthopedic Specialty Hospital (TOSH) says, “Chocolate milk is not the only option for meeting recovery needs from endurance exercise, but it is a very efficient, and effective, means of doing so.” She points to the milk’s approximate ratio of 26 grams of carbohydrates, to its 8 grams of protein. At a carb to protein ratio of 3.25:1, chocolate milk falls within the accepted ratio research shows as most effective, around 3 or 4:1. It also has a high water content which helps athletes rehydrate.

So what’s the problem here? Let’s start with Stager’s research. With the sample size being just nine athletes, it’s hard to put too much weight behind such a study. Especially considering Endurox has outperformed Gatorade in previous studies, which completely contradicts Stager’s results. Most damaging however is a more recent study, from 2009, conducted by Central Washington University on a similar sample size of 10 athletes, found “no significant difference” between the commercial recovery product and chocolate milk. In this study, cyclists and triathletes depleted glycogen stores, consumed a recovery drink, then 15–18 hours later cycled to exhaustion again. It’s also important to point out that Stager’s 2006 research was funded by the Dairy and Nutrition Council Inc.

As with anything nutrition we need to ask: Who are you? What are you goals? These studies have been done on serious athletes who deplete their bodies through training most days of the week. They are also athletes who train multiple times per day. For the general public, or casual athlete, processed foods aren’t good for us, and milk is one of the most highly processed foods you can consume. In and around exercise there seems to be a good argument for high glycemic “sugary sports foods”, whether that be gels during the run or a quick recovery drink on your drive home. But with high sugar consumption now being linked to hypertension, obesity, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, kidney disease, and cardiovascular disease—we should all think twice before consuming 6–10 teaspoons of sugar per serving in any scenario.

Milk also acts as an allergen and pro-inflammatory agent in the body, which is unnecessarily counterproductive for athletes. Lactose containing dairy can give you any number of symtoms that you may not attribute to dairy products. These include gas, bloating, excema, asthma, acid reflux, and systemic inflammation. That last one is the kicker, as systemic inflammation is the precursor to all disease and is almost impossible for the lay-person to detect. What about calcium!? That argument has been proven untrue. We now know the rate of bone fractures is highest in milk-drinking countries. This is likely caused by the fact that milk is acid forming (which leaches nutrients), and often damages the gut (which causes malabsorption).

Unless you buy organic, hormone-free milk, American dairy cows also get an unhealthy dose of drugs, including genetically engineered Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) to make sure they are lactating year round, and producing as much milk as possible. With this practice also comes a need to pump them full of antibiotics to keep them healthy. All of this ends up in the chocolate milk.

I’ve worked with hundreds of athletes, and have seen just how insidious diary products can be. It’s not until I have clients remove all dairy products from their diets that they realize just how detrimental they have been. For those with frequent stomach upset, gas, and anyone with an asthmatic wheeze I highly recommend taking a week off any and all dairy products and see how you feel. There is zero risk in this, and a high likelihood that you’ll feel a whole lot better during your next run.

And when it comes to recovery—reach for some real food. Try these dairy-free recovery mini-meals: a banana and two hard boiled eggs, Larabars (whole food bars), or Turkey slices with raisins and almonds.

A true love for sports

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