“Beverage of champions: Chocolate milk gets an Olympic-style makeover,” reported the Washington Post in 2014 after ads featuring U.S. Olympic athletes began popping up during the Sochi winter games. Olympic athletes have access to the best in exercise regimens and health and nutrition advice. So, if they drink chocolate milk post workout, should you?
When it comes to recovering from intense exercise, this classic childhood beverage has taken the spotlight. But if you’re not engaged in strenuous, prolonged regular exercise, chocolate milk may not provide any extra benefits.
Why chocolate milk after a workout?
In some studies, drinking chocolate milk immediately after a strenuous workout is one of the best ways to recover quickly—better than sugary sports drinks like Gatorade.
However, nearly all the research on chocolate milk and exercise has looked at serious athletes, like mountain climbers, college soccer players, triathletes, and trained cyclists. No studies have found a benefit of chocolate milk for those who jog daily or who work out at their gym a few times a week lifting weights or running on a treadmill.
What’s in chocolate milk that might help after a workout of intense physical activity? Chocolate milk’s naturally occurring sugar (lactose) is half glucose, its protein speeds up glycogen synthesis in the body, and its electrolytes (like potassium and, to a lesser extent, sodium) help you rehydrate.
“The extra sugar provides more carbohydrates for energy storage,” explains Beth Glace, a sports nutritionist at the Nicholas Institute of Sports Medicine and Athletic Trauma at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. A typical low-fat chocolate milk has roughly four times more carbs than protein, which may be a good ratio to rapidly replenish glycogen stores in muscles.
When you’re inactive or moving slowly, your body gets energy mostly from burning fat (assuming you haven’t just eaten). But for more intense activity (brisk walking, running, cycling, etc.), you can’t burn fat fast enough to get all the energy you need. So if you’re, say, running for several hours, your body is going to rely more on the carbs in glycogen for the extra energy it needs.
“You’re generally trying to restore muscle glycogen when we’re talking about recovery from endurance exercise,” explains Glace.
Glycogen is essentially a long chain of glucose (blood sugar). The body converts glucose to glycogen in order to store the glucose in muscles and in the liver. But we don’t have much glycogen, especially compared to our vast stores of fat.
So during an intense, prolonged activity, you can run out of glycogen. That’s what marathoners are talking about when they say they “hit the wall.”
“In more seriously trained athletes, let’s say a triathlete, they might do a run in the morning and a swim or bike workout later in the afternoon,” says Glace. “So it really becomes crucial for them to restore their glycogen reserves quickly. This is where chocolate milk comes in.”
Can you get the carbs and protein from something else in your next meal? Probably, if you eat soon. You restore glycogen more quickly if you eat the carbs and protein within an hour.
I’m not an Olympic athlete. Should I drink chocolate milk post workout?
Most of us aren’t running marathons or cycling competitively for two hours and then doing another intense activity within 24 hours. Do we need a recovery beverage like chocolate milk? Not likely.
“A recovery food or drink becomes important if you’re doing another hard workout that day,” says Glace. “If you’re just going for a walk, it probably doesn’t matter because you’re not burning that much glycogen.”
And if you’re taking that brisk walk to lose weight, you don’t want the 170 or so calories in a cup of chocolate milk…or any extra calories, for that matter.
Bottom Line: Unless you’re doing prolonged, intense exercise on successive days, or more than one strenuous workout on the same day, you don’t need to drink chocolate milk post workout to recover.
Do you drink chocolate milk post workout, or something else? Let us know in the comments.
Sources: Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 61: 968S, 1995; Med. Sci. Sports Exerc. 44: 682, 2012; Int. J. Sport Nutr. Exerc. Metab. 16: 78, 2006; Int. J. Sport Nutr. Exerc. Metab. 13: 382, 2003.
This post was originally published in 2014 and is updated regularly.