Chocolate Milk as Recovery?

After a super-tough ride on the bike, what’s your best nutrition option for recovery?  In the world of sports nutrition, there’s a lot of buzz about low-fat chocolate milk.  Since I generally like simple, whole-food nutrition over chemicals and processed foods, the thought of it appeals to me (although many cheap chocolate syrups are made with chemicals – more on this below).  While there are hundreds of sports nutrition foods and drinks available on the shelves, is it possible that a favorite childhood drink holds the secrets to muscle recovery, stronger rides, and lean body mass retention?

The Research:

In 2009, sports scientists at Indiana University had cyclists ride until their muscles were depleted of energy.  Then, they rested, drank a recovery drink, rested some more and biked again until exhaustion.  As recovery nutrition, the cyclists were given one of three isocaloric beverages during the first 30 minutes of the rest period.  They received Gatorade, Endurox R4 or low-fat chocolate milk. The Gatorade cyclists and Chocolate Milk cyclists were able to bike approximately 50% longer than the Endurox cyclists.  For comparison, here’s the nutrition break-down for each of these drinks:

Gatorade (per 100 calories):  100 calories, 32 grams carbohydrates, 0 grams protein, 200 milligrams sodium, 50 milligrams potassium

Chocolate Milk (per 100 calorie – see full label on right): 100 calories, 16.6 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams protein, 97 milligrams sodium, 270 milligrams potassium, 185 milligrams calcium, 20 milligrams magnesium

Endurox (per 100 calories): 100 calories, 19 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams protein, 82 milligrams sodium, 50 milligrams potassium, 36 mg milligrams calcium, 89 milligrams magnesium

Then, earlier this year, the University of Texas conducted a series of studies to test the affects of different drinks used in recovery on the performance of cyclists over a one-month period.  The drinks studied included low-fat chocolate milk, a carbohydrate solution sports drink similar to Gatorade, and a calorie-free drink similar to Vitamin Water.

The results?  The Chocolate Milk cyclists showed improved oxygen uptake at twice the rate as those who drank the other beverages. Furthermore, they added more lean muscle mass and shaved off more fat than those who consumed the carbohydrate drink.

All this sounds pretty good, right?

My Analysis:

It makes sense to me that the Chocolate Milk is winning in research.  In recovery, you want carbohydrates, protein, and fluid.  Both the milk and chocolate syrup provide carbohydrates.  The chocolate syrup carbs are quick-acting, which gives glycogen stores efficient replenishment.  The milk carbs, from lactose, are slower, providing an ongoing energy source to discourage muscle wasting.  Then, milk provides whey and casein, which are quick-acting and slow-acting proteins, respectively.  This provides protein for muscle cell rebuilding and retention over a long period of time.  Additionally, milk provides other nutrients including calcium, vitamin D, and potassium.  Some analysts have also hypothesized that the caffeine in chocolate syrup may stimulate tired muscles, but at only 5 milligrams of caffeine per serving in most commercial syrups, I’m not convinced of any benefit (for context, most cups of moderately-strong coffee contain 80-120 milligrams).

The carbohydrate only drinks, like Gatorade generally offer only quick-acting carbs, and no protein.  The carbohydrate and protein combo drinks, like Endurox R4, offer quick-acting and moderate-speed carbs, but only quick-acting whey protein.  They use ingredients that have been refined and broken down rather than whole-food based ingredients.

Study Issues:

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