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:

First, it’s no secret that these studies were partially funded by the milk industry.  What does this mean to me? Simply that there is a conflict of interest.  However, it is not uncommon for food industries to provide funds for research that they think will benefit them – simply put, research costs money and there aren’t many funding sources from the government or other entities available.  While I still think the results are likely trustworthy, they are not complete.  Chocolate milk was not compared to drinks that are competitors with it, such as soy milk.  Also, other carbohydrate sources such as fresh fruits (as in a smoothie) or honey were not used.  Alternative energy sources, such as medium chain triglycerides from organic coconut oil have not been compared.  So, while chocolate milk has fared well, we don’t know if it is truly the best option available.

Also, the studies were small in scale.  They were performed on one type of athlete, cyclists, with only 9 and 32 participants in each.

My recommendations:

Considering the study conclusions in support of chocolate milk, I think we can take their data and do better.

1.  Organic – I recommend organic milk to avoid any hormones or antibiotics that may have been given to cows in conventional dairies.

2.  Syrups & Honey – Avoid cheap, commercial chocolate syrups that contain high fructose corn syrup and artificial flavorings – these are not exactly what you want to feed your muscles.  If you’re willing to make your own syrup with cocoa and sugar, it’s a big step up from the squeeze bottles at the store – you’ll get pure ingredients, phytochemicals, and antioxidants.  Or better yet, choose raw honey or a homemade cocoa/honey syrup as a great option to get even more antioxidants and natural enzymes.

3.  Yogurt – If you want to boost the absorption of antioxidants, choose plain organic yogurt with honey over organic milk – the healthy bacteria will promote increased antioxidant absorption and better digestion just in time for all the free radicals that abound after exercise.

4.  Dairy Alternatives – If you’re not a fan of milk, there are alternatives.  Again, soy milk was not studied in these instances and may offer a comparable alternative.  Or, a smoothie with whey protein powder (lactose free and casein free), fruit, and coconut oil.  Or, a peanut butter and honey sandwich or Clif Bar.  The best recovery is one gives you the nutrients you need and that you’ll eat consistently despite any fatigue.

Bottom Line: 

If you like milk, these preliminary studies offer some evidence that milk plus simple carbohydrates work well to improve performance and stamina while promoting more lean muscle and less fat storage.  To improve on chocolate milk, try honey milk or honey yogurt.  If you don’t want to include dairy products in your recovery plan, make sure to consume an alternative snack with carbohydrates, protein, and fluids.  Instead of waiting until you’re tired after a hard ride, prepare your recovery snack ahead of time so that you can consume it within 30 minutes of exhausting your muscles.

Enjoy Your Ride
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21 Responses to “ Chocolate Milk as Recovery? ”

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  7. GME on July 25, 2014 at 6:38 pm

    Interesting to see some people think Chocolate milk is great, but for those of us who are lactose intolerant, it is about the worst thing one could drink after a workout. The amount of gas and cramping is certainly not worth it. Not to mention the sucrose or high fructose corn syrup used for its sweetener are unhealthy and problematic.

    Perhaps the worst aspect of chocolate milk though is its inclusion of Carrageenan, which is added as a thickener. Once thought to be safe, it is now known to cause inflammation and is an instigator of diabetes.

    So, while the milk industry, who sponsored the study regarding chocolate milk as a recovery drink simply because it meets the 4:1 carb/protein ratio, using a very small test group of only 9 people in the study with no control group at all, etc. one can easily see that that’s pretty much propaganda and that for a high percentage of people with lactose intolerance, as well as the inclusion of carrageenan, which is unsafe and leads to other health problems as well as causing inflammation which is undesirable in a post workout drink of any kind, it is totally unacceptable as a post workout recovery drink.

    • Kelli, RD on September 3, 2014 at 3:39 pm

      Hi GME,Thanks for your comment. I agree, if you don’t tolerate milk well, you shouldn’t use it. Many people tolerate it well. For those who don’t, I’ve highlighted many, many options for recovery fuel on this site, and this is just one of them. As far as Carrageenan, it’s certainly not in all chocolate milks, and I’ve also provided a reicpe on this site to make your own honey chocolate syrup (to add to any type of milk) that obviously doesn’t have carrageenan. For anyone interested, here’s a good list of dairy with and without:
      Regarding high fructose corn syrup, I completely agree and recommend using homemade chocolate milk with my syrup recipe + organic milk, or at least organic chocolate milk without high fructose corn syrup. Thanks again.

  8. Maroonloverb on December 25, 2011 at 3:58 pm

    I have been using organic chocolate milk for recovery for over a year now and it has been great! Not just with cycling, but weight lifting as well. I have health issues that necessitate maintaining muscle mass (for me, that is already very hard). Horizon chocolate milk does it for aerobic exercise and I take that and mix some hemp protein for after weight lifting.. amazing stuff but damn does it taste like a**!

    • Kelli, RD on September 3, 2014 at 3:27 pm

      Thanks! I’m glad you’re liking the Horizon chocolate milk!

  9. Malachi Doane on December 16, 2011 at 10:51 am

    Just tried the Roctane Recovery Brew and it’s dairy based. Tastes awful, but on the up side I rode from 1300 to  1600, had dinner at 1700 and was up the rest of the night through 0300 (this is normal, I work nights) so even with the addition of a long ride work out into my scheduled I manage to not feel that crushing fatigue that has accompanied rides like that in the past.
     I’m for dairy in the diet, I start every day with plain yogurt and low fat granola. The yogurt (and bacteria) work better with the digestive track than plain milk does anymore for me. I’d like to try goats milk, it’s supposed to be easier to digest owing to the homogenous nature of the protein lipids in suspension verses the irregular and large nature of the same in cow’s milk but it’s harder to find here.
     I used to bootleg different yogurt cultures to try them out, (sort of dorky fun I guess!) have a yogurt maker here and I can turn a cup of any plain commercial yogurt into a quart of it overnight.    

    • Darryl is Loving the Bike on December 16, 2011 at 11:06 am

      Glad to hear that you received the Roctane and thanks for your honest opinion.  I saw what you had to say on G+ and I appreciate you taking the time to offer your feedback.

      Thanks also for your comments on dairy.

    • Kelli Myers Jennings on December 16, 2011 at 12:21 pm

      Thanks Malachi – I’m a huge fan of making my own yogurt, too.  For any readers who’ve never tried it, it’s super easy, better than commerical, and cost-effective.  Check out: for our recipe and more information. 

  10. George B on December 16, 2011 at 10:20 am

    I do like chocolate milk, but I don’t drink it very often.  It’s nice to see that it is one of the alternatives for recovery but I think I’ll stick to my other methods for now.  I would like to know what recovery drink you consider the best on the market.

    • Kelli Myers Jennings on December 16, 2011 at 12:43 pm

      Hi George, I don’t actually have a favorite or best commercial recovery drink…but I do think many are good.  Endurox R4, Recoverite, and Ultragen by 1st Endurance are 3 good ones.  Or, you can use a bar like Clif Builder bar with fliuds on the side.  When working with clients, the most important factors are taste preferences and convenience. Since athletes are often a little nauseous after a hard ride, the best recovery is something that they’ll look forward to and really enjoy – otherwise, it may not happen.  For me, whole foods always sound and taste better than another sports food, especially if I’ve used drinks/gels during the ride.  So, my best drink (not commerical) is a homemade smoothie:  4-8 oz. plain yogurt, 1 scoop undenatured whey, 1 cup berries, 1 Tbsp honey, 1 Tbsp almond butter, 1 Tbsp organic coconut oil, and ice.  It provides the protein, carbs, medium chain triglycerides, antioxidants, probiotics (increases antioxidant absorption), and many electrolytes needed for a good recovery.  Or, use soy yogurt for more variety in proteins.  I am bias, and I do think it’s better than chocolate milk or commercial drinks:).  If convenience is a big factor, I recommend making it ahead of time and freezing individual portions.  Maybe someday I’ll have research to back it up. (Sorry if this was more info than you asked for!)

  11. Clbaker on December 16, 2011 at 8:35 am

    You know I have seen information about this but have been wondering for quite a while now about if it really does help with recovery.  I have been wanting a non biased perspective and it was nice to read what you had to say on the subject.  Thank you.  This is good information and now I know the full story on it.

  12. Lance@toileffect on December 16, 2011 at 5:53 am

    I love chocolate milk.I make my own. I am lucky enough to have raw milk available. Mix that w/ unsweetened dark cocoa powder and honey. Tastes awesome

  13. gene @Boutdrz on December 16, 2011 at 5:08 am

    This is the BEST article I have read on
    the subject. I wonder what non-dairy industry dependant countries would report?
    Well done!

    • Kelli Myers Jennings on December 16, 2011 at 9:13 am

      Thanks, Gene! I wonder that, too.  It’s so hard to get around all the bias and politics in the food industry…


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Sugar Alternatives for Energy and Hydration

Question: I am using the homebrew sugar formulations (sometimes added to green tea).  I am also trying to wean myself off 1/2 dose adrenalean “lip tonic delivery system” (biorhythm brand- caffeine, hoodia g, synephrine, yohimbe) capsule for energy.

My question is other than juice, can you suggest modifications in lieu of table sugar for energy and hydration.


Both raw/organic honey or agave can work great in the homebrew (substitute in the same quantities for the sugar, or to taste), but you do have to shake well in order to make sure they don’t settle out.  Have you tried either of these?  Also, make sure to use at least the minimum amount of salt recommended in the homebrew as the temps rise, you need the sodium replacement if you’re sweating.

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