Is chocolate milk key to recovery?

Over the past years, chocolate milk has earned a place of choice among sportsmen and athletes by becoming the quintessential recovery drink. Ads marketing this product abound with top athletes, and amateur athletes, featured while drinking chocolate milk as a way to optimize post-training recovery. What about the legitimacy of these recommendations, which are largely influenced by covert marketing effort?




Scientific facts on recovery


The recovery process following prolonged and intense effort is complex and involves replenishing energy supplies, repairing muscle tissues and ensuring rehydration. The food strategies implemented are thus key as part of these processes and play a major role in the physiological adaptations that follow.



After prolonged physical effort, a carbohydrate intake within 30 minutes of finishing exercise maximizes muscle glycogen resynthesis. This is especially true when the carbohydrate intake corresponds to about 1 to 1.2 g/kg of body weight and when dealing with simple sugars, easily assimilated by the body. Obviously, glycogen reserves need to have been depleted during training for such an energy intake to be necessary for recovery. This usually occurs with a sustained effort of 90 minutes or more. Consequently, athletes who train every day or who hold two sessions per day should pay close attention to their carbohydrate intake immediately after training in order to optimize recovery. When the period between two training sessions is of one day or more, balanced eating habits should be sufficient to restore one’s energy reserves before the next session.



The ingestion of carbohydrates simultaneously with 20 to 25 grams of proteins, for immediate recovery, also showed interesting effects on the glycogen restoration process, particularly when the carbohydrate intake is less than the recommended 1 g/kg of body weight. Branched chain amino acids (BCAA), namely leucine, are also important in the signaling pathways leading to muscle protein synthesis, an essential process for tissue repair following training. However, for a maximum protein response, it is important to have a complete protein intake so as to ensure the presence of all essential amino acids.



In light of these recommendations, it is true that chocolate milk does provide for a significant amount of carbohydrates in addition to being rich in leucine and complete proteins. But is this the only food that features these properties? Certainly not!




Science and marketing


The fact is that studies interested in the effect of chocolate milk on recovery mainly compare its effect to the consumption of carbohydrate-only beverages. It is therefore clear that under these conditions, ingesting food that provides both carbohydrates and proteins will have a more interesting effect on the recovery process. When chocolate milk is compared to an isocaloric recovery drink with an equivalent carbohydrate and protein intake, no significant difference is noted on performance during a subsequent effort, or on other measured recovery parameters for that matter.



Additionally, other studies that took an interest in the effect of chocolate milk on the recovery process used protocols involving two training sessions that were very close to each other to see the effect of chocolate milk on recovery following the first session. It’s very likely that this reality does not represent the active population, with people who mostly train once a day, with a day off between two sessions from time to time.



Although, from a scientific standpoint, chocolate milk seems to be an interesting option for recovery, one should not lose sight of the fact that it also represents an important source of added sugars, and that, for several athletes, this additional intake in their diet is not required. A portion of 250 ml of chocolate milk contains nearly 30 g of sugar, including 18 g of added sugars (the remaining part coming from the lactose naturally present in milk). In comparison, 250 ml of soft drink represents 28 g of sugar. Given that current public health recommendations promote a reduced added sugar intake in our diet, isn’t a bit of a stretch to recommend that all people who practice sports drink chocolate milk?



The dairy industry has undoubtedly played a role in chocolate milk’s sudden popularity. Most, if not all, studies showing that chocolate milk benefits athletes’ recovery is funded by the dairy industry. Although this allows for interesting scientific data, these studies contribute to the promotion of chocolate milk with the population as a whole. The strategic use of high-level athletes as ambassadors along with the use of social media, also help the popularity of this product. As a result, a group of individuals representing enviable models for many, mainly for our children, are being used in the hope that such a behavior will be adopted by the general population. All these advertizing efforts reinforce the popular belief that chocolate milk is a healthy food choice and that recovery snacks are essential after any physical effort, whatever it may be. Although milk remains a nutritious food, its consumption is not essential, even less when it comes with a substantial amount of sugar.




Practically speaking, where do we go from here?


The first question should be: Do I really need a recovery snack?


If your training was relatively short (less than one hour), or more or less intense, it is likely that you don’t even need it. If you feel thirsty, a large glass of water should do the trick, and if you still feel a little peckish, opt for healthy and filling foods that contain fiber, protein and very little added sugar.


On the other hand, if you just finished a demanding training that depleted your energy reserves; i.e., a high degree of effort over a period of about 90 minutes or more, grabbing a snack after training is certainly a good idea. This is especially true if you are looking to maximize recovery between two sessions that are very close to one another. In such cases, chocolate milk could be an option. Keep in mind though that you should select nutritious foods that contain both carbohydrates and a little protein. Furthermore, remember that when it comes to recovery, the overall quality of your diet will have an even greater impact. There is no point in trying to take advantage of the 30-minute metabolic window after your workout if your daily diet is completely off balance!

Isabelle Morin