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Exactly Why Chocolate Milk Has Been Called "The Best Post-Workout Drink"

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Photo: Getty Images / Carolyn Ann Ryan

When it's time to choose a liquid chug after a long, tough workout, there's a slew of sports drinks out there. But research shows that there's another workout recovery drink to add to the list: chocolate milk. 

According to previous research published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolismthis kids' favorite school lunch sip is as an optimal post-exercise recovery aid. And a recent review of 12 studies confirms that, although further studies with larger sample sizes are needed, chocolate milk does appear to provide either similar or superior results when compared to a placebo or other recovery drinks.

Before your stomach recoils, take a look at chocolate milk's ingredient list. Compared to plain milk, water, or most sports drinks, it has double the carbohydrate and protein content, perfect for replenishing tired muscles. Its high water content replaces fluids lost as sweat, preventing dehydration. Plus it packs a nutritional bonus of calcium, and includes just a little sodium and sugar—additives that help recovering athletes retain water and regain energy.

According to physiologist and study author Joel Stager, Ph.D., director of the Human Performance Laboratory at Indiana University, it's a catch-all workout recovery drink for a high-endurance athlete. "It's water plus a whole lot more," he said. (Related: Trainers Swear by These Post–Sweat Sesh Snacks)

In other words, drinking plain old water after exercise replaces sweat losses...and that's it. "Chocolate milk provides carbohydrate replenishment to your muscles—something they can metabolize," adds Jason Karp, Ph.D., another researcher for the study. "There's nothing to metabolize in water."

Here, we break down whether you should add the drink to your post-workout routine. 

The Case for Carbs

Ready to switch your bottled water for chocolate milk after workouts? Assess your exercise intensity first. Downing a post-workout beverage chock-full of carbohydrates probably isn't ideal for the casual weekend golfer, Stager says—and that's key. A drink like chocolate milk is most useful to a cyclist, swimmer, or long-distance runner. These sports stress high endurance levels and constant, sustained movement. Competing athletes need high levels of calories, carbs, and protein to sustain that level of performance.

That's why Stager tested out chocolate milk's performance as a workout recovery drink on nine cyclists. In his lab, each athlete biked until exhaustion, and then rested for four hours. During this break, each consumed low-fat chocolate milk, Gatorade, or the high-carbohydrate sports drink Endurox R4. Afterward, they cycled to exhaustion again. His research team concluded that the athletes who consumed chocolate milk after workouts performed just as well or better in the future as those who drank the other beverages.

The high carb and protein content in milk make it an incredibly effective recovery drink, Stager says—even though it's never been marketed as one. (FYI, chocolate milk is just one of our top five unconventional post-workout drink picks.)

When to Fuel Up with Chocolate Milk After Workouts

Choosing the right post-workout drink is just step one of the recovery process, says Karp. Besides what you use to re-fuel, when you do it is just as important.

Research points to the importance of a post-exercise "meal" within 30 to 60 minutes of working out, at the point when muscle glycogen (energy) stores are at their lowest. "I generally recommend eating or drinking something in the first 20 minutes after a workout," said Mike Huff, former coordinator of the Duke University Sports Performance Program. "At that point, your muscle fibers have been depleted and they're ready to suck something up."

And not taking steps to replenish your muscles right away can hurt your next performance—big time, Karp says. "Elite athletes may only have six to seven hours between workouts. It's much more important for them to make a full recovery, and strategies like these can maximize that."

Choosing a Workout Recovery Snack

Flavored drinks stimulate your appetite and allow you to drink more, replacing water lost as sweat from the workout. You consume more if you actually like what you're drinking, Stager found. His athletes clamored for chocolate milk—and shunned other high-carb options like Endurox R4, energy bars, or gels. (Bonus: Exactly What to Eat Before and After Working Out)

Post-workout food options don't have to end at the supermarket shelf either. A trainer, basketball player, and avid weightlifter, Huff loves creating his own blend. His homemade high-carb, high-protein beverage is a mixture of bananas, peanut butter, Carnation Instant Breakfast (a calcium, protein, and carb powder), and—you guessed it—milk.

Liquid and solid carbohydrates are equally good. Your body doesn't care, as long as it gets what it needs, says sports nutritionist Nancy Clark, R.D., author of The Cyclist's Food Guide. "You just have to learn which sports snacks settle best for your body—gels, gummy bears, dried figs, animal crackers, defizzed cola, whatever," she said.

As for milk, Stager continues to recommend it to his athletes, and Karp, a runner and coach, has permanently switched from Gatorade to chocolate milk to recover from his daily runs. "It's easy, it's cheap, and it's got everything that I need after my workout."

If your body can't tolerate the lactose in chocolate milk, any combination of simple sugars (a traditional sports drink) and protein (whey, egg white, or soy protein powder) will most likely give you the same benefits as drinking chocolate milk after workouts.

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