Does chocolate milk really help with post-workout recovery? For most athletes, the answer is yes

By Mary Ellen Shoup

- Last updated on GMT

Consuming chocolate milk after exercise is supposed to replenish and restore muscle strength but only for high-performing athletes.
Consuming chocolate milk after exercise is supposed to replenish and restore muscle strength but only for high-performing athletes.

Related tags Chocolate milk Milk Nutrition

Chocolate milk has been touted by marketing campaigns and the health fitness industry as a natural sports recovery drink, and a healthier alternative to carbohydrate sports drinks like Gatorade or Powerade. 

The argument is that after strenuous exercise an athlete needs to restore glycogen levels and consume enough protein to help rebuild and repair worn out muscles. Low-fat chocolate milk answers the call with simple sugar and protein to replenish muscles after exercise; it also contains vitamin D, calcium, and B1.

Athlete endorsements

“Built With Chocolate Milk,” a recent pro-chocolate milk campaign and USDA checkoff program, features FIFA World Cup Champion Kelly O’Hara promoting chocolate milk as one of the fundamental building blocks of her athletic success.

 The campaign advocates for the consumption of chocolate milk by boasting professional athletes including NBA player Kevin Love and three-time Olympic gold medalist Jessica Hardy, who all claim they drink the sweetened dairy beverage to help them perform better.

Aside from the name recognition of famous athletes, the campaign claims to be “backed by science” citing more than 20 studies that support the benefits of recovering with the protein and nutrients found in chocolate milk.

In one referenced study on the campaign website, it was found that endurance-trained cyclists who drank low-fat chocolate milk after an intense period of exercise were able to work out longer and harder during a second exercise period compared to beverages that just  contained carbohydrates.

Not for everyone

Founder and CEO of Feel Good Nutrition Alec Smith, RD, who specializes in sports nutrition, believes that chocolate milk can serve as a great recovery aid, but only for a select number of highly active athletes.

“The claims they say are absolutely true, I just don’t think it’s applicable to everyone,”​ Smith told DairyReporter. “If you’re a very high performing athlete, you’re maybe doing two-a-days, I think chocolate milk is a great recovery aid.”

Smith says that the sugar in chocolate milk is meant to reenergize an athlete for his or her next taxing workout, something most recreational athletes simply do not need after completing moderate exercise.

Most of Smith’s clients can be described as the “weekend warrior” ​who make an effort to stay active, but are not working out their muscles to the point of exhaustion where drinking chocolate milk would be beneficial to their recovery process, he added.

Rebranding of chocolate milk

It seems chocolate milk is being marketed more frequently as  natural sports recovery drink, while US dairy milk consumption declines.

In her book Got Milked?​ Alissa Hamilton, Ph.D., aims to break down what she says is the misleading perception that milk is a nutritious drink. According to Hamilton, milk has been unnecessarily institutionalized into the North American diet, with the USDA health guidelines advocating for three servings of dairy a day.

Her opinions on chocolate milk are not any more favorable. Hamilton’s view of the health benefits of consuming chocolate milk after a workout echoes her attitude towards regular milk saying that physical recovery cannot be remedied with a sugar-loaded drink like chocolate milk.

“My issue is that it’s promoted as being ideal. Chocolate milk is full of processed sugar, almost the equivalent of a soft drink,”​ Hamilton told DairyReporter. “Nobody needs processed sugar after a hard workout.”

As a former collegiate cross country runner, and someone who runs and lifts weights routinely, chocolate milk is the last drink Hamilton says she would turn towards to replenish her fatigued muscles.

“We live in an environment where we have better alternatives,”​ she said.

While healthier alternatives are available, Hamilton acknowledges that convenience is driving the popularity of chocolate milk consumption.

“True, milk is convenient. It’s everywhere. You won’t find bushels of kale or broccoli at the corner Stop n’ Go,”​ Hamilton writes in her book. “You are guaranteed to find cartons of milk, from nonfat to full fat, from strawberry to chocolate flavored.”

Every day athletes can benefit from chocolate milk

When the USDA’s Milk Processor Education Program (MilkPEP) first launched the Built With Chocolate Milk campaign in 2012, the topic of post-recovery nutrition was fairly new territory for the average competitive athlete. After gauging consumer interest and gathering scientific research, chocolate milk was further validated as a post-workout recovery drink.   

“Only the most elite athletes were knowledgeable about post-recovery nutrition,”​ Processor Education Program (MilkPEP) marketing director Miranda Abney told DairyReporter.

The campaign started with chocolate milk as the official beverage of the US Olympic Swimming Team in 2012 Summer Olympic Games.

“Swimmers have a history of drinking chocolate milk because they lose a lot of nutrients in the water,”​ Abney said.

However, you do not necessarily have to be competing in the next IronMan to reap the health benefits of consuming chocolate milk after exercise - Abney says that chocolate milk is physically helpful to anyone doing moderate to vigorous activity for at least 45 minutes at a time.

“The target audience is someone who is serious about working out; someone who really sweats it out on a regular basis.”

The MilkPEP campaign helped increase chocolate milk sales by 8% at the end of 2015 with sales expecting to increase through the rest of the year, Abney said. 

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