As I crossed the finish line of my fifth marathon in November, sweaty and overwhelmed with emotion, I hobbled over to the snacks and drinks. If you run a lot, you’re used to this drill. Run all the miles, eat all the food. Bananas, bagels, pizza, water…and chocolate milk. With marathons, there’s almost always chocolate milk. I am going to be up front with you – I am not a milk drinker. Chocolate or otherwise. I realized that maybe I needed to find out what I was missing…
Why do marathon runners drink chocolate milk? Chocolate milk is considered by many to be the perfect recovery drink. With the combined flavoring and dairy, it provides carbohydrates, protein, and electrolytes. Replenishment of lost nutrients after a long run is the goal for marathon runners when drinking chocolate milk.
The major bonuses from drinking chocolate milk come post exercise. Read ahead to find out if adding chocolate milk to your diet is for you, or if you’re like me…if there might be some alternatives that offer the same benefits.
Post-Long Run Recovery: Nutrition Requirements
Marathon runners are unique from other runners due to the extreme amount of stress put on their bodies from logging so many miles week after week. Caloric needs and nutrients required will be different from someone who is only running a few miles a few times per week.
In marathon training, you almost always have a long run on your schedule once per week. Then of course, there’s the culminating 26.2 mile event. What type of nutrition does this require?
- Protein to repair overworked muscles
- Carbohydrates to replenish lost glycogen stores in the liver and muscles
- Electrolytes like sodium and potassium to replace those lost through sweat
- Fluid to rehydrate after prolonged endurance exercise
Though all of these are important after any type of exercise, 2-hour plus runs require thorough replacement. If you’ve already trained for a marathon in the past you already know this, and you can feel it.
Chocolate milk is one particular drink that fits the bill – giving an endurance runner everything they need post-long run.
Chocolate Milk as a Recovery Drink
Many runners think that training properly for a marathon just means running the right amount of miles at the right pace. But nutrition is a huge component, too. And it’s not just a matter of eating a generally healthy diet over the course of those 3-6 months. There truly are good, better, and best choices depending on what you’re consuming and when.
Stress on the body after a high-mileage run comes in the form of stiff joints, sore muscles, and lost fluid…just to name a few. What you put in your body soon after that run is over is very important. Chocolate milk is something that is looked to for its benefits in aiding in recovery.
The following table breaks down the nutritional components of low-fat chocolate milk. Take a look, and then we’re going to break it down to find out if it’s really offering what you need after running.
Nutritional Profile of Lowfat Chocolate Milk
|Serving Size: 8 fl. oz.|
|Vitamin D||4 mcg|
Ideally, you’ll want a 4:1 ratio of carbs to protein after a hard workout. Do the quick math and you’ll see that chocolate milk provides a 3:1 ratio. So, it’s not perfect – but it’s close (and considered a good amount). A lot closer than a lot of other options out there. I would venture to guess most people think it’s delicious, too, so that’s another reason it’s so popular.
These carbs and protein should be consumed within 45 minutes – 1 hour after a workout. The benefits decrease quickly after this timeframe. The reason is that your muscles have been broken down over those training miles or marathon, and they need to be repaired. And they’re breaking down fast in what are called “microtears.” The protein helps them heal, as do the carbs. According to this study from Medicine and Sport Science, chocolate milk is an ideal drink for optimizing muscle recovery. When you consume carbs soon after a long run, muscle cells can quickly convert the carbs into glycogen. Glycogen is primarily stored in the liver and skeletal muscles and you need it to perform as an athlete since it’s your body’s preferred energy source.
Rehydrating, unfortunately, doesn’t just mean drinking water. Not that you should forgo the water by any means, but it’s not all you need when it comes to post-long run hydrating.
When you sweat, you’re obviously losing water. But you know you’re losing more than good old H2O. If you’ve ever run on a hot day than you’ve felt the salty crystals leftover after the water has long since evaporated. That’s because you’re losing precious electrolytes like sodium and potassium. Replacing these isn’t optional. If you don’t, levels in the body can become unbalanced which can be dangerous. Endurance runners can lose up to 2,500 mg of sodium per hour, depending on how heavily you sweat.
At 130 mg, chocolate milk isn’t going to be the only thing you’ll want to drink post race. In a marathon, however, you should have been consuming some sort of electrolyte drink throughout your race anyway. Drinking more of that, along with your chocolate milk, can be a good combo. Other whole food options that are sure to taste delicious alongside your chocolate milk include nuts, pretzels or crackers.
Yes, we need to recover and rehydrate. These are the two things that our body requires to get back to our normal selves after a long bout of running. But most of us are also trying to get stronger and faster – especially as a build-up to our marathon. Increasing lung capacity is something we need to do to work up to the 26.2 distance we desire, but we also need to build our muscles. Luckily, chocolate milk helps with strengthening them. When you have the option between a popular sports drink with 0 grams of protein or chocolate milk with 8 grams of the muscle building macronutrient…the choice becomes pretty clear.
Chocolate milk clearly has what we need to start feeling our best once our long run is over and the pain starts to set in. After all, we runners never want anything holding us back for very long.
Other Types of Milk and How they Compare
By now you’re likely wondering if the milk you drink for recovery must be chocolate flavored. Like, is there something in the cacao that’s giving some of the necessary nutrients? Or, is it because chocolate comes from brown cows? Just kidding…but did you know that 7% of people really thing chocolate milk comes from brown cows?! In case you’re one of those people, I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t.
Ok, back on track. No, the milk does not have to be chocolate milk. But, it does have to be flavored – strawberry and vanilla milk will work, too. You can see that this strawberry milk has the exact same nutritional profile as the same brand of chocolate milk. The bonus of flavored milk is the sugar content that they have. Although this is something we try to avoid when eating a nutritious diet, it is an excellent source of carbs. As we said before, this is an absolutely necessary part of recovery after a long run so go ahead and indulge!
White milk, on the other hand, is not going to give you the carb: protein ratio that is recommended since the sugar content is much lower. But, the protein content is good, so if you do decide to drink regular milk post-run, eating a banana alongside it will get you the proper ratio that you need to refuel.
But I Don’t Like Milk!
Looks like you’re SOL, then. No, not really. Although the nutritional profile of chocolate milk is darn near perfect, it’s not going to be the best choice for everyone. Whether you are lactose intolerant, prefer a Whole30 approach, or just plain don’t like milk, there are other options post-marathon.
If you’re thinking you’ll just substitute nut milk such as almond, both the protein and sugar content are not a good match. They are much too low. Here are a few other options for you to get the electrolytes you need alongside a good ratio of carbohydrates to protein.
- Salt Bagel with peanut butter
- RX Bar (my personal favorite) – The ratio of carbs to protein is 2:1, but the sodium is higher than chocolate milk
- Toast with eggs
- Banana and RX Nut Butter (this offers more protein than regular nut butter)
- Greek yogurt with berries
It’s going to be hard to get the perfect mix of everything you need in one food or drink after exerting yourself after a long run. Even chocolate milk that’s been labeled a “runner’s superfood” needs to be supplemented. Whatever you decide, just check your labels and be sure you’re consistently getting plenty of carbs along with protein and electrolytes. Your body will thank you for it and it will help with your running gains, too.
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