How Chocolate Milk Became a Recovery Drink of Olympians and What It Means for You

Can you believe chocolate milk just might be the secret behind the prolific success of the United States’ Olympic swim team?

When we say “secret”, we don’t mean that the only reason the U.S. raked in so many medals in the pool is because they were binge-drinking bottles of the stuff; training and coaching is the main reason.

However, if you happened to catch any radio commercials about the Olympics, then you probably heard that chocolate milk is the official recovery drink of the team.

When we heard that, we were pretty stunned. Chocolate milk? Really?

So, like we often do with big claims like this, we did some research to figure out how this drink made its way into the Olympic limelight, what it offers athletes and what it all means for you.

Before we launch into this little chocolate-laden journey, we need to clarify the meaning of “recovery drink”.

The sports drink market in the United States is a more than 40-year-old industry with its roots in the invention of Gatorade.

Most of the drinks you see at your supermarket – you know, the blue, yellow, red, orange and neon colors – are what’s known as rehydration drinks. They’re designed to replace water, sodium and potassium after a super-hard, super-sweaty workout.

Recovery drinks, on the other hand, are designed to repair your muscles and zap them with a shot of carbohydrate-based energy they can use for the next workout. Most of the time, these recovery drinks will be milky instead of watery, and they’re more expensive.

Now, back to chocolate milk, the drink that Runner’s World called the “Homecoming Queen of recovery nutrition.”

Swimmer’s Delight: How a High School Coach Stumbled on the Wonders of Chocolate Milk

The year is 2002 or 2003, and Dr. Joel Stager, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Indiana, is a coach for the Bloomington High School (Ind.) swim team.

The swimmers on his team always seem exhausted during their two-a-day workouts, but not with the typical exhaustion you’d expect from such a grueling schedule. Stager and his colleagues tried to figure out what was wrong.

No Food, No Energy: Kids Were Skipping Meals

What they discovered was many of their swimmers were missing out on meals. In order to get lunch at the school, students had to deposit money into a lunch account. Some swimmers weren’t making deposits. Others were skipping breakfast because they were too busy getting ready for school. And there were even some swimmers who were skipping breakfast and lunch.

“The bottom line is that they just weren’t eating very well,” Stager said. “We gave them this big talk about how important it was to eat.”

Aside from food being a basic necessity to live, these swimmers didn’t have the energy stored up in their bodies to perform well in the pool. It’s like they were cars with a first and second gear, but no third, fourth or fifth.

A Tin of Protein Powder Opened the Door for Chocolate Milk

A few days after they told their kids to eat, one of the swimmers came to Stager with a tin of protein mix that was good for 10 servings but cost $35 or $40.

So, Stager decided to do a price comparison.

“I was thinking, ‘Gosh, this is pretty expensive,’” Stager told us. “So I asked him if I could borrow the can and I went to the grocery store to look for similar products.”

After his first trip to the store, he studied up on what nutritionists were saying about recovery drinks. There were all kinds of ratios of proteins to carbs, fat and other things, he said.

Armed with this information, he made a return trip to the grocery store, protein powder in hand.

“I found that chocolate milk has everything the nutritionists were suggesting,” he said. “So, we asked parents to volunteer to bring chocolate milk and, in three weeks, all of our problems were gone.”

Taking the Experiment to Cyclists

Being the curious researcher he was, Stager decided to try chocolate milk on a group of cyclists. The riders came to the University of Indiana where Stager worked and told them to ride until exhaustion. Afterwards, they gave the cyclists a variety of sports drinks, including the chocolate stuff.

The riders were able to perform better on their next workout when they drank chocolate milk.

“It turns out everyone improved and it was a dramatic difference between sport drinks, water and chocolate milk,” Stager said. 

He wanted to share his findings and get money for further research, but nobody was biting. And who would blame them? In a world dominated by Gatorade, chocolate milk seemed more like a joke than a legitimate recovery drink.

Eventually, Stager and his colleagues were able to present their findings at an American College of Sports Medicine conference.

“I call it the shot heard around the world. After that, everyone wanted to fund studies,” he said. “We did another study and another study, and it didn’t matter what comparisons we did. Chocolate milk was equivalent to or better than any other treatments.”

Here’s Why Chocolate Milk is Great for Post-Workout Recoveries

When you work out, your body is pulling resources from itself in order to perform what you’re asking it to do.

Your muscles are doing all kinds of work to propel you through the pool, push you up and down the court or thrust you around the track.

“For intense exercise, most of the fuel comes from within the muscle itself,” Stager said.

At the same time, sodium is regulating the amount of water that’s moving about in your body and potassium is helping your muscles function at their peak level.

When your workout is over, your body needs some help to recover if you’re going to work out again the same day.

Your muscles are worn out and need protein to help them rebuild. The glycogen (energy) in your muscles need to be filled back up. The sodium, potassium and water you lost while you were sweating need to be replenished, too.

The reason chocolate milk has been such a powerful recovery drink for elite swimmers and other athletes is that it provides all of the components we just mentioned. A serving of 8 ounces of Borden 1% chocolate milk contains:

  • 210 mg of sodium
  • 350 mg of potassium
  • 27 g of carbohydrates
  • 8 g of protein

The four main things your body needs to recover from a workout and prepare for the next one are jam-packed into just 8 ounces of chocolate milk.

It’s Got Enough Carbs and Protein to Match or Exceed Other Recovery/Rehydration Drinks

There are all kinds of choices in the recovery drink market to which we can compare chocolate milk. We’re going to choose one of the more popular ones: Muscle Milk.

One 11.5-ounce carton of Muscle Milk contains 240 mg of sodium, 790 mg of potassium, 7 g of carbs and 20 g of protein.  That equals out to the following per-ounce measurements:

  • 20.8 mg of sodium
  • 68.6 mg if potassium
  • .60 g of carbs
  • 1.7 g of protein

Here are the per-ounce measurements for chocolate milk:

  • 26.2 mg of sodium
  • 43.75 mg of potassium
  • 3.37 g of carbs
  • 1 g of protein

As you can see, Muscle Milk outperforms chocolate milk in protein (muscle repair) and potassium (muscle function), but loses out on sodium (water regulation) and carbohydrates (muscle energy).

Which drink is better for recovery? If you’re looking for energy to boost your next workout, chocolate milk is the better choice. If you want to rebuild worn muscles, Muscle Milk is the way to go.

Let’s throw in another factor here: price. At the time of our research, a four-pack of 11.5-oz cartons of Muscle Milk cost $5.98 at Walmart. The per-ounce cost is about $0.13. Walmart’s Great Value 1% Chocolate Milk costs $3.22 a gallon, which comes out to about $0.02 per ounce. One serving of chocolate milk (8 oz.), will cost you about $0.16.

We think that, even though chocolate milk doesn’t have quite as much protein or potassium as Muscle Milk, it’s considerably cheaper and well worth the price.

The value of a gallon of chocolate milk gets even more crazy when you compare it to rehydration drinks.

It’s a Better Electrolyte Source Than Gatorade and Powerade

One of the things we think is really interesting about this is that just one cup of chocolate milk provides nearly six times as much potassium as a 20-oz. bottle of Gatorade (350 mg v. 65 mg) and almost double the sodium (210 mg v. 110 mg).

Compared to Powerade, chocolate milk has nearly four times the amount of sodium in one cup and almost six times the amount of potassium.

Not bad, right? When you consider one serving of chocolate milk costs you $0.16 instead of the dollar you’ll usually pay for a name-brand sports drink, there really is no contest.

But before you run out to the grocery store to stock up on chocolate milk, there’s something you need to know.

What Do All These Numbers and Minerals Mean for the Average Person and the Elite Athlete?

Now that you’ve got a good idea of why chocolate milk has become increasingly popular among athletes over the past few years, you need to ask the question of relevancy: “Yeah, chocolate milk is pretty great, but what does that have to do with me?”

The answer to that question is what makes our current and past discussions about sports drinks so interesting. And here’s the answer: unless you’re an Olympic swimmer or an athlete training hard at least twice a day, you don’t need chocolate milk.

The Workout Regime of Elite Swimmers: More Milk, Please

Take Carly Geehr, for example. In a 2014 article for Sporting News, Geehr talked about the average workout schedule for members of the U.S. swim team. Here’s what she said:

“We did 9 sessions (per) week — which is actually on the lower end of how many sessions teams will do — consisting of doubles Mon/Tue/Thu/Fri, a single workout on Saturday morning, and Wed/Sun as rest days. Morning practices were pool only, and in the afternoons we'd do an hour or so of "dryland" (medicine balls, core work, running, stretch cords, various other forms of land-torture) before getting into the pool.”

These swimmers are training for at least three hours a day, with multiple workouts taking place four days a week. Think back to what we said about your muscles’ needs after a workout. We pointed out that muscles need glycogen for energy, and that need is super relevant for elite athletes. Why?

Joel Stager pointed out that loading up your muscles with carbs in order to create glycogen is something that’s only effective for about four or five hours, and by 24 hours, chocolate milk’s glycogen boost is ineffective. So, if you’re training twice a day, it makes sense that you’d need glycogen after your workout so your muscles are ready to roll in a few hours.

Stager also said that you need to gulp your chocolate milk within an hour to get the glycogen creation started.

“You have a relatively short window to get this thing going, and most estimates suggest its somewhere between 30 minutes and an hour,” he said. “If you don’t get started in that window of time, the rate at which you recover is suppressed.”

The Workout Regime of the Average Person: No Milk, Please

But if you’re the typical man or woman, according to a Shape blog post about a Timex fitness survey, you most likely workout for an hour or less at least once a week. Only about 2 in every 100 people works out between an hour and two hours per day.

What does that tell us about the need for chocolate milk? There really isn’t one among the droves of people heading to the gym every day, because their muscles aren’t laboring through multiple workouts or long workouts.

However, Joel Stager said, chocolate milk could work wonders for people who have deficiencies in their diet. If you aren’t getting the protein, carbs and electrolytes you need from your meals, chocolate milk could provide a boost in your overall energy.

“The better the diet, the less impact chocolate milk has,” he said. “But there’s no guarantee people have an optimal diet. In my mind, chocolate milk is an insurance policy for them.”

That statement makes a lot of sense when you think about the swim team Stager used to coach. They were skipping one or two meals a day, so drinking milk not only helped in recovery, but also in meeting their basic nutrient needs.

Ideally, though, the average person would eat well and drink enough water to where they wouldn’t need to rely on a bottle of chocolate milk to balance out their nutrition.

And remember, chocolate milk is recommended as a recovery drink partly because it’s high levels of sugar can be converted into glycogen when you drink it within an hour of your workout. Then, that glycogen is burned off when you work out again in a few hours.

But if you aren’t going to work out a second time in the same day, you aren’t going to burn off that glycogen and chocolate milk becomes empty calories that can lead to weight gain.

Recovering Until the Cows Come Home: Our Final Thoughts on Chocolate Milk

While your initial instinct may tell you drinking chocolate milk after a workout is crazy because it has so much sugar and a high carbohydrate content, science says it’s the perfect drink to help your muscles recover after a tough workout and return your electrolytes to normal levels.

The amount of sodium and potassium is higher than sports drinks like Gatorade and Powerade, while chocolate milk’s protein and carbohydrate content is pretty close to protein-packed recovery drinks.

When you throw in the fact that chocolate milk is significantly cheaper than most rehydration and recovery drinks, you start to realize it is an absolute bargain.

But that realization comes with a huge caveat. If you’re headed to the gym two or three times a week to hit up some cardio or do a class, chocolate milk isn’t a good fit for you. The glycogen you build up in your muscles won’t be used, and all those sugary carbs that created glycogen will turn into unused calories.

Related: An Overview of 4 Popular Gyms and How to Choose the Best Membership

In our previous articles about sports drinks, we emphasized the fact that Gatorade, Powerade and similar drinks are designed specifically for high-performance athletes. Even though spokespeople from both companies have tried to sell you on the idea you need their drinks, you really don’t.

A good diet along with adequate water consumption is all most of us need to keep our muscles strong and our electrolytes at normal levels.

If you happen to become an elite athlete who works out at least twice a day, chocolate milk is a great recovery drink because it gives your muscles the energy they need to bounce back.

Also, if you start a high-intensity workout program where weight lifting is involved, a protein-heavy drink like Muscle Milk is a great choice because you get all the protein you need without a bunch of sugar.

If you want to learn more about the ingredients in most sports drinks, the side effects of these beverages and the history behind how the industry grew into the $8 billion monster that it is today, click on these articles:

J.R. Duren

J.R. Duren is a personal finance reporter who examines credit cards, credit scores, and various bank products. J.R. is a three-time winner at the Florida Press Club’s Excellence in Journalism contest. He is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and his insight has been featured on Investopedia, GOBankingRates, H&R Block and Huffington Post.

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