Yes – I think chocolate milk is crap. The recovery food hailed by the world as being the perfect post-workout replenishment falls far short of it in my book. Before I fully step upon my soap box – again! – let me explain why chocolate milk rose to fame:
The key nutrition components to a complete recovery can be summed up in two categories: 1) food and 2) hydration. Here’s why the Dairy Council and many coaches and sports nutritionists are pimping milk at the finish line:
- Chocolate milk contains the ideal* ratio of carbohydrates to protein – the 1:3 – 1:4 ratio that not only replenishes glycogen but also provides protein for tissue repair and transport of the carbohydrates more effectively into the cell walls. *ideal if you are male. Women do better on a 1:2-1:3 ratio
- Chocolate milk is liquid – therefore it contributes to rehydrating the body
- Chocolate milk is tasty – I mean, really! Who the heck doesn’t like chocolate milk?!?!
- Chocolate milk is cheap, convenient and accessible. You can find it anywhere – even along a highway in rural Kansas at a truck stop or gas station.
The above facts are exactly why you are thinking chocolate milk sounds good right about now! However, I take the viewpoint that the human body is a miraculous vessel. When you think about all it does for you and all it puts up with it’s easy to understand that it is an incredible machine – not unlike a Ferrari or a Tesla or a Lamborghini. Chocolate milk is like putting the cheapest unleaded fuel you can find into your half million dollar sports car. Here’s why:
- Chocolate milk is a dairy food – and dairy foods come with a host of potential problems. They are difficult for many to digest (an estimated 60-75% of the adult human population exhibits signs of dairy intolerance) and often laced with excessive hormones from the conditions in which cattle are raised. Excess estrogen is already of great concern in many individuals and is linked to hormone imbalances and possibly cancer in humans. Dairy only exacerbates that. (My former teacher Dr. Mark Hyman has a compelling piece on dairy and the Food Guide Pyramid here if you want more info).
- Chocolate milk’s carbohydrate source comes exclusively from lactose (potential allergen) and high fructose corn syrup or sugar. HFCS is strongly suspect as being a contributor to diabetes and non-alcohol related fatty liver due to how it is digested in the body. It also must be metabolized through the liver before getting into cells so it is not appropriate for optimal glycogen replenishment. Corn syrup and table sugar, are of course, the most nutritionally devoid form of carbohydrate on the market. Regardless of where any nutritionist or dietitian is on our highly political food spectrum, we all agree that sugar and corn syrup are not ideal sources of carbohydrate. So my question to you is, are they the sources you want to be pumping into your cells to repair them after a hard workout? Do you want the construct of your muscle tissue to come from vitamin-devoid sweeteners?
- Chocolate milk doesn’t have enough protein to repair muscle. Period. We need about 25-30 grams of protein post-workout (that includes at least 3 grams of leucine) to stimulate muscle building and repair. Chocolate milk does not provide this.
This stance alone has some of you wanting to squeeze the remainder of your milk carton in my face. I get it. I’m not taking a popular stance here! If milk judgement were my only offense, you might forgive me. But I have more blasphemy for you.
Carb loading. Our mainstay and go-to: the absolute foundation of endurance sports nutrition lies in carb loading. I cannot tell you how many hundreds of pancake feeds, pasta feeds, thai food feasts and other meals I’ve had after long runs in the last decade. This was a myth I bought hook, line, and sinker. It made sense. It was widely backed by research. The entire sports nutrition community did it and backed it. And pancakes and pasta sound AWESOME after 2-3 hours on the road. Another easy sell! I began to question this logic though when it became more and more challenging to maintain my weight. I struggled to prevent weight gain when my training was at its highest – 10 hours a week or more! At 5’2″ my stomach doesn’t hold enough food to make up for the calories I was losing, yet I was still challenged. Working with other endurance athletes – I saw the same struggles in them. It wasn’t until I understood the hormonal impact of carbohydrates in relation to fat burning and left the caloric model completely that I was able to lose the 7 pounds I gained for my last races in 2010 AND be able to help other runners and triathletes lose the spare tire that refused to go away. Looking around we all know that some people stay slender and others have to fight for it. The answer, however, isn’t in hours logged and miles run so much as it is in the food choices we make on an hour to hour basis. I, and other endurance athletes like myself, find better results in carbohydrate moderation rather than carbohydrate loading. I discovered that there was no need to carb-up or recover to the extent that I had been taught. Many runners will only lean out when they start moderating the quantity and timing of their carbohydrate intake. If you are burning loads of calories and still struggling with weight you’ll want to explore this possibility immediately.
My final blasphemy for the day is a hybrid of the above two. The pre-race spaghetti feed. For races less than 2 hours long, it is unlikely you will need to consume extra carbohydrates than you typically do unless you are on a carbohydrate restricted diet. For many events, such a feed is simply unnecessary. Events lasting longer than two hours are best fueled with moderate carbohydrate consumption the day before and with amino acid and carbohydrate replenishment during the event. Your pre-race meal is to top off the tank, not fill it to overflowing.
Another consideration with the pre-race pasta meal again lies in food intolerances and digestive upset. Gluten intolerance is very common in my practice and increasingly common in the general population. Thus the pasta feed can lead to digestive upset during the race, increased inflammation and decreased recovery, poor moods, decreased alertness and motor skills (I kid you not!) and overall lowered performance. Many clients have had a significant shift in performance simply by shifting the pre-race meal to sushi, brown rice pasta with loads of vegetables, or including a baked yam or potato with dinner the night before. Give it a try before your next race and see if you feel a difference! If you already have a gluten-free pre-race meal, I’d love to know what it is so I can share with my gluten-free athletes!
It is not my intention to create enemies with this post – only to open up the possibility for alternatives if what you are currently accepting as appropriate is, in fact, not working for you. Each person is unique and therefore requires a unique formula to achieve success on and off the trail.
What fueling strategies have you found to be successful for your long workouts?