By Alex Borisov,
For high-level athletes engaging in intensive training regimens, quick recovery is of the utmost importance, and one important factor to recovery is nutrition. The most well studied recovery foods are drinks high in carbohydrates, due to their ability replenish lost glycogen stores quickly and assist in rehydration. For well over 20 years high-carb recovery drinks have retained the title of being the gold standard for recovery. These drinks contain a 4:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein. Such a ratio has been shown to restore glycogen energy levels quickly without slowing down rehydration, which a higher level of protein content is known to do.1 On the other hand low-fat chocolate milk is also considered an effective recovery drink, since it contains carbohydrates, proteins, fats and electrolytes.2
Most studies on this topic focus on comparing commercially available high carbohydrate drinks to low-fat chocolate milk. Such studies are typically conducted on endurance athletes who perform a bout of exercise, after which they are given either one of the recovery drinks and are subsequently retested to exhaustion. Afterwards, markers of muscle damage, protein turnover, or levels of creatine kinase (a by-product of muscle fiber activation) are measured. However, there is a lack of consistency between different study methodologies, which make comparisons difficult.2 Some studies conclude that chocolate milk is a slightly more effective recovery aid in endurance athletes whereas others state that there is no significant difference in recovery between chocolate milk and high carbohydrate recovery drinks.1-5 There is, however, evidence that carbohydrate consumption post-exercise improves endurance performance in adults.6 Therefore, while there is no convincing evidence to support the superiority of any single recovery drink, either drink is a better option than consuming nothing post-exercise.
One large limitation to be considered when analyzing data from studies like this is the small sample sizes involved. This was outlined in a 2018 review of 12 different studies, involving only a total of 150 test subjects.2 With so few test subjects, it is difficult to determine the validity of such studies, seeing as barely significant findings are more likely to be attributed to chance.
While the verdict on the optimal recovery drink is still unclear, there are key proven methods of recovery for high level endurance athletes to consider. Firstly, it is important to avoid exercising on an empty stomach to prevent losing even more of one’s energy stores, because once readily available carbohydrate stores are used up, the body resorts to breaking down proteins which further slows recovery. Secondly, many studies outline the importance of quick rehydration and consumption of carbohydrates/proteins post-exercise to promote a faster recovery.1-6 As stated in this article, this includes, but is not limited to, consuming either low-fat chocolate milk or high-carb drinks.
1 Pritchett, K.L. et al. (2011). Comparisons of post-exercise chocolate milk and a commercial recovery beverage following cycling training on recovery and performance. Journal of Exercise Physiology Online. 14(6):29-39.
2 Amiri, M. et al. (2018). Chocolate milk for recovery from exercise: a systematic review and meta-analysis of controlled clinical trials. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. doi: 10.1038/s41430-018-0187-x.
3 Karp, J.R. et al. (2006). Chocolate milk as a post-exercise recovery aid. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism. 16(1):78-91.
4 Lunn, W.R. et al. (2012). Chocolate milk and endurance exercise recovery: protein balance, glycogen, and performance. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e3182364162.
5 Gilson, S.F. et al. (2010). Effects of chocolate milk consumption on markers of muscle recovery following soccer training: a randomized cross-over study. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. doi.org/10.1186/1550-2783-7-19.
6 Temesi, J. et al. (2011). Carbohydrate ingestion during endurance exercise improves performance in adults. The Journal of Nutrition. doi: 10.3945/jn.110.137075.
7 Always Remember to Drink! (December 3, 2013). Retrieved from: https://und7d.wordpress.com/tag/sports-drink/