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Is Milk the New Sports Drink?

Although milk is often surrounded by controversy as I discuss below, emerging data suggests that it can have massive benefits for athletes.  These include body composition improvements along with it’s potential as a sports drink for both rehydration and recovery following training.  Today I want to look at a research paper that examines the data up to 2008.

Roy BD. Milk  the new sports drink? A Review. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2008 Oct 2;5:15


Milk, like all aspects of nutrition is often surrounded by controversy. From the nutjob tinfoil on the head anti-milk zealots to bodybuilders who say that milk makes you smooth, milk is often thought of as a terrible food for adult humans to eat.

Yet, objectively milk is an excellent source of high quality protein (a mix of casein and whey), carbohydrates (lactose, which admittedly some people have problems digesting) along with providing fluids, highly bio-available calcium, and electrolytes.

Old time lifters often built large amounts of muscle mass with a program of squats and a gallon of milk per day; the idea is still around in various incarnations. In contrast to the anti-milk zealots, milk has been shown to have a number of potential health benefits beyond any sporting applications that may exist.  As I discuss in The Women’s Book Vol 1, dairy proteins and milk might be even more important to women.

I’m not going to address the controversy regarding milk here, sufficed to say I’m on the side of milk (and dairy foods in general) being excellent for athletes and folks trying to improve body recomposition. The combination of both fast whey and slow casein is excellent for a lot of sporting and athletic applications, dairy calcium improves body composition, etc.

And while dairy does contain quite a bit of sodium (which is what I suspect causes the issues with ‘smoothness’ for contest bodybuilders), this is only an issue on the day of the contest. Dropping milk out 16 weeks out can only hurt fat loss, not help it.

I discuss dairy proteins within the context of common dieting practices as well as The Protein book.

Milk as a Sports Drink

The paper first examines much of what I talked about above, the overall macronutrient profile of milk. In that the recent area of research for sports nutrition revolves around carbohydrate, protein/amino acid intake, along with fluids and electrolytes, milk ends up covering all of those nutritional bases.

As noted above, milk contains a combination of both casein (a slow digesting protein) and whey (fast acting), along with a large proportion of the branched chain amino acids (BCAA). It also contains carbohydrates (lactose, see my note at the end of this piece), along with minerals, both sodium and potassium. Of course, milk automatically contains fluid and hydration/fluid balance is also important for optimal performance and recovery.

Milk and the Weight Room

Moving on the paper first examines research on milk and resistance training adaptations. A number of studies have been performed from acute (single drink) studies to longer work looking at lean body mass gain. In one acute study, both fat free and whole milk were shown to improve protein synthesis following training.  The whole milk worked better although the researchers weren’t sure why.

Of more interest, milk was shown to be superior to a soy based drink (both drinks contained identical protein, carbs and calories) in terms of lean body mass gains over 3-8 weeks. In addition, not only did the milk group gain more lean body mass, they lost a bit of fat.

Of some interest, it was thought that the superiority of the milk was due to its slower digestion compared to the soy (a fast protein). As I detail in The Protein Book, in contrast to recurring beliefs that whey is superior post-workout, research shows that a slow or combination slow and fast protein following training appears to be superior in terms of lean body mass gains.

Quoting from the paper’s conclusion:

“Consumption of low-fat milk appears to create an anabolic environment following resistance training and over the long term with training, it appears that greater gains in lean mass and muscle hypertrophy can be obtained. Furthermore, milk may also lead to greater losses of body fat when it is consumed following resistance training.”

Milk and Endurance Training

Now, moving onto endurance training, it’s first important to note that endurance athletes have a couple of issues to deal with (in terms of both performance and recovery) that strength trainers don’t necessarily have to deal with.

This includes hydration and performance during training/competition as well as glycogen re-synthesis and re-hydration following training. While those certainly can be an issue following very voluminous strength training, they tend to be a bigger issue for endurance type training.

Now, about a zillion studies (give or take a couple hundred thousand) have looked at the impact of carb intake on endurance performance. The research is mixed and whether or not carbs help depends on the duration and intensity of training.

Of more relevance here, some research has examined whether adding small amounts of protein during endurance competition can help performance. Some of it finds a benefit, some of it doesn’t; there is still some controversy over this issue.

In this vein, some work has examine the impact of milk during endurance training. While some potential benefits (such as increased blood amino acid levels) were seen, no performance benefits were seen and the subjects reported a fuller stomach due to the milk.

This was likely due to the milk more slowly emptying from the stomach. This isn’t a good thing and what research has found a benefit of protein during endurance training invariably used faster proteins (whey or casein hydrolysate). I would not recommend milk during training.

However, as a post-workout drink, milk appears to be a good choice for endurance athletes. Some work has found that the combination of protein and carbs leads to better glycogen re-synthesis, however no research has directly examined milk in this context. One study compared chocolate milk to a commercial carbohydrate drink and found that the chocolate milk was at least as good at promoting performance as the carb drink.

Milk has also been shown to be an effective post-exercise hydration drink and was shown to be superior to both water and a carbohydrate drink for re-hydration after endurance exercise. Presumably this was due to the presence of sodium and potassium, both of which improve fluid retention by the body.

Quoting again from the paper itself, the researchers conclude that

“The limited literature that does exist suggests that milk is as effective as commercially available sports drinks at facilitating recovery for additional performance…Furthermore, milk is also a very effective beverage at promoting fluid recovery following dehydrating exercise in the heat.”

The bottom link is that milk can be an effective post-workout drink for both resistance trainers and endurance athletes.

Using Milk as a Post-workout Sports Drink

Clearly the research to date suggests that milk may be a superior post-workout drink following resistance training (at least compared to a fast protein like soy) and may have benefits for endurance athletes as well in terms of promoting glycogen synthesis, recovery and re-hydration following training.

Anyone who has read The Protein Book (or my other books for that matter) knows that I’m big on milk and milk proteins, they have massive advantages in terms of their protein content, dairy calcium, and other effects. Milk is readily available, tasty and relatively inexpensive.

However, there are a couple of caveats. For large athletes who need a large amount of carbohydrates or protein following training, milk may not be an ideal way of getting it. A typical 8-oz serving of milk contains roughly 12 grams of carbohydrates and 8 grams of protein. A large resistance training athlete might need 4-5X that many nutrients following training and drinking that much milk may not be feasible.

A compromise solution might be to use milk as a base and add extra nutrients (such as maltodextrin or dextrose powder for carbs and protein powder for protein) to achieve a higher nutrient density than milk itself can provide.

So 16 oz. (2 cups) of milk with extra carbs/protein would get the benefits of milk along with sufficient nutrients for larger athletes to recovery. Similar comments would apply to endurance athletes who often need very large amounts of carbs following exhaustive training; drinking 4+ cups of milk following training may not be feasible.

As a final comment, if there is one major problem with milk for many people, it’s the presence of lactose (milk-sugar). Lactose, like all digestible carbohydrates requires a specific enzyme to be broken down called lactase. However, some people lose the ability to produce lactase/digest lactose; this can occur either completely or relatively (in the latter case, folks can handle small amounts of dairy).

Lactose intolerance, which should not be confused with a true milk allergy, can cause stomach upset, gas, and diarrhea in predisposed people; it’s racially based and some ethnicities are more or less likely to have problems. For those with lactose intolerance, but who wish to use milk following training there are several options.

The first is to find a source of lactose free milk. Brands such as Lactaid add lactase to milk to digest the lactose into glucose and galactose; this typically results in sweeter milk but without the offending lactase.

Lactase pills are also available which can be taken with milk to help with digestion. Finally, there are products which claim to increase lactase levels in the gut and some people find that milk consumed with other food is tolerable; additionally, regular yogurt consumption can improve the ability to digest lactose.

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35 thoughts on “Is Milk the New Sports Drink?

  1. Wonderful read. Thanks! Is drinking milk better than eating casein from curdling milk? In the latter, the whey water gets wasted, and I am sure it must contain some amino acids.

  2. I’ve always used milk with casein powder or a blended protein powder after my workout. Fantastic, just like a milk shake!!!!

  3. Lyle what about overconsuming calcium regarding that it blocks other valuable minerals like iron. Is this sth to consider?

  4. Very interesting stuff – You read about all these post workout products, and you wonder how necessary they are – I’d like to see more research on the effects of milk post-workout –

  5. I do alot of intense cardio(muay thai/boxing) and I sweat ALOT. I’ve had huge problems with replenishing the weight and fluids lost each session over the years and I have only good stuff to report from using milk as post-exercise beverage.

    Typically, extreme food and fluid cravings following training have always been hell for me and has a few times caused severe damage to current dieting plans. No matter how much I seem to drink or eat, my body screams for more. Since I’m not an advanced laboratory I have no idea of how drinking milk’s been affecting my LBM/fat loss – but I sure as hell can guarantee it’s solved my super extreme cravings. Sure, I’m still thirsty and hungry, but who isn’t after doing cardio for 90 min..

    My post-workout consists of a litre of milk and added extra carbs, in the form of a sugar free Chocolate/Cocoa powder based on maltodextrin. This mixture contains a 100 g of carbs, a 33 g of protein, a few g of fat and a total of 480 kcal.

  6. I’ve been taking 8 oz’s of skim milk with 8 oz’s of water + protein & extra carbs PWO for about two months now. My focus has been fat loss, and I ‘ve definitely an improvement in body comp since doing this.


    Do you recommend skim or whole milk, or would it depend on whether one is cutting or bulking?

  7. That’s actually an interesting question. The original milk for protein synthesis study compared fat free milk to whole milk to a quantity of fat free milk sufficient to match the calorie level of the whole milk. The study found that whole milk had the greatest impact on protein synthesis but nobody was sure why. It can’t have been because there were more calories or the larger amount of fat free milk would have worked the same. And it didn’t so that’s not the explanation. Perhaps the fat slowed down digestion more as emerging data shows that slower proteins are better post training.

    However, the increased calories from whole milk might be problematic while dieting, depending on where calories are set. I’d be more inclined to use fat free (or perhaps 1% milk) simply to keep calories down a bit and allow more at other meals. Then again, for 8 oz of milk, the difference in calories between skim and whole is like 50-60 or so (80 for fat free vs. 130-140 for whole). So it’s not like it makes all the difference in the world on your typical fat loss diet.

    For bulking, whole milk would appear to be the best choice.


  8. I’ve also heard Kappa’s claim from various sources, and perhaps more allarmingly, that high intakes of dietary calcium are increasingly linked to a higher incidence of prostate cancer. I seem to recall that the ceiling was around 2500 mg per day- which doesn’t sound unattainable considering an athlete’s diet heavy in intake of dairy sources.

    Do you have a particular take on the state of play, Lyle? I’m taking stab in the dark but is it possible that trained individuals may require elevated calcium intakes at around that level anyway, due to…perhaps…adaptions in bone density, damage etc? Am I being stupidly optimistic in hoping that throwing the odd barbell around will save me from the ill-effects of milk addiction? I think perhaps so.


  9. DB

    I’ll be honest that I’ve never cared to look into the prostate cancer link but 2500 mg is a honking lot of calcium per day.

    And while I don’t recall seeing anything related to athletes having higher calcium requirements due to higher rates of bone turnover or what have you, I can’t honestly say I’ve ever bothered to look. Most micronutrient research bores me to tears; unless it relates to fat loss or performance, I just have a lot of trouble caring. I imagine this will change when I get older and have to worry about such things. 🙂


  10. I would think that the Calcium issue wouldn’t be that big since Calcium absorption is never at 100%. We are looking at an estimated 30-35% absorption for most individuals, right?
    Then topping the 2500 mg would be a bit harder…

    Rambodoc, save the whey and use it in shakes or just drink it straight, just make sure you don’t overdo it since it can cause frequent number two bathroom trips 😉

  11. Could any of the muscle increase issues be due to growth hormones in the milk? It’s my sense that once upon a time they were rampant, now even commercial milk sometimes says “No Hormones.” And if the original research was done in France, I’d be surprised if the milk wasn’t hormone free. Perhaps I answered my own question.

    Second, what about milk variants like yogurt or kefir? I know that they aren’t a drink for rehydration, but in well made yogurt there is virtually no, if not no, lactose. My research shows that the carbs shown in nutritional data for yogurt is mostly lactic acid.

    Greek style strained yogurt has the whey removed. Diluted yogurt with optionally, coconut milk is delicious and refreshing. Not saying about post-workout, just good.

  12. As the author stated, milk is a good post ex drink. I have been using fermented Kifer as post ex drink for a long time now and found it to meet many needs.

    One thing I feel like pointing out is that…more than 75% of world population have hard time drinking milk because “…the normal mammalian condition is for the young of a species to experience reduced lactase production at the end of the weaning period…”.

    Meaning that milk was not supposed be consumed after that phase because you were expected to eat something else in lieu of milk, enabling you to get way from nursing mother’ breasts and let you be an independent entity instead of mommy’s boy all the time.

    That is the mechanism the Mother Nature found to be successful and implemented throughout many many millions of evolutionally years. However with human race, with domestication of animals, reversal is happening with evolutionarily recent adaptation to dairy consumption.

    I do not know whether that will be a good forced evolutionarily adaptation or not…only time will tell. When not clearly proven, I tend to go with Mother Nature-centric view since her ways have produced the reality we live in-meaning you, I, them and every shads of gray between. When you really think about it, in addition to going against proven and successful Mother Nature’s mechanism, you are really drinking something has been specifically tailored to the need of calves. Anyway, when it comes to the animal milk issue I think proponent and opposition both have some valid points and hopefully whatever the outcome, it will benefit human and animal too.

  13. I agree that Kefir and Yoghurt have much to offer. Kefir, a yoghurt style drink, appears to be best in this regard. When milk ferments, lactose and other elements are pre-digested, reducing the likelihood of lactose indigestion. I also suspect pre-digested (fermented) milk is less likely to remain in the stomach for long periods. Fast and slow proteins are present. Kefir is nutrient dense (nutritional profile improved over milk), and packed with probiotics. It is easily made at home for the cost of milk. For more information, see Dom’s Kefir site. Also, take a look at:

  14. [QUOTE]For large athletes who need a large amount of carbohydrates or protein following training, milk may not be an ideal way of getting it. A typical 8-oz serving of milk contains roughly 12 grams of carbohydrates and 8 grams of protein. A large resistance training athlete might need 4-5X that many nutrients following training and drinking that much milk may not be feasible.[/QUOTE]

    Lyle’s solution was adding protein and carb powders to milk. I just decided that it’s cheaper and more effective to use powdered milk and simply mix it stronger. It’s pretty easy to mix it 2-3x as strong and get 50+ carbs and almost 40 g protein in just a pint of liquid.

    I call it the “white-trash Anaconda Protocol!”

  15. While skim milk is an excellent way to add protein, carbs and calories, it doesn’t work for people who are lactose intolerant. But it is an option.

  16. What about soy milk? I am milk-allergy.

  17. This is a very interesting and informative article Lyle, thanks! I have found a blend of protien powder that is a 60/40% of Caesin to Whey blend, do you think this would be a good formula to use inplace of natural milk if avoiding the lactose carbohydrate was important?

  18. My girlfriend is the marketing manager of a large dairy company. Apparently, as the milk gets processed further (i.e., from Whole Milk, or as we call it here, Full Cream, to 2% to Fat Free), the quantity of vitamins and minerals lessens, including calcium…

    Perhaps that could be a contributing factor to the differences seen between the two types of milk?

  19. Raw milk anyone ? Raw Kefir ? About two years ago i remembered the bodybuilders in my area (1980’s) raving about getting hold of raw milk straight from the dairy; so I bounce over to whole foods and scour the shelves for raw milk and I’m like WTF they don’t have it. So i drilled around the net to find another huge deal….. anyway we drink almost 3 gallons a week at home with 3 kids and receive it via a farm share due to legal reasons…. (btw I read it is legal in CA and they market moves about 40 million gallons per year) I never liked whole milk but my first drink of whole raw milk omg it’s great and I feel great on it.

  20. Barrett: Raw milk is fantastic. The two major benefits of raw milk are that it is non-homogenized and that it is not pasteurized. Raw milk actually has lactase in it. The pasteurization process’s temperature, even super low temp VAT pasteurization, denatures the lactase. Lactase denatures at 118 degrees Fahrenheit, I believe, and that is why pretty much no one has any problem digesting raw milk while many more people have trouble with pasteurized milk. Interesting, isn’t it? The more you learn about how pasteurization and irradiation affect the foods and drinks you buy, the more you will realize how important getting the rawest part can be. Fruit juices are a prime example, but by no means an isolated case. Just food for thought!

    Homogenization causes a number of potential problems, which can be read up on by searching for “what’s wrong with homogenized milk” or something similar.

    I am getting my first raw milk this Friday and I am excited!

    Ryan: That’s interesting to hear! Thanks for sharing that info! That probably plays some role, but how much is anyone’s guess.

  21. I just completed an ultra-marathon event (70 miles). I have competed in similar events recently and followed the advise of “experts” regarding nutrition maintenance (carbs, electrolytes, hydration, etc.) In those cases, I found that I was never feeling quite right and ended the event with all the traditional aches and pains, etc.

    Last weekend, I decided to follow my own advice and speculation on what I believed might have been the problem with my previous races. I did stock up on the normal gels and electrolyte capsules, but I purchased a couple dozen low-fat pint-sized milks. Not chocolate milk, just plain milk.

    The results were rather stark. I felt great the entire race (even though this was in weather over 100 – the highest temp for all the events I’ve done) and did not have to refuel as often. In fact, for the last 50 miles, I just drank milk and had bites of sandwich (munster cheese). Not only did I have even energy for the whole race, I never had any nausea or fatigue issues. But the most suprising result. Both during the race and after – no muscle soreness at all.

    Now I do want to say that I felt the most under-trained for this event, so muscle soreness and such was the expectation. I do credit the electrolyte capsules, but I also think the milk had an even greater influence as it was the only element I changed from every other race.

    I realize that lactose intolerance is a relevant issue and having consumed milk my entire life, my digestive track is used to this product, but that aside, the results were so startling that I believe there is something to milk not only as a recovery drink, but also as a performance drink. I also realize that this is one experience, but being a skeptic, it takes very compelling evidence to shake up my thinking. Regardless, I wanted to share my experience and obtain any more insight from the author of this blog/book on milk. And provide any additional information regarding my experience.


  22. EXCELLENT ARTICLE….I have one question, you stated that whole milk is better as a post workout shake due to the mixed protein content and fat which slows down digestion. However, why would you want slow digested protein after an intense weight training session? I always thought that a fast digesting protein such as whey would be the best choice since it is absorbed within 2 hours, assist in recovery by stimulating protein synthesis.


  23. Milk alone can not full fill an energy drinks requirement mix with some mass powders will surely do the t rick.

  24. Would Greek yogurt have the same effect? In other words, does it have the same whey/casein combination as plain old milk?

  25. I’ve been reading about milk recently and I saw some articles saying that milk makes your digestion so slow that makes it nonviable for a dietary approach. And I also read that milk with whey is turn the stomach to a unhealthy acid level, is that truth?

  26. There are also two different kinds of lactose intolerance.

    One is genetic. You become intolerant as a young child after weaning and you cannot tolerate any lactose, including raw milk, processed dairy products, and products with milk as an ingredient. Complete lactose intolerance.

    The other way to get lactose intolerance is via an infection. I got sick with a flu like illness when i was a teenager and became lactose intolerant. My mom got sick at the same time and also became lactose intolerant, as an adult. This is not true lactose intolerance. I could eat any food or dairy product, except milk that was fast reduced. I could drink whole milk, and if i had tried raw milk I’m sure i would have tolerated that too. When i became pregnant, my lactose intolerance was “cured”. I suspect the illness disrupted my intestinal flora, affecting my ability to handle lactose, and pregnancy also changed it.

  27. Both of those assertions are untrue.

  28. No. Greek yogurt is much higher in casein. Regular yogurt is made when bacteria is added to milk, which breaks down lactose, but the proteins are intact and in the same ratio. To make Greek yogurt, regular yogurt is strained. The solid past contains the casein protein, and the liquid part contains the whey protein and most of the carbohydrates. In fact the whole liquid part is called whey, which is where the whey protein gets its name. Cheese is similar: cheese is the solid, casein rich part. Cottage cheese is the solid casein and some liquid whey mixed together. The extra whey from the making of cheese and Greek yogurt is used in whey supplements and processed foods.

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