Why milk and dairy products are a great choice for sports recovery 


Being active is an important way to look after your mind and body – and combining that with the right nutrition can help you enjoy a healthy lifestyle.

Athletes and active people need the right fuel to help them get the most out of their workouts, and dairy can play a useful role in delivering optimal nutrition for sports recovery.

When you’re exercising or training, milk can help you rehydrate, refuel and repair your body. Thanks to its water content, electrolytes (calcium, potassium and sodium), plus the carbohydrates and high-quality protein it contains, milk is a great choice as a post-workout drink.  

Milk may outperform other sports recovery drinks

Because of its unique combination of nutrients, milk can provide many of the benefits you get from sports drinks, plus high-quality protein that contains all nine essential amino acids.  

“Consuming sugar and electrolytes together helps water to be drawn into your body, which is why sports drinks often contain high levels of sugar alongside electrolytes,” explains Simon Gilmour, Senior Research Scientist at Fonterra. “However, the refined sugar in those sports drinks can lead to unwanted blood sugar spikes and crashes – but milk contains natural, unrefined sugar (lactose) so nothing needs to be added. On top of that, the
protein in milk helps improve the efficacy of rehydration efforts, in addition to all the other benefits the protein provides.” 

Research shows that drinking milk after a workout led to reduced muscle tiredness, improving recovery when compared to a sports drink that provided the same amount of energy. Milk after a workout is also associated with favourable body composition changes according to one review. The authors noted that milk is “a cheap and easy option to facilitate post-exercise recovery.” 

When consuming protein after a workout, it’s helpful to have carbohydrate, such as sugar, along with it. That helps to stimulate your uptake of the protein and amino acids into your muscles. 

Simon Gilmour, Senior Research Scientist, Fonterra

In addition, milk helps to rehydrate the body. Compared to soft drinks, sports drinks and fruit juices, milk provides superior hydration – on par with specially formulated oral rehydration solutions. The nutrients in milk work together to support recovery and replenish energy, explains Gilmour:

“When consuming protein after a workout, it’s helpful to have carbohydrates, such as sugar, along with it. That helps to stimulate your uptake of the protein and amino acids into your muscles. Also, when you exercise you deplete your energy stores – glycogen. By consuming some carbohydrates that restores the glycogen stores, which is key, especially for people looking to increase their performance.”

Active lives require extra protein

Protein is essential for everyone, and the recommended intake is around 0.8g per kilogram of bodyweight, or 60 grams of protein daily for a person who weighs 75kg. However, people who have active lives need more protein. For optimum recovery after exercise, the recommendation is 1.4 to 2 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight, which means the same 75kg individual would need 105g to 150g of protein. 

After exercise, protein supports your body in several ways. It stimulates muscle protein synthesis, which drives your body’s adaptive response to exercise –
it helps build muscle. This not only supports a stronger body, it also helps to offset muscle damage and encourage recovery after a tough workout. 

Simon Gilmour, Senior Research Scientist at Fonterra

For active people and athletes, finding ways to easily achieve their protein targets can be a challenge. 

“Ideally you want to spread your protein intake evenly across the day, for example, three meals and a snack,” Gilmour suggests. “Unfortunately most people typically don’t consume much protein at breakfast, they tend to have a bit more at lunch and then have their biggest intake at the evening meal while snacks can often have very little protein. Fortunately, dairy foods such as cheese, yogurt and milk are delicious and versatile ingredients that you can include into your meals to increase the protein content of your diet. If you’re aiming for the higher end of protein intake recommendations, supplementary protein powders are a fast, convenient way to reach those targets that can be difficult to reach through your core diet alone.”

Whey protein supplementation
has been shown to help support improved body composition, by boosting lean body mass without increasing fat mass. A meta-analysis comparing whey protein with soy protein found that whey protein improved body composition, while soy protein did not lead to any changes. 

“Milk contains really high-quality protein that contains all the essential amino acids required for your body,” says Gilmour. “In particular for sports and exercise nutrition, the amino acid leucine is key for stimulating growth and repair. That’s why whey protein is such a popular supplement – it’s really effective for sports and exercise nutrition. It’s fast-digesting and it delivers amino acids to your muscles quickly.”

Plus, he adds, you can easily incorporate whey protein into a wide range of foods: simply mixed with water; added to a smoothie; stirred into yoghurt; or to power up your pancakes. Its versatility and palatable flavour are two more reasons that whey protein is a top choice among athletes and gym-goers.

Chocolate milk – the delicious and surprising choice for post-exercise recovery

Not everybody needs to supplement with whey protein – if you’re looking for quick workout boost, there’s a simple option close at hand. Chocolate milk is an affordable recovery beverage that provides fluids and sodium, and its carbohydrate to protein ratio is similar to many manufactured recovery beverages.

Chocolate milk has been found to
significantly increase time to exhaustion compared to a variety of beverages such as water, flavoured or sweetened beverages, and beverages containing a range of carbohydrate, protein and fat.  It’s also been seen to significantly increase both time to exhaustion and total work when compared to a carbohydrate replacement drink. 

“It’s no wonder that chocolate milk is really popular – it’s super easy and convenient, it has all those nutritional benefits, and it tastes great,” says Gilmour. “When you’ve had a hard workout, you really feel like you’ve earned it, and it’s so delicious that everyone loves it.” 

Researchers are working to uncover additional benefits 

There is more to be discovered about the effects of milk on sports recovery, and researchers are looking at several areas of interest. For example, the phospholipids contained in milk fat have already shown some benefits for mental health in adults, and it may also improve symptoms of anxiety and stress –  not just helpful for athletes. Work is also underway to research the digestive health benefits of probiotics in dairy products which may help improve athletic performance and exercise recovery.

“Because dairy protein is so important for active lives, there have been a lot of advances in creating functional proteins out of dairy proteins,” says Gilmour. “That will lead to new and tastier products containing high-quality dairy proteins. Watch this space!”