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What is the Best Choice of Milk for Athletes?

by Lisi Bratcher

Milk for health

Cashew, rice, almond, soy, oat, unsweetened, 1%, lactose-free — the milk shelves at the supermarket are lined with a variety of options. You might have wondered which one is the best choice to boost your fitness. 

Discover how fueling with lactose-free or regular skim milk can contribute to getting more out of your training.

There are several good reasons why consuming real milk enriches the athlete’s diet:

  1. Protein: Protein can help you to improve performance, lean out and stay healthy during your training. Cow milk is a great source of high value protein. But what if you are on a plant-based diet? There are non-dairy options to complement your training needs.
  2. Calcium: Another nutrient found in milk that is beneficial for athletes is calcium. It plays a role in muscle contraction and nerve conduction and contributes to bone health. Both male and female athletes benefit from paying attention to their intake, regardless of their age.
  3. Carbohydrates: Naturally occurring carbohydrates, such as found in milk (or fruits), are the healthiest source of sugar for an athlete. You need them to fuel any highly intense physical activity. For example, to run up a hill, pass your competitor during a race, or push harder during a swim workout. 

Bottom line: Milk is a very nutritious, offering potential anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidative effects for your training.

Yes. Milk is an effective post-exercise drink that results in an increased muscle protein metabolism. This leads to an improved net muscle protein balance. Muscle structure that got damaged during your intense exercise will be rebuilt. Milk also consists of naturally occurring sugar types that help fill your carbohydrate depots. All of this makes milk a unique centerpiece of your recovery strategy – you get healthy carbs and lean protein in one!

The majority of research looking at protein sources and recovery from workouts is done on dairy milk/ whey protein/ casein. Dairy milk, specifically chocolate milk, has been shown to improve recovery mechanism and reduce muscle damage. More and more studies are coming out highlighting similar recovery effects when using soy milk, but few milk alternatives can match the full nutrient package found naturally in real milk.

It has been shown that the nutrient composition of post-exercise fueling to boost recovery is equally important after endurance and resistance exercise. Milk's nutrients — protein, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals and water — are rapidly absorbed by the body to refill empty stores after activity.

Yes, most plant-based types can have much less of this important macronutrient than cow milk. 

In a regular cup of milk (8 fluid ounces), you will get 8 grams of protein. Interestingly, regardless of the fat content of your cup of cow milk, the protein content is going to be the same. In sharp contrast, most dairy-free options such as almond, cashew, coconut, and rice milk provide only 2 grams or less of protein per cup. 

Your best plant-based pick regarding protein content is soy milk. A cup of soy milk is similar to cow milk, about 7 grams per cup, but there are differences between the kinds of protein — and a protein's quality indicates how easily it can be digested and used in our bodies.

Cow milk (non-fortified) contains high amounts of calcium, and is a good source of vitamin B2 (Riboflavin), B12 (Cobalamin) and Phosphorus. 

The vitamin B group does positively influence overall health, growth and energy metabolism in athletes. Together with the nutrients mentioned earlier, they can increase your ability to handle your training load. 

Plant-based milk types such as soy or almond are naturally not as high in calcium or B vitamins. But when comparing both non-fortified versions, soy milk is higher in fiber, iron, magnesium, folate and vitamin K, compared to regular milk.

Most of the plant-based milks are fortified to introduce vitamins and minerals they are otherwise missing. Along with vitamin D, vitamin A and vitamin B12, calcium is often added. Check their label!

Fortified plant-based may appear to have a very similar profile to cow’s milk, however their nutritional impact has not been thoroughly studied.

Lactose-free dairy is a wonderful solution if you need to watch your lactose intake. To make lactose (a type of sugar found in cow’s milk) more easily digestible, the enzyme lactase is added to regular cow’s milk. The great benefit: It contains the same nutrients as regular milk.

Lactose-free milk is also ideal if you have a sensitive stomach and need to stay away from lactose around your longer or more intense workout sessions.

Especially after a hard workout, you want to promote muscle fuel resynthesis, muscle recovery and adaptation, as well as fluid recovery. All of this can happen by drinking milk.

Lisi Bratcher is the owner of LLC, a multisport coaching company focusing on Swimming and Sports Nutrition, based in Huntsville, Alabama. Born and raised in Europe, Lisi received a Ph.D. in Exercise Science and from the University of Vienna in Austria. Today you'll find her teaching Exercise Physiology and Health &Physical Education classes at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, as well as coaching intermediate to advanced triathletes. She is a certified ACSM Exercise Physiologist, a certified Track & Field coach, and a USA Triathlon Level I Certified Coach. Find her on Facebook at triHSV or contact her at

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.

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