The Best Sports Drinks for Athletes? Chocolate Milk, Scientists Say

It comes in only one flavor — no Fierce Grape or Riptide Rush available — and you certainly won't see your favorite basketball star gulping it down on the sideline during a timeout.

But a group of scientists recently discovered that one of the most effective drinks to help athletes recover after exercise is the same thing moms across America have been giving their kids for years. A simple glass of chocolate milk.

To be forthright, the study by the scientists from Indiana University was supported in part by the Dairy and Nutrition Council.

Still, their findings are compelling.

The small group of fit athletes who took part in the study were asked to work out strenuously on a stationery bicycle, then drink low-fat chocolate milk, a fluid-replacement drink like Gatorade and a carbohydrate replacement drink like Endurox R4. A few hours later, they were asked to cycle again until they reached exhaustion.

The test was repeated three times — once with each kind of drink — and the data showed that the cyclists were able to go between 49 and 54 percent longer on the second stint after drinking chocolate milk than when they drank the carbohydrate drink. The difference between the milk and the fluid-replacement drink was not significant.

"My way of explaining it is, there's really nothing magic about the powder in a can that you mix with water," cycling coach Scott Saifer said of the carbohydrate drink. "It's water, carbs, proteins, maybe minerals and electrolytes. What's in chocolate milk? The same thing. There's no reason it shouldn't be as good for recovery as a carb drink."

The milk folks tout their product as a less-costly and healthier alternative to the more traditional energy drinks.

They have some data to back up the physiology of the issue. Among their points are that milk also provides much-needed calcium and might be more efficiently absorbed into the system than the other drinks.

The cost analysis also works in their favor.

To get 75 grams of carbohydrate, you'd need about 18 ounces of chocolate milk, three scoops of a carb drink or about 17 ounces of a fluid-replacement drink. The milk option would cost around 49 cents, which is about 95 cents less than the carb drink and about 9 cents less than a 17-ounce serving of Gatorade.

(Prices were calculated on the basis of a sale-priced $3.50 gallon of chocolate milk, an eight-pack of 20-ounce bottles of Gatorade on sale for $5.50 and a 56-scoop container of Endurox priced at $26.95.)

This latest study by the milk industry is an attempt to get people thinking about one of the world's most basic products in new ways. Of course, it could also be viewed as little more than a ploy to cut into the multibillion-dollar sports-drink market. (According to, Gatorade topped $2 billion in sales in 2001.)

Dietician Mary Lee Chin, who does public-relations work for the Western Dairy Council, says that either way, there's nothing wrong with this sales pitch.

"It's not like you're talking about some beverage that's really outlandish and recommending that," she said. "Milk should be part of everyone's diet anyhow. It's the fact that you already have a nutritional benefit, and then there's this additional replenishment benefit as an added bonus."

The Indiana study netted different results than an earlier study that found participants exercised 55 percent longer after drinking Endurox than they did after drinking Gatorade. The Indiana study concluded the aberration may have been because of methodological differences in the experiments — most notably that subjects in the other study exercised at a more strenuous pace than in the Indiana study.

Chin acknowledged the Indiana study was not conclusive, but believes the findings merit a more expansive study.

As for the prospect of chugging down a glass of chocolate milk on a hot day after an extensive workout ... well, that's a matter of personal preference.

"If it tastes good enough that you want to reach for a bottle and drink it, it's a good exercise drink," said Saifer, who prefers a fruit and yogurt smoothie to quench his thirst. "If it tastes nasty and you don't want to drink it, there's no way it can help you."