What is the Best Choice of Milk for Athletes?

By Lisi Bratcher | July 09, 2019, 4:13 p.m. (ET)

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 plant-based, lactose-free or regular skim milk can contribute to getting more out of your training.

Why Do I Need Milk?

There are several good reasons why consuming 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 healthy nutrient, offering potential anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidative effects for your training.

Does Milk Speed Up My Recovery?

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 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!

Research Using Dairy Milk and Soy in Athletes

The majority of research looking at protein sources and recovery from workouts is done on dairy milk/ whey protein/ casein. Dairy 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. This tells us that soy milk is a great plant-based alternative for triathletes.

Better After Resistance vs. Endurance Training?

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.

Different Amount of Protein in Milk?

Yes, 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.

Other Nutritional Benefits For Athletes

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.

Fortified vs. Non-fortified?

Good news: 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!

If you purchase a well-known brand product, you do not need to worry about missing out on calcium or other vitamins. Fortified plant-based milk products have a very similar profile to cow’s milk.
Unsweetened and Fat-Free

Without looking at the label or ingredients list, you might end up with a sugar loaded version instead of grabbing a healthy, low-calorie plant-based milk. Or get extra saturated fat in regular cow milk, instead of the skim milk type. Always opt for the fat free and unsweetened version, if available. Stores with a smaller milk portfolio might not have fat-free and/or unsweetened types of your favorite milk. For example, you might only find soy milk with a higher fat and added sugar content. It will be worth your time to a) check the labels and b) switch to a different store to get a healthier, and less caloric, version.

What If I Have A Sensitive Stomach?

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, so always go for the fat-free version.

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.

If a food sensitivity exists, unflavored, unsweetened plant-based milk is a good alternative to cow’s milk. Rice milk is the least allergenic milk alternative.


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. To improve your daily diet, mix it up and choose dairy and non-dairy options!

Lisi Bratcher is the owner of fit.active 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 lisibratcher@hotmail.com.

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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