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Food & fluids

Milk is a valuable sports nutrition supplement

If you are an athlete, keen to up your game or simply interested in getting more out of your exercise then drinking milk can have many benefits to your health and performance.

Milk is highly nutritious

Cow’s milk contains proteins of high biological value with a wide range of essential amino acids particularly the branched chain variety (such as Leucine) important for muscle recovery and protein synthesis.

Milk protein is made up of casein and whey. Casein makes up 80% of the milk protein solids. Whey is a nutritious liquid protein that remains after milk has been curdled to make cheese.

Milk proteins have antimicrobial activity, that facilitates the absorption of nutrients, assists growth factors, hormones and enzymes, antibodies and immune stimulants

Milk contains the carbohydrate lactose and also some fat for energy.

Although milk contains high levels of saturated fat this can be lowered considerably by choosing low fat varieties of milk, cheese and yoghurt. Milk also contains poly and monounsaturated fats which have many health benefits.

Milk contains Vitamins: B Group vitamins important for energy systems plus Vitamins E and A for eyes, nerves and skin as well as Minerals: calcium, magnesium and zinc for muscles and bones strength plus the trace elements iodine and selenium, antioxidants important for nerve and brain function
Importantly milk also contains fluids which can help to replace those lost during exercise

Milk and Sport

There are definitely different times of sporting activity when milk can help you the most and research in this field has gathered pace in recent years.

Endurance exercise

Endurance exercise requires a steady supply of fluids and carbohydrate to maintain energy levels from circulating glucose and the oxidation of carbohydrate in the muscles.1

Can drinking milk assist endurance exercise?

The carbohydrate content of milk is very similar to sports drinks around 7% but the results are conflicting as to the use of milk in endurance exercise compared to carbohydrate electrolyte sports drinks 2

Sports drinks contain a mix of different types of carbohydrate such as glucose, fructose, sucrose and glucose polymers and electrolytes, particularly sodium which helps to prevent sweat losses by promoting the intestinal absorption of glucose and water.

While some athletes have reported feeling fuller at the end of endurance events when drinking milk,3 the fat content of milk can delay gastric emptying and the lactose content of milk may not sit well with some gut sensitive athletes.

Overall sports drinks maintain good levels of energy for endurance exercise for now. We may see more development in the use of low- fat, lactose free milks, such as Zero Lacto® and soy in the future

Recovery from exercise

Muscle and liver carbohydrate stores are depleted during bouts of exercise which need to be repleted quicky in the recovery phase. Exercise induced muscle damage (EIMD) can lead to delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) conditions that can severely limit an athlete’s ability to train and perform.

Milk and milk derived products are of benefit during the recovery phase to restore glycogen stores, reduce muscle damage and aid repair.3

The inclusion of a fruit smoothie or tub of yoghurt after exercise can greatly assist recovery in people of all ages and stages of fitness.

Effects on strength

Sarcopenia is a condition characterized by a loss of muscle mass, strength and physical performance with age. A group of 33,000 Korean adults 19-64years old were studied to determine if there was a relationship between milk consumption frequency, muscle mass and strength 4 The group was divided in two receiving either one dose of milk per day or more. Muscle mass was measured using handgrip tests and a skeletal index to assess muscle mass.

Those who consumed more milk had greater skeletal muscle index and muscle strength the those who consumed less. Confirming that milk can help reduce sarcopenia in adults.

Conversely, another 18 -month study looked at the use of a chocolate, fortified milk drink (500ml per day) along with 12 weeks of resistance strength training in older 70 years and younger 24 -year-old males 5  

It was found that while the resistance training helped both groups to improve strength the researchers concluded that the fortified milk did not enhance the effect of resistance training or skeletal muscle size, strength or function in healthy middle aged and older men with adequate energy and nutrient intakes.

As men are more likely than women to suffer from Sarcopenia it would be interesting to repeat this research using higher levels of protein 2, 6


Apart from recovery of protein and carbohydrate stores following exercise, dehydration also occurs due to loss of body fluids and sweat losses with exercise. Research has demonstrated that low-fat milk contain approximately 36g/Litre protein was retained better than either carbohydrate electrolyte drinks or water. Drinking milk after exercise also resulted in reduced urinary output meaning more fluid was retained by the body for hydration.7

Milk Alternatives and sport

With the growing interest in plant-based, vegetarian and vegan diets as well as concern for people with lactose intolerance there has been considerable growth in the production of plant- based milks e.g. coconut, almond, hemp, oat, rice and soy in recent years.
However, compared to cow’s and soy milk the protein content of all other milks is very low especially the key ‘drivers ‘of muscle protein synthesis the Branch Chain Amino Acids ( notably Leucine).

The composition of cow’s verses plant milks 8

Milk Type 100mls Energy Protein Fat Carbohydrate Calcium Sodium
Dairy kJ/kcals g g g mg mg
Standard cow’s milk 263/63 3.3 3.4 4.8 117 40
Lite cow’s milk 194/46 3.3 1.5 4.8 117 41
Calci-Trim ®cow’s milk 193/46 5.8 0.2 5.2 190 42
Trim cows milk 156/37 4 0.1 5 133 41
A2 ®Lite cow’s’milk 206/49 3.9 1.5 4.9 131 41
Zero Lacto® Trim cow’s milk 158/38 4 0.1 5 132 41
Goats milk 208/50 2.7 2.8 3.2 104 48
Rice milk 213/51 0.3 1.2 9.5 120 65
Soy milk, lite 189/45 3.4 1.3 4.8 120 45
Oat milk, unsweetened 298/71 1 2 11.5 120 55
Almond, unsweetened 126/30 0.6 1.6 3.3 120 44
Coconut milk 347/83 0.6 5.6 0 15.6 30
Hemp milk 108/26 0.3 2.7 0.1 N/A 0

Summing up

If you are looking for a safe, healthy, readily available beverage that will help you to rehydrate, replenish and repair your body on a daily basis, then drinking milk is a great place to start.

For people who dislike the flavour, have allergies, intolerances or concerns about milk type then do contact me for a nutritional assessment of your current diet and needs and some practical help to find the alternative drink that maybe best for you.


More articles by Lea on a similar topic:

How to make the most of a plant-based diet

Snacking on the plant -based diet

Milk matters

Drink milk for better health

Milkshake ideas


  1. Malone JJ, Hulton AT, & MacLaren DPM (2021). Exogenous carbohydrate and  regulation of  muscle carbohydrate utilisation during  exercise. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 121: 1255–1269.
  2. Maclaren D. Milk as a sport nutrition supplement. 2022. Nutrition X-change vol 14

https://www.nutritionx.co.uk/nutrition-hub/x-change/nutrition-x-change-vol-14      milk-as-a-sports-nutrition-supplement/

  1. Lee et al Lee JKW, Maughan RJ, Shirreffs SM, & Watson P. (2008). Effects of milk ingestion on prolonged exercise capacity in young, healthy men. Nutrition, 24: 340–347.
  2. Lee J-H, Lee HS, Kim H, Kwon Y-J, & Lee JW. (2020). Association of  milk consumption frequency on muscle mass and strength: an analysis of three representative Korean population studies. European Journal of Nutrition, 59: 3257–3267.
  3. Kukuljan S, Nowson CA, Sanders K, & Daly RM. (2009). Effects of resistance exercise and fortified milk on skeletal muscle mass, muscle size, and functional performance in middle-aged and older men: an 18-mo randomized controlled trial. Journal of Applied Physiology, 107: 1864–1873
  4. Janpin Du, et al Sex differences in the prevalence and adverse outcomes of sarcopenia and sarcopenia obesity in community dwelling elderly in East China uing the AWGS criteria. BMC endocrine disorders 19 Article 109 (2019)
  5. Shirreffs, S.M., Taylor AJ, Leiper JB, & Maughan RJ. (1996). Postexercise rehydration in man: effects of volume consumed and drink sodium content. Medicine and Science in Sports & Exercise, 28:1260-1271.
  6. Stening LB, How to grow an athlete- from playground to podium. Quentin Wilson Pub 2022.

About the author View all

Lea Stening

Lea is one of New Zealand’s leading paediatric dietitians and also specialises in Sports Nutrition. She has specialised in Paediatric Nutrition for 31 years and in 1985 was the first paediatric dietitian to enter private practice in New Zealand. Lea helps families through her private consultations, public lectures, newspaper and magazine articles as well as television and radio interviews. Read more »

View all posts by Lea Stening »


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