Chocolate-MilkA perfect sports beverage may be sitting in your refrigerator: milk. Make that fatfree chocolate milk and you’re following the latest sports nutrition guidelines to enhance muscle recovery after exercise.

Just as your car requires gasoline to run smoothly,exercising muscles need stored carbohydrate, known as glycogen, for energy. Sports nutrition experts agree that sufficient amounts of carbohydrate and protein are required after exercise so muscles can fully recover.

William Lunn, MS, PhD, an assistant professor of exercise science at Southern Connecticut State University, conducted research published last year in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise demonstrating the benefit of combining carbohydrate with protein to encourage optimal exercise recovery. Carbohydrate replaces stored glycogen, and the amino acids in protein help repair muscle tissue. In addition, the combination of carbohydrate plus protein can reduce muscle soreness.

Consuming the correct amount of carbohydrate and protein within the first hour after exercise provides the greatest recovery benefits. Aim for consuming 0.5 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight within the first 30 minutes after finishing exercise lasting longer than one hour and 1 gram of protein for every 4 grams of carbohydrate. If you weigh 150 pounds, that works out to 75 grams of carbohydrate and 19 grams of protein.

Optimal exercise recovery strategies also replace fluids and the electrolytes sodium and potassium that are lost in sweat. Plain water can replenish fluid losses, but beverages that contain electrolytes provide more rapid recovery.

Elite athletes who want to maximize their performance can get an edge with a little help from Dan Bernardot, PhD, RD, FACSM,in Advanced Sports Nutrition: Fine-Tune Your Food and Fluid Intake for Optimal Training and Performance, second edition.

According to a 2010 article in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, chocolate milk contains the optimum combination of carbohydrate and protein to promote muscle recovery. Penny L. Wilson, PhD, RD, CSSD, LD, a dietitian at the Ironman Sports Medicine Institute in Houston,says her clients love drinking chocolate milk after workouts because it helps them feel better and tastes wonderful.

Milk also is a good source of the electrolytes lost in sweat. One cup of chocolate milk contains 152 milligrams of sodium and 425 milligrams of potassium. One cup of the well-known sports beverage Gatorade, which contains carbohydrate but not protein, has 110 milligrams of sodium and 30 milligrams of potassium. In addition, chocolate milk tastes great, is widely available, is cost-effective, and contains additional important nutrients such as calcium and vitamin D.

Several research studies compared the effects of chocolate milk vs. other sports beverages on recovery in a variety of athletic situations. College athletes love the taste of chocolate milk, notes Katie Jeffrey-Lunn, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN, owner of FitNutrition, LLC in Connecticut. Distance runners, swimmers, and college-age soccer players have all shown improved postexercise recovery when they drink chocolate milk within one hour after finishing exercise.

Julie Upton, MS, RD, CSSD, cofounder of Appetite for Health, recommends chocolate milk to adults as well as child athletes, and she relied on it herself when she competed in the Trans Rockies trail race.

Exercising muscles crave quickly digested carbohydrate to promote refueling, and chocolate milk contains twice the amount of carbohydrate as white milk. Kevin Anello, MEd, RD, LD, ACE, a certified personal trainer at Eat Right Get Fit, LLC, notes that 16 ounces of chocolate milk provides 66 grams of carbohydrate and 16 grams of protein, which is right on target with established guidelines for optimal exercise recovery. Anello recommends chocolate milk to his clients to promote recovery from all types of exercise, including moderate to intense aerobic or anaerobic training as well as athletic events.

Reach for a glass of fat-free chocolate milk after your next exercise session and your muscles and your taste buds will thank you!