Feeding athletes: The benefits of milk
An athlete’s diet doesn’t need to be complicated. It is easy to think that sporting performance may be compromised without the addition of costly nutrition products, particularly as these often come accompanied by the endorsement of national sports teams or elite athletes.
For most, though, energy and nutrient needs can be met by foods found in a diet that includes carbohydrates and fats that are minimally processed, protein from animal sources, and plenty of vegetables. In other words, a fairly “normal” diet.
There has been much research investigating the effects of using sports nutrition products pre and post training on performance and recovery from exercise. There is no doubt that under certain circumstances these are beneficial.
However, researchers have also investigated plain milk as a sports nutrition beverage. It provides not just carbohydrate and protein, but vitamins and minerals essential for athletic health and performance, including B vitamins, small amounts of vitamin D and calcium. It is also free of the added sugars found in some sports nutrition products, which are arguably “empty calories” for people who need to optimise their nutrient intake.
Studies specifically investigating the addition of milk to an athlete’s diet have found it is an easy way to boost calories in an otherwise underfed state. Researchers reported that an elite kayaker struggling to meet the energy cost of his training and gain lean muscle mass added milk-based pre and post training drinks, along with a drink prior to bed and boosted his energy intake by around 2800 kilojoules a day.
This resulted in an increase of 10kg in body weight with minimal body fat gain. The timing of intake was important in this instance; it is well-understood that a mixture of protein and carbohydrate before training reduces muscle protein breakdown and provides a fuel source during the training session, reducing the reliance on the body’s own carbohydrate stores.
Consumption after training allows for rapid recovery of muscle carbohydrate stores and enhanced muscle repair and growth. This is particularly important for an athlete who trains twice a day, and people who might interchange evening and morning training who might have just 12 hours in between sessions, and this red velvet smoothie that is quick to put together and can be made in advance is a perfect example of how you might go about it.
It isn’t just the protein content, but the type of proteins found in milk that are responsible for these benefits. All milk types contain all essential amino acids required as building blocks for muscle growth and repair, and specifically leucine, an amino acid that is better able to signal to muscles to start the repair process.
Further, consuming whole milk after weight training resulted in a greater increase in threonine, another essential amino acid important for muscle gain, compared to drinking fat-free milk, despite fat-free milk containing more protein for the same number of kilojoules (14.5g per 627 kJ of fat-free milk versus 8.8g per 626 kJ of whole milk).
Another study compared a milk-based drink to a non-milk recovery drink containing the same number of kilojoules and found the milk-based drink reduced the amount of muscle damage over a 72-hour period for team sport athletes undertaking a shuttle run-based exercise, thus improving times over a 15-metre sprint, which may have performance benefits when on the field or court.
Milk before bed
Consuming milk prior to bed is something we’ve long heard to be beneficial to sleep, and indeed the protein in milk may help with the production of melatonin, a hormone important for optimal sleep. Finally, the time we spend sleeping is time well spent as this is when the body undergoes major restoration and recovery.
Research shows that consuming dairy protein resulted in increased strength and muscle mass gains in men after a 12-week weight training programme, compared to a group who didn’t consume any beverage.