Chocolate Milk Is Good for You

Forrest Gump once said “Me and Jenny goes together like peas and carrots.” But, poor Forrest, Jenny wasn’t the kind of gal to be tied down to her Alabama roots. Left without his better half, Forrest turns to running across the country. No more “peas and carrots.” Now it’s running and…? What goes with running?

Fun fact: Multiple studies have proven that an ideal post race drink is chocolate milk. This isn’t just some yoo hoo. It’s something that my track coach at Wake Forest told our team for years, and it’s a fact most recently affirmed in a study published in the February 2012 International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise. In this instance, nine male cyclists performed an interval workout and were given one of three recovery-type drinks – chocolate milk, fluid replacement drink and carbohydrate replacement drink. Various metabolic factors, including time to exhaustion, average heart rate, rating of perceived exertion and total work were then measured, and scientists concluded that “The results of this study suggest that chocolate milk is an effective recovery aid between two exhausting exercise bouts.”

However, I’ve never met a runner who particularly craves chocolate milk in everyday life. Honestly, there are few drinks that runners love more than coffee and beer. (OK, yes, and water too. That annoying coworker who walks to the water cooler every half hour? Likely a runner and a gossip lover.)

Neither coffee nor beer – both of which are associated with dehydration – come to mind when you’re thinking of an ideal race drink. But, what exactly does that mean? Take alcohol, for instance. It’s not uncommon for a lot of collegiate sports teams to practice dry seasons, where everyone vows to not take a sip of bubbly from the time preseason begins until after all postseason qualifiers and tournaments are well in the rearview mirror. (By “well in the rearview mirror,” I mean: The second the bus gets back to campus, the celebrations begin.)

There are a number of contrasting studies that talk about the effects of alcohol on sports performance. Early in the 20th century, it was thought that alcohol actually gave an athlete more energy. In the 1904 Olympics, for example, U.S. gold medalist Thomas Hicks actually drank a concoction of brandy, strychnine and egg whites before his marathon. Clearly, the hard liquor didn’t negatively affect his performance, comparatively speaking.

While that method of “training” has since been decisively disproven – alcohol is a known depressant, after all – the findings on how drinking impacts a race are fairly inconclusive. In a story published in the February 2012 issue of Runner’s World, author Christie Aschwanden conducted her own, causal study on how drinking affected how long a person could run before they felt the need to stop. The study involved five men and five women who drank either enough beer to get their Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) up to .07, or who drank nonalcoholic beer and were told that their BAC was .07. The 10 participants then woke up early to run at the research lab, where their heart rate and various metabolic factors were measured. They were told to continue to run until they felt the affects of sheer exhaustion. Then, after a break, they came back that evening to booze up – or O’Douls-up; the participants switched to drinking the substance that they didn’t have the prior time – and run again.

While sweeping generalizations can’t be made from such a small participant pool, it’s interesting to note that the women did better on their run after they had the beer, and the men did worse. In post-research interviews, almost all participants mentioned that they believed that circumstances outside of alcohol – stress, lack of sleep, not eating right – caused them to feel worse during one of the two runs.

In short, all of the participants seemed to feel that drinking is an independent factor in athletic performance. Which, when you think about it, just may prove that it’s the intangible effects of drinking – less sleep, fast food binges – that negatively affect performance, and not necessarily the alcohol itself.

Personally, I think, like so many other things in life, that how well you perform in a race is very dependent upon the mental aspect – believing that you can do something is just as important as training hard, eating right and, ahem, not overdoing it on the drinking.

So, as we used to say at Wake Forest, “Run, For(r)est, Run!”

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