Should You Consume Dairy Before a Run?

Milk in a glass
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Whether you can tolerate dairy products before running depends on your individual sensitivity to lactose as well as how much and when you consume them. While dairy products can give some people stomach upsets or other forms of gastrointestinal (GI) distress, there are ways you can still enjoy them before a run.

Benefits of Dairy For Runners

Diary products provide several benefits to the general population. But these benefits may be especially important for runners. However, the drawbacks may also impact runners more than the general population.

Benefits

  • Inexpensive source of protein

  • Helps to meet overall dietary recommendations

  • May boost bone health

  • May help with weight loss, maintenance

  • Helps body maintain proper hydration

Drawbacks

  • May cause stomach problems

  • High fat dairy may lead to weight gain

  • Some sources are not portable

  • Some dairy products include added sugar or sodium

  • May not be appropriate for those with lactose intolerance

Helps Meet Dietary Needs

While many athletes, runners included, supplement their diets with whey protein products, milk may be a better source for overall nutrition. Not only is milk easy to find and budget-friendly, it provides a wider range of nutrients.

Researchers in Slovenia published a study in which they found that recreational runners, specifically women, were better able to meet healthy eating guidelines because they consumed whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, and dairy products. In contrast, those who consumed supplements were less likely to meet dietary guidelines.

Boosts Hydration

Another benefit of drinking milk rather than consuming whey protein products is that milk helps hydrate (or rehydrate) the body. As with other liquids, the high water content in milk and in chocolate milk helps replace water lost through sweat during your run.

May Improve Bone Health

Some runners, especially those who are female and who might be very thin, may find themselves at increased risk for diminished bone mineral density and related conditions, such as osteoporosis or osteopeania. Drinking milk may help to reduce that risk.

A study published by the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation investigated the role that milk consumption plays in the frequency of stress fractures in young female runners. Study authors concluded that an increased intake of low-fat dairy products was associated with greater bone gains and a lower stress fracture rate.

Prevention of Weight Gain

Many runners are concerned about weight gain as they age. Getting heavier is often associated with getting slower. But consuming milk may help you to maintain your weight as you head into your 50s and 60s.

One study of middle aged women showed that increased consumption of dairy products may help prevent weight gain in middle-aged and elderly women who are initially normal weight.

Consumption of dairy products can help you to meet basic recommendations for a healthy diet. But drinking milk can also help you to stay hydrated, boost bone health, and may aid in the prevention of weight gain in middle age.

Drawbacks of Dairy For Runners

The primary drawback cited by runners who drink dairy is gastrointestinal distress. For many people, milk consumption is followed by frequent trips to the bathroom—a situation that can turn a running workout into a running nightmare.

Those with a lactose intolerance will be especially prone to problems if they drink milk before or after a run. But even if you don't have a known intolerance, you may become aware of one when you hit the roads.

Lactose intolerance is a condition where your body cannot properly digest the sugars (lactose) in milk. Symptoms of lactose intolerance include diarrhea, stomach aches, or other gastrointestinal issues.

Some runners may not realize that they have a (mild) lactose intolerance until they hit the road after drinking milk. Symptoms may be mild to severe and usually include some form of gastrointestinal distress.


But even if you are not sensitive to the lactose in milk, there may be other ingredients in milk or dairy products that are not good for your body. Whole milk is high in saturated fat and some other dairy products like cheese and cottage cheese may be high in sodium.

Timing of Dairy Intake for Runners

Milk may provide different benefits depending on when you consume it. There are pros and cons to dairy consumption before and after a run.

Dairy Before a Run

Drinking milk before a run works for some and doesn't work for others. The extra stress and changes in blood flow to your digestive tract during vigorous-intensity exercise such as running can result in problems such as cramping, gas, or exercise-induced diarrhea (runner's trots). Drinking milk may make these symptoms worse.

As long as you don't have lactose intolerance, most people shouldn't have a problem with dairy products as long as they are not consumed 90 minutes to two hours before a run. However, some people discover it's best to avoid them completely within 12 hours of running.

If you do experience digestive problems after consuming dairy products, check with your doctor to see if you might be lactose intolerant or have another gastrointestinal issue.

Fortunately, there are numerous alternatives to regular milk (such as lactose-free milk) that have very similar benefits.

Dairy After a Run

A few widely promoted studies have promoted the benefits of consuming milk after a run, specifically chocolate milk.

The authors of one study published in Medicine and Sport Science noted that low-fat chocolate milk consists of a 4:1 carbohydrate:protein ratio—a ratio that is similar to many commercial recovery beverages. They note that the beverage also provides fluids and sodium to aid in post-workout recovery.

For these reasons they suggest that consuming chocolate milk immediately after exercise and again two hours post-exercise may be optimal for exercise recovery and may prevent some muscle damage.

Other studies have reported similar findings.

The greatest drawback to using milk as your post-recovery beverage is that it may not be convenient to carry with you. If you run close to home, then it makes sense to consume chocolate milk after your run. But not all runners have access to refrigeration—which is necessary for chocolate milk.

Numerous studies have shown that lowfat chocolate milk provides recovery benefits to endurance that are similar to the benefits provided by expensive recovery supplements.

Myths About Dairy and Running

While there aren't substantial myths about milk and running, per se, there are some misconceptions about what constitutes a healthy dairy product.

Milk, of course, is a commonly known dairy product. But some question whether whole fat milk is healthy due to its high fat content. Certainly, if your health care provider has suggested that you limit your saturated fat intake to protect heart health, its smart to steer clear of whole fat milk and choose skim or low fat instead.

In addition, products made with milk may not provide the same benefits that milk does. For example, frozen dairy products and yogurt often contain a lot of added sugar. In addition, researchers haven't investigated the impact of these foods on running. So it is unclear if they would provide the same benefits as plain milk consumption.

Calorie and Nutrition Tips

Milk provides key nutrients including calcium, vitamin D, potassium, and protein. The protein in milk is contained in the casein and whey. Both sources provide benefits for muscle synthesis, although whey protein is often considered the protein of choice for improving muscle development.

A single serving of skim milk (eight ounces) contains about 86 calories. A serving of lowfat milk provides about 105 calories and a serving of whole milk provides 146-150 calories.

If you don't have issues with dairy products before runs, a smoothie made with yogurt, or cereal with milk, are quick and easy pre-run breakfasts. You'll get some carbs for fuel, as well as protein to help you feel full. Smoothies are also a good post-run recovery drink.

If you haven't tried chocolate milk as a recovery drink, it might be worth a try. The beverage is easy to drink and much less expensive than many post-workout supplements. Also, some runners find that chocolate milk is easier on their digestive system after a long run, Many find that they can't handle solid food immediately after a long run, but the chocolate milk goes down easy.

A Word From Verywell

If you're training for a race, it's important that you practice your pre-race meal before some of your training runs. You don't want to consume dairy the morning before a race and find out that it does lead to cramping or GI distress. Make sure you have some safe, tried-and-true favorite pre-race meals that you know won't lead to any issues during your race.

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