Can milk improve your performance and which one is right for you?

By Dave Colley | 10 Minute Read

As an ageing athlete turned mobile caterer (I run Totally Wonderfuel), I often find myself in a rather unique - and sometimes uncomfortable - position. Sadly not the aero position (at least not anymore), but that place between providing evidence-backed, performance-focused, fuel for sport and responding to consumer demand, much of which is heavily influenced by health and wellness trends like the current fad of 'clean' eating.

I spent an inordinate amount of time deciding which milk and/or non-dairy alternatives I should carry in my trailer before hitting the road for my first event. It was bad enough trying to work out which version of cow's milk (full fat, semi- or skimmed, organic, filtered and/or homogenised) produces the best latte foam.

But, given the rise in popularity of 'mylk' (a word often used to describe plant-derived 'milks'), I was also torn between stocking almond milk, soya milk, hemp milk, oat milk, rice milk, lactose-free milk, coconut milk and the ‘fresh' UHT, roasted/ unroasted, sweetened/ unsweetened, organic/ non-organic versions of the same. Thankfully cashew milk and hazelnut milk hadn't made it onto the shelves at that point....

Our love of the animal-derived white stuff started when we were weaned off breast milk and convinced of dairy milk's calcium-rich (good for the bones) and protein-filled (good for growth and repair) qualities.

The 1906 Provision of School Meals Act offered free milk for school children on the basis that cow's milk was one of the foods that could alleviate poor nutrition (which was considered one of the principal hindrances to learning).

I'm not quite old enough to remember that....but if, like me, you're old enough to remember the days when milk had its own Marketing Board, the phrase 'Gotta Lotta Bottle' may ring some bells. If you're younger and from across the pond, you would struggle to have missed the celebrity-heavy 'Got Milk?' campaign. Any old excuse to post a photo of David Beckham with his shirt off, right?

Latterly, however, new diets, the animal rights movement and price wars have soured milk's reputation.

Although I'm not a sports nutritionist, I do my best to familiarise myself with the science and keep on top of health and wellness developments. So when a good triathlete friend of mine (she's both a good friend and a good triathlete!) recently asked me if she should use cow's milk or a non-dairy alternative for her Turmeric Latte, I decided to rise to the challenge by exploring the evidence and thought it might be interesting to share the fruits of my labour with the evidence-hungry audience I know Precision Hydration drinking athletes to be.

I should post a little disclaimer; There is a much wider political, ethical and environmental debate about dairy farming and milk production and while I don't want to dismiss it out of hand, the main focus of this blog post is the nutritional debate and, more specifically, whether cow's milk (other animal milks are available as they say) or non-dairy alternatives are better from a sports nutrition perspective.


Does David Beckham drink milk?!

So, why is cow’s milk good for you'?

You may need no other reason than a semi-naked David Beckham with a white milk moustache to convince you that cow's milk is for you. But just in case you do...


1) It’s an excellent source of calcium.

Calcium has several important functions in the human body, including helping build strong bones and teeth, regulating muscle contractions (including your heartbeat) and making sure your blood clots normally.

A 250ml glass of semi-skimmed cow's milk provides over one third of your daily recommended intake, as well as a good dose of vitamin D, another nutrient required to maintain strong bones. Of course you can get calcium from other sources. A glass of milk or 63 brussel sprouts. You decide.

2) It’s also high in protein.

Again, a 250ml glass of semi-skimmed provides roughly 38% of your recommended daily allowance and helps to build, maintain and repair muscles.

3) It’s packed full of other nutrients that are ideal for endurance athletes.

In her excellent blog on the subject, Jo Scott Dalgleish, a qualified nutritional therapist specialising in supporting endurance sports participants (and long-term friend of Precision Hydration), writes…

  • A 250ml glass of cow’s milk contains about 8g of the proteins whey and casein, which help to repair muscle damage after running. Whey protein is high in the amino acid leucine, needed for muscle synthesis. 
  • 250ml also contains 12g of carbohydrate in the form of lactose, the naturally-occurring sugar. This makes milk a good recovery drink, especially if it’s combined with some additional carbohydrate, e.g. from fruit or chocolate, to help replenish your glycogen stores. 
  • Drinking milk also helps you to rehydrate and restore your body’s fluid balance, especially as it contains electrolytes: 250ml will provide you with 110mg of sodium and 40mg of potassium.
  • 250ml of cow’s milk also gives you 310mg of calcium (40% of your daily recommended intake), 27.5mg of magnesium and 2.5 IU of vitamin D, all nutrients needed to maintain strong bones.
  • Milk is a good source of vitamin B12, which is required for red blood cell production and your body’s use of iron, both very important for athletes. 
  • Other nutrients in cow’s milk include vitamin B2, needed to convert food to energy, vitamin A which supports immune and digestive health and iodine, required for thyroid hormone function.
  • Cow’s milk also contains the amino acid tryptophan. This is converted in your body to the neurotransmitter serotonin and the hormone melatonin, both of which play a role in encouraging sleep, another benefit for endurance athletes.


Moreover, milk stacks up brilliantly against some of the popular commercial recovery drinks.

Another well-respected nutritionist, health writer and author, Anita Bean, summarises the research findings on milk versus recovery drinks:

"Milk may seem a little ordinary next to the huge array of commercial recovery products on offer, but actually the science leans in milk’s favour. It appears to do just about everything – aid muscle growth, promote muscle repair, reduce muscle soreness and rehydrate the body – after both resistance and endurance exercise, in men as well as women.

Compared with traditional sports drinks, 500ml milk consumed after training produces greater gains in muscle mass and strength as well as a greater aerobic capacity, and reduced body fat levels. It also rehydrates you as well as if not better than isotonic sports drinks."

What are some of the potential downsides of cow’s milk?

1) It contains saturated fat.

It's worth noting that the different varieties of pasteurised milk (whole, semi-skimmed and skimmed) contain different amounts of fat, including saturated fat. Nothing wrong with fat, of course, and it does contain essential vitamins.

However, if you're trying to cut down on calories or saturated fats it's a good idea to go for lower-fat milks. Semi-skimmed, 1% fat and skimmed milks contain all the important nutritional benefits of milk, but are lower in fat. Of these options, skimmed milk is the lowest in fat.

2) It may contain hormones and antibiotics (if you’re drinking it in the US of A).

To cut a long story short, dairy farmers in the United States are permitted to give cows antibiotics and a synthetic hormone called recombinant bovine growth hormone (also known as rBGH or rBST) in order to increase milk production. This practice is not allowed in the European Union, though it's worth noting that natural hormones can be found in a wide range of both plant and animal based foods that we consume.

It goes without saying that cows sometimes require veterinary treatment for health problems. This may include hormones for reproductive issues, or antibiotics for disease. It stands to reason that just as in humans, antibiotics can play an important role in combating a bacterial infection and bringing animals back to full health.

However, the use of veterinary medicines is very carefully controlled by European law and, according to the UK Dairy Industry, milk is rigorously tested for traces of antibiotics to ensure that it is safe for consumption. Cows receiving antibiotics are milked separately from the rest of the herd to ensure that the milk does not enter the food chain.

What if you can’t drink cow’s milk?

Of course not everyone either wants to - or even can - drink milk.

Although research shows that the rate of allergy to cow’s milk (a response of the immune system to the protein contained in the milk) and lactose intolerance (a condition where you have a reduced ability to digest the sugar found in milk and dairy foods due to a deficiency of lactase, an enzyme which breaks down lactose), is much lower than often perceived by the public, the effects (bloating, gastrointestinal discomfort, diarrhoea) can be very unpleasant.

Plant-based alternatives to cow's milk can be a godsend for anyone with food allergies or lactose intolerance, or people who follow a plant-based diet. But the market trend in recent years has been driven largely by consumers’ thirst for low-calorie, low-sugar, lactose-free substitutes to accompany their ‘good-for-you granolas’ and flat whites.

There's a general perception that plant-based alternatives are more healthy and taste better than cow’s milk. So much so that dairy avoidance has become more of a mainstream lifestyle choice these days. To illustrate the power of consumer demand, Sainsbury’s recently doubled the range of non-dairy milk products it offers across around 300 of its stores by adding 18 new plant-based milks to its aisles.

However, the nutrition profile of each milk alternative varies widely, so different products appeal to people with different health priorities. And it's important to note that just because something is called 'milk' does not mean it’s nutritious. This is in part the reason for the recent ruling by the European Court of Justice that plant-based foods cannot be sold in the European Union using terms such as milk, butter and cheese.

As with most things, the devil is in the detail. But as a general rule of thumb, it's better to opt for the unsweetened versions that have been fortified with important nutrients like calcium and vitamin D.

Milk - what are the nutritional facts for me as an athlete?

Which plant-based milk alternative is best?


From an athlete's perspective, Soya milk is dairy milk's closest relation. It's the only plant-based milk that contains a complete protein profile. It also contains vitamins B2 and B12, vitamin D and potassium. It’s also low in fat.

Like most foods these days there is some concern over exactly how healthy and environmentally friendly soya really is but I'll leave you to Google that and make your own decisions.

Almond milk?

Almond milk (the unsweetened version in particular) is low in calories, naturally low in fat and contains the important vitamins B2, B12 and D. But, like other nut milks, it has allergenic properties and is not nearly as nutritious as consuming whole nuts. In fact, depending on the brand, almonds make up only 2% of the ingredients!

Coconut milk?

Unlike other plant milks, coconut milk (we're talking the watered down version in the alternative milk aisle, not the stuff in cans) contains saturated fat, about the same amount as whole milk. It also has very little protein. It does taste good though and is a great addition to smoothies in particular.

Rice or oat milk?

If you're after more calories, you might want to give rice or oat milk a try.

Oat milk naturally contains more B vitamins than soya and coconut milk and is a good option for people who have multiple allergies. But it may contain gluten depending on the manufacturing method.

One downside to oat milk is that it’s low in protein and other vitamins and minerals, so you'll need to ensure you opt for a fortified version. Likewise, rice milk contains very little protein, but it does contain the most amount of carbohydrate per cup and is the least likely of all of milk products to cause allergies.

While rice milk can be fortified with calcium and vitamin D, it’s not a natural source of either and you may want to explore what nutritionists say about rice, rice milk and levels of inorganic arsenic.

Of course, other plant-based drinks are available.....too many to cover here.


Other things to consider when choosing your plant-based milk.

I have just two final observations on plant-based alternatives to cow's milk.

Looking at the ingredients lists, as I often do, most of the plant-based milks are beefed up with thickeners, sweeteners and stabilisers to improve the consistency, flavour and to prolong the shelf life. Nothing necessarily wrong with that, but there has been some controversy over Carrageenan (E407) - which is derived from red seaweed and used as a thickener and stabiliser in a variety of processed foods - due to possible links with digestive problems, so it's a good idea to read the label if you're particularly concerned about that.

Last but by no means least, plant-based alternatives to cow's milk are often considerably more expensive, though it's worth checking out the new supermarket own brands as they tend to be much cheaper.

Something else that I've noticed whilst wandering around my local supermarket in a bewildered daze... the proliferation of plant-based alternatives to cow's milk has not been lost on the dairy marketeers. Milk with extra protein anyone? Or how about Kefir (pronounced 'kuh-FEAR'), which is made by fermenting milk with a mixture of beneficial yeast and bacteria. The result is cultured milk that has little if any lactose, some carbonation, a tangy taste and a hint of alcohol. New products are appearing all the time so it's always worth a look next time you're walking down the (milk) aisle.

So, it seems that cow’s milk comes out on top in terms of its nutritional properties and, if you're an athlete, research suggests that cow's milk supplemented with carbohydrate will help optimise your recovery.

There are no significant differences between organic milk and conventional milk in terms of quality, safety and nutrition, though some studies suggest that organic milk may be higher in omega-3 fatty acids which are linked with improved heart health. But, if you have any concerns about environmental and animal welfare issues, it may be worth paying the extra to go organic.

But, if cow's milk doesn't agree with you (or you don't agree with it) there are plenty of plant-based alternatives for you (and even a few other options like Goat's milk and a2TM milk that we have not touched on). But it's undoubtedly better for you to choose unsweetened versions that have been fortified with vitamins and minerals and, if you’re in any doubt, read the ingredient and nutrition labels.

Like most things in life, one size does not fit all (sound familiar?!) and ultimately your choice of white stuff depends on your needs and personal preferences.


Mel Varvel is Founder of Totally Wonderfuel, a one-of-a-kind mobile catering business on a mission to help athletes of all ages and abilities to reach for the stars by providing honest, healthy, natural, nutritious and delicious food that's simply out of this world. Her most notable race results include aSilver medal in the ITU World Duathlon Championships in Gijon, Spain in 2011, being First female and second overall in the inaugural Rat Race 'The Wall' Ultra (from Carlisle to Newcastle- 69 miles) in 2012 and Overall winner (male and female) of the Round the Rock Ultra (48 miles) in Jersey in 2013.

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