The study was conducted by a group of researchers from the University of Texas at Austin, who studied 12 trained cyclists after a typical exercise session to see what physiological effects the food had on recovery.
After fasting for 12 hours and being given a warm-up period, the subjects cycled for two hours at a moderate level of effort, then immediately ate a bowl of whole grain cereal with nonfat milk and had their blood glycogen levels tested. According to the lead researcher, Lynne Kammer, “We wanted to understand their relative effects on glycogen repletion and muscle protein synthesis for the average individual. We found that glycogen repletion, or the replenishment of immediate muscle fuel, was just as good after whole grain cereal consumption and that some aspects of protein synthesis were actually better".
The milk also helped replenish insulin levels and reduced lactic acid in the blood, the compound that causes stiffness after exercise, better than did the sports drink.
Sports drinks mainly help keep you hydrated, as you can lose a quart or two per hour through exercise. During the average hour-long workout you don’t lose enough electrolytes to make it necessary to replenish your stores, so drinking plain water is sufficient. However, the sugar in sports drinks tastes good and provides fuel to your muscles in the form of sugar, making them more attractive to many people.
A healthier alternative is any protein-carbohydrate combination, milk and whole grain cereal being one example. Not only does the food combination refuel your muscles, it doesn’t consist of empty calories the way sports drinks do, in addition to providing the body with more nutrients.
Kammer noted that, “Cereal and non-fat milk are a less expensive option than sports drinks. The milk provides a source of easily digestible and high quality protein, which can promote protein synthesis and training adaptations, making this an attractive recovery option for those who refuel at home”.
The researchers suggested that, for amateur athletes and those who are moderately physically active and are trying to keep fit, popping into the kitchen post-workout for a quick bowl of whole-grain cereal with a splash of skimmed milk may be smarter than investing in a high-priced sports drink.