What type of milk to drink for runners

If you’re in the running business, chances are you love a good smoothie. You’ve also likely heard about the supposed benefits of chocolate milk post-exercise. For those of you that are vegan or lactose-intolerant, you’ve probably experimented with oat milk, almond milk, soy and a myriad of other beverages. As runners, milk, in all of its different forms, often becomes a part of our diet. But if you’ve been around the block, you’ve also probably heard the never-ending debates about why all of the different forms are both good for you, and simultaneously bad for you. This can be confusing, like much of the nutrition advice out there. With that, I attempt to answer the question of what type of milk is best to drink as a runner, weighing up the various advantages and detractors of each.


When opting for regular milk, you’ve already made a wise choice in your endeavour to refuel and rehydrate. Going one step further in selecting 1% or skim milk will ensure you cut out the trans-fat that exists within 2% or homogenized milk. 2% and 1% milk have the same level of sugar content, and do not differ drastically in either protein or calcium – the two obvious advantages of selecting dairy milk. But again, you’re cutting out the obvious detractor of 2% milk in trans-fat when selecting that 1% or skim-milk option instead. This means that milk is not necessarily bad for you in any way from a nutritional standpoint, and has obvious benefits in supporting bone and muscle health, aiding in your recovery process, and restoring your energy sources.

The argument that most people will make against cow’s milk – it’s simply weird. What animal drinks another animal’s milk? Virtually none. Many of us are also lactose-intolerant, or have reactions to dairy products that cause acne breakouts and hormonal imbalances. The demands of the industry mean that cows are given growth hormones, and there’s a fair bit of malpractice within the makings of milk. It’s quite possible that you’re ingesting things beyond just milk, so I encourage you to do your own research.

If your reasons are environmental, avoiding milk is completely understandable. But if your reasons are for nutrition, you’re barking up the wrong tree. Cow’s milk is the best source of protein, calcium and fat when compared to all others, and will adequately support your recovery process in ways that the others can’t.


Oat milk is a popular replacement for dairy milk, as a nutritious and environmentally-conscious choice. It lacks the same protein and fat benefits of dairy milk, but compares nicely when it comes to carbohydrates and calcium (typically added in). Oats also have the advantage of being higher in fibre, vitamin B and iron than dairy milk, which makes oat milk a nice option across the board. It’s also incredibly easy to find sugar-free versions of the drink, and oat milk is even a cost-effective drink compared to some of its counterparts.

At the same time, it’s not as advantageous for anyone with a gluten sensitivity, and is sometimes made with vegetable oil – which is not necessarily the healthiest kind of oil you could consume, adding in unnecessary saturated fat into an otherwise healthy drink. The good news is that it’s incredibly easy to make your own oat milk in a blender.

Overall, while it clearly lacks the same protein and fat content as dairy milk, oat milk is a great substitute in many ways. For anyone who can stomach gluten no problem, this should be high up on the list. But for anyone looking to use milk as a recovery tool, oat milk pails in comparison to cow’s milk.


When comparing the nutrition facts of almond milk to cow’s milk, it’s clear which one again pails in comparison. Like oat milk, it’s incredibly easy to find almond milk with 0g of sugar added, and almond milk has its own benefits. It’s higher in fat, calcium, and Vitamin E than dairy milk. At the same time, it lacks the same bang for your buck when it comes to protein, carbs, and potassium (not to mention most other vitamins and minerals!).

As the environmentally-conscious individual that you are, you’ve likely already heard about how difficult it is to produce almond milk. Your vegan friend likely told you why they drink oat milk instead of almond milk, and I’d hazard to guess you didn’t fully understand it, but also didn’t fully question it.

Almonds use an obscene amount of water. It’s estimated that it takes roughly 1.1 gallons of water to help produce a single almond. The other weird thing about the production of almonds – farmers use honey-bee hives to help in the pollination process, at a rate similar to the gallons of water required. No wonder environmentalists opt for oats.

But if looking for a somewhat nutritious substitute for dairy milk, almond milk serves its purpose. And let’s face it, it tastes unreal in a smoothie.


Soy milk is one of the less scrutinized iterations of milk, and one of the less commonly found milk substitutes in coffee shops and restaurants. But it’s advantages are clear. Soy milk is rich in protein and provides a decent source of unsaturated fat, even if lower in carbs and calcium than other choices. Even then, as a recovery drink, it provides a decent degree of balance between the core three (carbohydrates, fat, protein). What it lacks in potassium, it even makes up for in iron.

But like all milks, soy is not without its detracting features. Many people have soy allergies, and soy can interfere with iodine entry into the thyroid gland. Nevertheless, the benefits may outweigh the detractors here. Soy used directly in products for human consumption such as tofu, tempeh and milk only makes up 7% of global soy usage, and so its environmental impact is relatively small, when compared up against cow and almond milk. If you like the taste, soy milk is a great option.


Most of us are well familiar with the benefits of coconuts, from the skin-soothing properties of coconut oil to the rehydration remarkabilities of coconut water. But coconut milk is a less frequently consumed milk substitute in North America. If looking to build up your fat stores, coconut milk is an excellent choice. As a recovery drink, not only is coconut high in fat, but will give you close to what you need in the quest to replace your protein, carbohydrates, sodium, and iron stores lost after a run. Mostly made of water, it’s an ideal recovery drink to throw in smoothies, pancakes, oatmeals, and cereals. The taste might take some acquiring for those familiar with cow’s milk. Stemming from the fruit of a coconut, it is a naturally sweeter taste than the others.

Again, when compared to the clear king in dairy milk, coconut milk lacks in protein and calcium. Selecting a sugar-free version is also essential, or opting for canned coconut milk that contains no additives. That said, sometimes these additives can also be helpful, such as the addition of Vitamin A and Vitamin D to try and make up for where coconut milk lacks in comparison to cow’s milk. Reading the label is again integral to the process of selecting something that suits your body, but coconut milk could be worth the try!

When compared against the others, it might even be one of the most environmentally sustainable, given the minimal amount of water, deforestation and pesticide use in producing the product. It’s environmental impact is adjacent to oat milk, but the nutrition content is certainly higher across the board.


Weighing up all of the options, coconut milk and soy milk may be worth the try, even if they lack the same taste as oat, almond and cow’s milk. Crucially, all of the choices have their benefits. Cow’s milk is the most nutritious, but the worst for the environment. Oat milk has more carbs and less protein, soy milk lacks the carbs but hits the high notes in protein, while coconut milk has a significant amount of fat…almost too much fat. The key is in finding one that tastes right for you, and meets your dietary requirements. If having to tier rank them on environmental impact, nutrition for athletes, and both the good and the bad effects, this would be my ranking.

  1. Coconut Milk
  2. Soy Milk
  3. Oat Milk
  4. Cow’s Milk
  5. Almond Milk

This doesn’t mean you should stop buying almond milk if it’s the one you enjoy the most, and the one that gives you the least amount of negative health consequences. As we discussed, even almond milk has its benefits. When in doubt, water might be the best substitute of all, but lacks the same recovery fuel. If you’re getting enough protein, carbs and fat in your diet after your run, you might not even need milk at all, and can instead opt for water and tea within your rehydration process. Whatever works for you should always be the key consideration, and hopefully these tips can help you to consider what might be best for you and your diet.

For more nutrition tips, check out:

-> The absurdity of nutrition advice for runners
-> Nutrition for running an ultramarathon

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Thanks for reading & see you soon!

Strava Profile | Rhys Desmond


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