Best Recovery Drinks for Triathletes

 By Claire Fudge of 4th Discipline

One just needs to trawl through an online website or walk into a supermarket and they are hit with an array of “recovery” drinks; from UHT long life bottles to aisle upon aisle of fresh milkshakes and permutations of yoghurt based and milk based breakfast and health drinks!  We often find ourselves by-passing the standard chocolate milk, but may instead be drawn to the more expensive and interesting BCAA (branched chain amino acids) or even waters laced with protein, or plain milk with added whey proteins and the building blocks of protein as BCAA.  And what about the addition of protein to plain water, coconut water, smoothies and juices?! 

Athletes recovering from a training session.  Which recovery drink do they need?

Phases of sports recovery

Did you know we often think of recovery in two phases: “acute” (straight away) and “chronic” (longer) recovery phases?  

Acute recovery takes the form of the first couple of hours; so when we talk about recovery drinks this is most likely to be part of an athletes acute recovery. 

Before you choose from the many recovery drink options, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. When are you next training?
  2. Do you need to rehydrate?
  3. Do you need to refuel?
  4. Are you moving from one session to another?
  5. How long was the session?
  6. How much did you sweat and do you know your sodium sweat rate?
  7. What was the session? Was it a hot race or a cold club ride?
  8. What are your body composition goals? 
  9. When is your next meal or snack? 
  10.  What is available?
Refuel, Rehydate, Repair:  Guidance on choosing a sports recovery drink for triathletes

    Which type of recovery drink is best?

    When choosing a recovery drink... think: 

    • Refuel
    • Rehydrate
    • Repair 

    Skimmed milk is a good sports recovery drink for triathletes

    Recovery drinks to Re-fuel

    If you don’t have time to have a meal or snack and you have another session the same day then choose:

    A recovery drink with adequate carbohydrates, enough sodium to start the rehydration process and protein to help with the restoration of glycogen stores (1) and muscle protein synthesis. 

    A pint of semi skimmed milk contains:  27g carbohydrate, 20g protein, 264mg sodium

    Chocolate milk is one of the best recovery drinks for triathletes

    Is Chocolate Milk a good recovery drink?

    The benefits of chocolate milk (literally skimmed milk with added standard chocolate flavour drink powder) has been well documented; a systematic review by researchers at Monash University found that just a single bout of exercise causes a drop in immune function, whilst strenuous exercise may damage the gut.  It showed that  chocolate milk is ideal for recovery when compared to other commercial recovery drinks. 

    Milk or chocolate milk is a simple cheap effective way of starting the recovery process; dairy is almost perfectly matched to oral rehydration solutions with a higher reading on the Beverage Hydration Index (BHI), meaning that the fluid is better retained with less urine loss after consumption compared with other drinks. 

    A pint of Chocolate milk contains  60g carbohydrates, 20g protein 264mg sodium

    What is the difference between a protein shake from the supermarket and milk?

    The main difference between the two is perhaps the carbohydrate content, but there is unlikely to be a real difference in total protein content between the two.

    Sports recovery drink with protein supplement.

    Should you choose a supplement recovery drink?

    It entirely depends on whether you are short on time, travelling, or if you cannot get to a meal or snack. 

    Do you actually need it?!  If the next meal or snack is delayed, then it may help to meet all 3 of the above rules! 

    Check that it has been batch tested and what other ingredients are in the product and if so do you really need them ? 

    Check for the type of protein; whey and type of whey e.g concentrate , isolate or hydrolysed or a casein.  

    A brief guide: 
    • ‘Concentrate’ is up to 80% whey and is the least processed and therefore contains more lactose (milk sugars). 
    • ‘Isolate’ whey is more processed containing up to 90% whey and low in lactose.
    • Hydrolysed whey is the most processed and essentially already broken down so the lowest in lactose and most rapidly absorbed. 
    All these contain the essential amino acid leucine so all forms would be suitable. 
    • Casein is the “curd” fraction of milk when it is separated into whey and casein and is more slowly absorbed.  This would be most suited to having as part of a pre bed snack. 
    • Casein may also be part of the chronic recovery phase; so after the acute recovery which may include a recovery drink, followed by a meal or snack, casein may be considered part of a strategy for overnight continued recovery. 

    Also check for the carbohydrate content; some drinks contain <2g/serving.  So have a think about the refuelling and replenishing of glycogen stores.   If you are looking to fully recover then you will require both carbohydrate and protein, so aim for a drink with approximately 20-25g protein per serve, along with 25+ grams of carbohydrate. 

    Recovery drinks for rehydration for triathletes

    Recovery Drinks to Rehydrate

    We are all individuals and have different sweat rates and sodium sweat rates.  In addition, the environment, exercise type and intensity will all affect how much fluid and sodium we lose and need to rehydrate. 

    A really great study with 72 athletes, looked at how different fluids rehydrate athletes post exercise by reviewing urine volumes and osmolalities.  They used this data to produce an index, which is not only a useful guide but also pretty interesting!  They compared, water, cola, diet cola, oral rehydration solution, orange juice, larger, black coffee, black tea, full fat milk and skimmed milk. 

    The Beverage Hydration Index (BHI) shown below (3) shows us that the beverages with the higher BHI values were more efficient for rehydration, with decreases in urine output which suggested that more fluid is retained. 

    Beverage Hydration Index (BHI) showing the rehydrating capacity of common drinks

    So what does this mean? 

    The World Health Organisation suggested an oral rehydration solution should contain 342mg sodium, whereas skimmed milk has about 270mg sodium per 600ml and so this shows that the addition of sodium to a fluid will help in the process of rehydration.

    How aggressively one needs to hydrate may depend on the amount of sodium and fluids lost.  To better understand and navigate your fluid and sodium losses you can carry out some simple sweat loss calculations and a sodium sweat test.  See our guide to hydration for more info.

    If your sodium losses are high then it makes sense that you will require a more aggressive approach to your rehydration. 

    Recovery drinks for Repair : Protein recovery drinks for triathletes

    Recovery Drinks to Repair

    How much protein do we need?

    The big question!  And the answer is: more protein does not simply mean building more muscle! 

    Whey is generally more rapidly absorbed, depending on what type of whey you use.  Most recovery drinks contain 20-25g protein.  We need somewhere between 20-35g protein post training; with some studies suggesting that older athletes may require the higher end range of protein. 

    What about the milk protein fraction of casein? Casein is slower release and doses of 30-40g may increase overnight muscle protein synthesis (building muscle) and metabolic rate(2). 

    Sports recovery drinks for triathletes

    Recovery drinks for vegan or plant based athletes …

    What if you are a vegan or plant-based athlete?  Whilst milk based proteins contain one of the most important essential amino acids for muscle protein synthesis, Leucine, a plant based protein alternative would be a soya based protein drink or powder.  For acute recovery; a drink should contain up to 3g leucine. 

    Whilst soy is a complete protein, it doesn’t contain all of the EAA (essential amino acids) for muscle protein synthesis.  Rice is worth considering instead, as a study with rice vs whey proteins showed similar changes in body composition when taken for 8 weeks alongside a resistance exercise programme. 

    So, for plant-based non dairy alternatives, choose a mixture of different sources of proteins such as pumpkin, sunflower, rice, soya and even potato!  

    Is water a good sports rehydration drink?

    Is water good enough as a recovery drink?

    Water is probably not enough alone or without food containing some sodium to help with the retention of fluids and also the prompt to drink.  However if you re-fuel after your workout with an appropriate snack or meal containing protein and carbohydrates, then a glass of water or electrolyte tablet would meet your carbohydrate, protein, sodium and fluid needs! 

    In short; the answer depends….but there are plenty of super quick cheap options to meet your needs for recovery. 

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    Want a home-made recovery shake which ticks all the nutrition boxes, has no muck in it and tastes great? 

    Check out 4th Discipline’s Rooibos Recovery Shake recipe here!

    Rooibush recovery shake for vegans and plant based athletes
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  1. Burke LM, Kiens B, Ivy JL. Carbohydrates and fat for training and recovery. J Sports Sci. 2004;22(1):15-30
    1. Jäger et al. Position Stand: Protein and exercise. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition (2017) 14:20 
    2. Maughan, Ron & Watson, Phillip & Cordery, Phil & Walsh, Neil & Oliver, Samuel & Dolci, Alberto & Rodriguez-Sanchez, Nidia & Galloway, Stuart. (2015). A randomized trial to assess the potential of different beverages to affect hydration status: Development of a beverage hydration index. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 103. 10.3945/ajcn.115.114769.