Sportsman With Sports Nutrition At The Table

Dairy-Free Nutrition for Endurance Training

BY Cynthia Sass

For many athletes, dairy is ingrained into their training nutrition, but perhaps it's time to mix it up. As their coach, this is what you need to know.

A collaboration between nonprofit Switch4Good and Sports Dietician Cynthia Sass

The topic of endurance training nutrition can trigger stress in coaches and athletes alike. Some obsess over numbers by way of grams, calories and macronutrient ratios, others are susceptible to the ever-revolving trends and fads marketed by the food and supplement industries that promise better fuel for optimum results. The heavy reliance on dairy is one such fad that has lasted through the decades – from the prevalence of whey-based protein powders to the notion of using chocolate milk as a recovery beverage. To better understand the basics of athlete nutrition and dairy, we at Switch4Good interviewed Cynthia Sass, a registered dietitian and board-certified specialist in sports dietetics. 

Why should coaches discuss nutrition with their athletes?

Cynthia Sass (CS): Nutrition is an integral piece of the sports medicine puzzle. Proper nutrition optimizes both mental and physical performance during exercise and plays a key role in post-exercise recovery, injury prevention, immune function and body composition. In short, nutrition is a key determinant of performance as well as training results. Also, it’s not possible to out-exercise a poor diet. That said, it’s important for coaches to provide athletes with accurate, science-based nutrition information from expert sources. Athletes are a primary target for food fads and nutrition misinformation.  

How important is it to fuel shortly after a moderate-to-strenuous workout?

CS: The longer or more intense the workout is, the more important it becomes to eat a recovery meal shortly afterward. The goal is to replenish nutrients used during the training session and deliver nutrients that serve as building blocks to heal from the wear and tear exercise puts on the body. If your workout lasts an hour or more, involves strength training, or is strenuous, eating a meal that checks certain boxes nutritionally speaking within an hour is ideal.   

What are the essentials of pre- and post-workout fuel?

The goal of a pre-workout meal is to fuel the upcoming activity and keep your gut happy. If you eat too little, you can run out of steam. But if you eat too much, or a meal that’s too heavy, you can have a sluggish brick-sitting-in-your-stomach feeling that zaps your energy and interferes with optimal physical and mental performance. If you’re going to eat within about an hour of the start of training or performing, stick with simple, easy-to-digest foods that are higher in carbohydrates and lower in protein and fat. Protein and fat delay stomach emptying and slow digestion, so limit them close to the start of a workout to allow your food to digest and avoid an upset stomach. Good choices for energizing carbs include oatmeal with a banana and a touch of maple syrup, or an oven-roasted potato or sweet potato.

An ideal post-workout meal includes about 15-30 grams of protein, nutrient- and antioxidant-rich veggies; whole food carbs; and anti-inflammatory fat, herbs and spices. it’s also important to replenish fluids and electrolytes, but that should be addressed before, during and after a workout. 

Good examples of post-workout recovery meals include: 

  • A smoothie made with greens, banana, berries, pea protein powder, oat milk, almond butter and ginger. 
  • A grain bowl made with greens and other veggies, lentils, quinoa and vegan pesto.  
  • A stir-fry made with lots of colorful veggies, tofu (either soy or pumpkin seed-based), brown rice and nuts in a ginger sauce.  

If your workout involves strength training, is more strenuous, or your goal is to build muscle mass, you should aim for the higher end of the protein target, and be sure to include a plant-based source of leucine – an amino acid that triggers muscle protein synthesis. Leucine is found in pea protein powder, soy, pumpkin seeds, lentils and navy beans. 

Why do some people advocate for drinking chocolate milk after workouts? Is there anything wrong with chocolate milk that could negatively impact an athletes’ health or performance?

CS: Chocolate milk is often recommended because it provides several nutrients that are vital for recovery, including fluid, vitamins, and electrolytes. It also has a protein-to-carbohydrate ratio that’s in line with recovery recommendations, and cow’s milk also contains leucine. However, all of these nutrients can also be obtained from plant-based sources, and there are several benefits of choosing plant options. Avoiding dairy may also help you avert several health risks.

Sixty-five percent of the human population is lactose intolerant – meaning they have a reduced ability to digest lactose, the naturally occurring sugar in cow’s milk. Milk is also one of the eight foods that account for 90 percent of all food allergies, according to the Food and Drug Administration

In terms of bone health, existing data does not support the notion that a high intake of milk during adolescence prevents fractures later in life. In fact, research suggests that such intake may contribute to the high incidence of fractures seen in countries with the greatest milk consumption. In addition, some research suggests that a higher intake of milk in men and women is not only not accompanied by a lower fracture risk, but may be associated with a higher rate of death. 

In contrast, a higher intake of plant protein, as compared to animal protein, has also been linked to a lower risk of death from all causes, particularly heart disease, which remains the number one killer of both men and women in the U.S. 

What easily accessible, dairy-free alternatives do you recommend instead?

CS: Pea milk – made from yellow split peas – is my go-to. Organic soy milk can also be a good choice for people without a soy allergy or sensitivity. Both plant milks provide the same amount of protein per cup as cow’s milk and are sources of leucine.   

If an athlete is used to consuming dairy products around workouts and “feels fine,” is there a need to switch up these products with a non-dairy alternative?

CS: I would recommend it, as they may not be aware of the other benefits I mentioned above (bone health, overall lower risk of death, etc.). Also, in my professional experience, I’ve seen athletes gain more energy and mental focus; better digestive health; and improved exercise recovery, sleep quality, skin, and joint health by removing dairy from their diets.    

In closing, what are three essential performance nutrition tips you would like to share with coaches and their athletes? 


  1. While protein is important for recovery, it’s not the only nutrient needed. Eating an adequate amount of carbs along with protein helps to ensure that the protein is used for the maintenance and healing of protein tissues in the body, rather than being burned for fuel. 
  2. A recovery meal isn’t about calories in versus calories out – it’s really about replenishment and healing. In other words, a recovery meal shouldn’t be looked at as a reward for a tough workout. It’s an opportunity to maximize the benefits of a training session. For this reason, the quality of the foods chosen is key, with whole, plant-based foods at the top of the list. 
  3. Proper nutrition is also important for reducing injury risk. If you train hard and don’t recover properly, you can actually make your body weaker rather than stronger. And that can set you up for injuries. For any athlete considering making major changes to their diet/nutrition, they should always consult with their doctor or a certified nutritionist first. 
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About Cynthia Sass

Cynthia Sass ( MPH, MA, RD, CSSD is a registered dietitian, board-certified specialist in sports dietetics, and certified plant-based professional cook. Sass has consulted for five professional sports teams in the NBA, MLB, and NHL, and has counseled competitive and pro athletes in numerous sports through her LA-based private practice. She specializes in plant-based performance nutrition and serves as one of Switch4Good’s “Experts.”