As a vegetarian endurance athlete, I am always searching for ways of bumping up my protein. I feel really comfortable with my choices of protein in my diet and depending on the day, I'd say that all 3 of my main meals have some type of vegetarian protein, high in amino acids.
I am a big fan of milk. Right now, Karel and I consume a gallon of skim milk every 6-7 days. We both drink at least a cup a day and some days being more depending on the workout for the day (high intensity workouts call for milk or whey protein to quickly repair damaged tissues) or if milk is in the meal (ex. mashed potatoes, eggs, french toast, oatmeal, smoothie, etc.). I would prefer to buy organic milk so whenever there is a deal at the grocery store (I like to shop around) I will buy organic milk instead of skim milk. I do believe that organic milk is a better choice (in terms of nutrition) than skim milk but for the time being, I regularly buy skim milk because it fits into our budget.
Aside from the protein, one thing I love about milk is the calcium content. With 1, 8-ounce cup of milk containing around 30% of daily calcium (in a 2000 calorie diet), there is no reason for athletes to not consume milk. As the cheapest, quickest and most reliable recovery drinks, plain milk (not chocolate with loads of added sugar) is a perfect choice post-workout. Although milk is only 20% whey (80% casein, which is a slow digesting protein also found in cottage cheese), it is a great source of protein and carbs (lactose) to aid in tissue repair. If the workout is high intensity or over 2 hours, I do suggest whey protein powder as your choice of recovery drink, combined with a healthy source of carbs (to increase amino acid absorption into the bloodstream) due to the high amino acid leucine content (higher than in milk) that stimulates protein synthesis.
In the past year or so, there has been a lot of hype about almond milk. For some reason, individuals (and athletes) just love almond milk as an alternative to skim or soy milk. Almond milk contains a bit more carbs and sugar compared to skim milk because almond milk adds sugar (cane juice) to the product. And by the way, the first ingredient in almond milk is not almonds...it's filtered water and then evaporated cane juice. Compared to 16g of carbs and 15g of sugar in almond milk, skim milk contains 12g carbs and 11grams sugar because milk is a sugar (hence the -ose behind lactose)....a natural sugar. Almond milk is fortified so it does contain 30% calcium in an 8 ounce cup (similar to skim milk) but you only get 1g of protein in almond milk (compared to 6-8g in skim or soy milk).
Calcium is a must in the diet of athletes because it helps with bone strength and muscle contractions. When I work with athletes (men and women) who struggle with cramping, I rarely blame sodium as the culprit. Typically, I find that cramping is due to not properly fueling during training/racing (ex. not prioritizing liquid calories or taking in too many calories), overworking the muscles (not allowing time for relaxation either due lack of proper training, pushing harder than you trained to push, weather, or terrain) or not enough calcium in the diet. As the most abundant, essential mineral in the human body Calcium is needed to form bones and teeth and is also required for blood clotting, transmission of signals in nerve cells, and muscle contraction. So in addition to eating sardines, canned salmon, green leafy vegetables, cottage cheese, yogurt and tofu, I strongly encourage everyone to pick up your favorite wholesome milk (less ingredients the better) and to aim for at least 1 cup a day of milk. If you workout , 8 ounces right after your workout is a great way to help with muscle repair.
If you are concerned about 20-30 extra calories in a regular version of organic or soy milk, make your own "light" milk so that you can bypass the extra ingredients in a processed "light" version. My suggestion, take 6 ounces regular milk (organic or soy) and add 2-4 ounces of water for a "light" option without the unnecessary added ingredients.
If you are concerned about your calcium intake, check out the foods in your house and in the grocery store for calcium....on the bottom of the food label you will see the percentages for Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Calcium and Iron. This percentage is per serving and based on a 2000 calorie diet. Keep this in mind so that if you only use a dollop of yogurt or a splash of milk you are only receiving a minor amount of calcium. In my opinion, I'd rather enjoy the "real" foods that make up the majority of my diet and not worry about calories in those foods. Then when I do enjoy the processed foods on occasion, I likewise don't have to worry about calories because they only make up a minor part of my diet. With a wholesome and plant-based diet, it always seems like a win-win situation when it comes to food for fuel.