Go to any finish line or post-race party and your will inevitably find someone scouring for free beer tickets. Cheers being made over the clinking of bottles, and laughs being shared in between gulps. Cold, delicious, refreshments. Although many athletes may abstain from alcohol during training, they’ll drink copious amounts after a competition. The negative consequences of excessive drinking may be greater for you as an athlete when compared to your nonathletic peers.
Some of us might think, “I can have a beer for every hour of activity I completed…” Or, “If I ride 100 miles, that’s 5000 calories, I’m doing a keg stand and passing out on the front lawn.” While alcohol does indeed provide energy or calories, it also has metabolic, cardiovascular, thermoregulatory, and neuromuscular actions that may affect exercise performance.
Alcohol, otherwise known as ethanol, is defined as “a colorless, volatile, flammable liquid,” according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary.
The standard serving sizes for alcoholic drinks are as follows:
· 12 oz of beer or wine cooler
· 8 oz of malt liquor
· 5 oz of wine, and
· 1.5 oz of 80 proof liquor.
Binge drinking is considered five or more drinks for men and four or more drinks for women within a two-hour period. Here’s an example… let’s say you just finished a hard weeknight bike ride and the group is headed for Mexican. You have 1 ice cold large Dos Equis… The service is terrible, so you end up ordering another large Dos Equis with dinner and demolishing it before you head home. That’s > 5 drinks!! That IS binge drinking.
Now, many of you might say, “well, that doesn’t affect me, because I can only finish my one large Dos Equis before I have to head home.” How does that affect my performance? Let’s a take a look at all of the factors to consider when looking at alcohol and athletic performance. With that, we’ll dig a little further into alcohol and….
1. Temperature Regulation
2. Risk of Injury
6. Weight Management
7. Nutrient status
9. The Hangover
Thermoregulatory Function (AKA Temperature Regulation)
Large doses of alcohol in the cold will cause dilation of blood vessels all over your body. This change affects your temperature regulatory mechanisms by causing a drop in core temperature. Alcohol increases heat loss, making it more difficult to regulate temperature while training in cold environments.
Risk of Injury
Alcohol increases the risk of sports-related injury. Excessive alcohol use can lead to a loss of balance and coordination and reduced reaction time. The brain on booze results in reduced cognitive function, which leads to an increase in injuries. Also, from a study on New York City bicyclists, from 1996-2003, 21% of cyclists who died, had alcohol in their system. Drinking and riding (even commuting) appears to be quite a risk! Remember kids, don’t drink and swim, bike, or run.
Alcohol consumption also affects sleep quality, a major component of recovery. Now, you might be thinking, “hey, whenever I drink, I practically fall asleep at the table..” While it is true that alcohol will help you fall asleep faster, more disruption in sleep throughout the night occurs. While you are quick to fall asleep, the actual REM sleep (the good, recovery, healing sleep) is delayed and shortened. Thus, reduces the amount of quality sleep. If you are having issues sleeping, or always waking up right in the middle of deep dream sleep, you may try eliminating alcohol for a little while to see if you notice a difference.
Eliminating!? But I don’t drink much when I partake. This decrease in the amount of REM sleep will occur with high levels of alcohol consumption, as well as moderate intakes.
Alcohol works as a diuretic, meaning it increases the amount of fluid lost in the urine. Not only water, but the more you urinate, the more potassium, calcium, iron, or sodium or lose as well. Alcoholic drinks containing > 4% alcohol tend to delay the recovery/hydration process by promoting urine loss. So next time you start pounding smooth, refreshing Duff Lite after a hot workout, just know there is a good chance you won’t be properly hydrated for the next training session.
Regular consumption of alcohol can depress the immune system and slow the body’s ability to heal. This leaves the body open and susceptible to diseases and infections without the ability to fight back. Your body is working overtime to metabolize alcohol as its number one priority, so your immune system isn’t on full guard. Vitamin and mineral deficiencies are common in those who excessively drink alcohol, further compromising the immune system.
Alcohol provides around 7 calories per gram. Compare that to 4 calories per gram for protein and carbohydrate and 9 calories per gram for fat. Most alcoholic drinks also have added sugars in them, boosting the calorie content from 100 calories and up. Ciders, some sugary craft beers, sweet wines, and sugary cocktails can contain 200-300+ calories per serving. Those extra calories can add up quite quickly if you aren’t watching what you are eating. And if you aren’t eating high-quality foods because you want to drink 800 calories, then you missing out on a lot of key nutrients (calcium, iron, B-vitamins, potassium, etc.) that alcohol does not provide.
Then there are the munchies. Don’t say you haven’t ever asked the Uber driver to take you through Krystal’s drive-through on the way home after a night of drinking. Alcohol increases an already aggressive appetite that many athletes have.
Having an excess of calories from any source will lead to weight gain, messing with our body composition goals. For males specifically, heavy, chronic alcohol consumption may lead to a reduction in testosterone and the ability to gain muscle mass, again negatively affecting performance. Read that again fellas. If your testosterone is low, don’t risk a failed drug test or the hassle of needing a TUE to compete. Just back off the booze.
Beer is such a popular alcoholic drink among endurance athletes. Many even defend beer as a recovery beverage since it does provide water and calories. A beer does contain some carbohydrates, but the majority of the calories come from alcohol, which does not provide the glucose muscles are looking for. That, and alcohol has the reverse effect on hydration due to its diuretic effect it creates on the kidneys. Sure, it does contain some nutrients… but so does white bread. It just isn’t the ideal choice. Orange juice has four times the potassium, three times the carbohydrates, and it would take 11 beers to obtain the B-vitamin RDA! Due to its diuretic effects, and its lack of carbohydrates, no, beer is not a good recovery drink!
Chronic alcohol abuse can influence your food choices, interfere with absorption of vitamins and minerals, disrupt the metabolism of nutrients, and alter the hormonal environment in your body that changes body composition.
After a hard workout, our immediate goals of recovery should be to replete muscle glycogen and promote protein synthesis through adequate carbohydrate and protein intake. When alcohol is consumed a hard workout, the synthesis of muscle and liver glycogen is impaired, even in the presence of relatively low alcohol.
One study looked at a group of cyclist’s muscle glycogen storage after a glycogen-depleting, prolonged cycling effort. One group consumed a high-carbohydrate diet, another had fewer carbs and replaced the other amount of carbs with alcohol, and the last continued the high-carb diet and had the alcohol as well. Muscle glycogen storage was reduced significantly (50% at 8 hours and 16% at 24hrs) when the carbohydrate intake was less than optimal. When recovered appropriately, alcohol did not affect glycogen storage.
Post-activity nutrition should focus on replenishing depleted glycogen stores with nutrient-dense carbohydrate sources before the beer is ever ordered. When you don’t refuel appropriately, you start your next workout at a disadvantage and ultimately impair your future performance. This is especially important for athletes training more than once a day or have evening workouts followed by early morning workouts.
One drink turns into two, two turns into three, three turns into four… and all of a sudden you are waking up the next morning at 6 am because you have an 8 am ride to make. But your throat feels like sandpaper, your mind is confused and lost, your heart is beating fast, and your head is pounding through your ears. Alcohol metabolizes in the liver at a relatively slow, fixed rate. The larger the athlete, the faster it is metabolized. Despite how much you swear your sweat smells like Bourbon, there is no “sweating out” the alcohol. Exercise does not increase alcohol metabolism… time is simply passing and you are slowly starting to rehydrate and feel better.
The hangover has a significant negative effect on aerobic performance. (Duh, right?!?) In the studies looking into this effect, any quantity of alcohol (1 to 38…Wait, who had 38 drinks?), produced a negative effect. Anaerobic performance did not see much change. A huge part of this is related to available fuel sources. Muscle functions most efficiently with carbohydrate as its primary source of fuel. Not only does alcohol suppress the use of fat as fuel, but alcohol ingestion can lower muscle glycogen levels. Alcohol dehydrogenase, the enzyme that metabolizes alcohol, also sets off a chain of reactions which makes it harder for the liver to produce glucose. Therefore, two pathways leading to less available fuel for endurance athletes.
While alcohol is being metabolized, the by-products interfere with aerobic metabolism. One of the by-products causes an increase in lactate. Lactate is a major cause of skeletal muscle fatigue, and can decline muscle force or power output, resulting in impaired performance.
Back to the sandpaper throat. Endurance athletes must stay on top of hydration as a 2% change in body weight could affect their performance. Alcohol creates dehydration, which then can reduce endurance performance.
And on to that terrible mood you are in because of that headache you have. Athletes may not be able to perform as well hung over, simply because they don’t feel they are capable of performing well. The mind goes a long way in endurance sports.
1. Abstaining from alcohol 48 hours prior to a race or a hard workout can be beneficial for athletic performance. Make it a priority to properly hydrate and fuel before and after to help facilitate recovery.
2. Fully rehydrate and refuel post-exercise before considering drinking alcohol.
3. When choosing alcohol, follow the guidelines of moderation: 1-2 drinks per day for men, 1 drink per day for women. Remember, you are super-human in regards to your performance endeavors, but you do not get rid of alcohol any quicker than your non-athletic peers.
4. Maintain a social life without compromising training and competition goals. The hard workouts are only a piece of the puzzle. Sleep, alcohol, nutrition, can all positively or negatively affect your training.
So before you cheers that 3rd massive Dos Equis mug, make sure you are keeping all of your performance goals in mind. Maybe consider reserving that until AFTER you big goal race of the year.
If you have any other questions or ideas for blog posts, just shoot them over to us at email@example.com and we’ll get our awesome crew on it.
Casey Katz, MS RD LDN CNSC
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