Over the years I have had the good fortune of engaging with endurance athletes constantly. The talks I give around endurance health and sports nutrition always come up with a common question surrounding alcohol consumption. I am not going to sugar coat my answer, I say it as it is and in this blog I will spell out the good, bad and ugly around the issues associated with alcohol consumption and endurance sport.
Firstly we know from medical research that frequent consumption of alcohol can increase the risk of mortality and this should not come as a surprise to anyone. Men can tolerate a higher intake than women so relatively speaking women have a higher mortality rate for equal consumption volume than men. This does not mean the male population should go out and start racking up a large amount either because a small unit amount is the cut off before the mortality risk begins to rise and it seems men are far worse for wear as far as the stats go. Globally a large percentage of deaths are directly associated with alcohol consumption and one of the latest research reports on the global burden of disease study in the medical journal The Lancet states the following
“Our results show that the safest level of drinking is none. This level is in conflict with most health guidelines, which espouse health benefits associated with consuming up to two drinks per day. Alcohol use contributes to health loss from many causes and exacts its toll across the lifespan, particularly among men. Policies that focus on reducing population-level consumption will be most effective in reducing the health loss from alcohol use”. The full publication can be read here.
However alcohol or no alcohol my focus in this blog is around the impact of alcohol in endurance sport.
So let’s begin with the fact that it is the pleasure of most athletes to enjoy a beer or plenty more after the finish line of a race. When I raced overseas in Germany which is a big beer drinking nation I also had the pleasure of being offered a beer at the finish line however it was an alcohol free beer, which of course would not have had any negative impact on my recovery. However the alcohol certainly will.
Let us have a look at my major topics of recovery and see how in each case what the impact is.
Athletes finish training sessions or races in a dehydrated state. First step of recovery is to rehydrate properly.
Alcohol however is a diuretic. Basically this means what you take in will not aid hydration but hamper it and cause more fluid loss. Failing to hydrate properly post event will leave you feeling terrible the day after and the delayed onset of muscle soreness will be in an exaggerated state.
One of the human body’s most important fuel tanks is the glycogen tank. A major source of energy supply and certainly a main contributor to fuelling the energy system during exercise and especially racing. Glycogen of course is primarily stored in the form of water, so failing to hydrate properly post session will definitely mitigate the proper replenishment of glycogen stores. In actual fact alcohol will definitely inhibit the re-synthesis of liver glycogen and research has shown that it can take nearly twice as long to replenish the glycogen stores in an athlete that has consumed alcohol in comparison to an athlete that has not. This means if you are in the middle of peak training or back to back racing you can rest assured this will impact you significantly. Over and above this I often get told beer and wine is an excellent source of carbohydrates. You joking right? It is absolutely not a good carbohydrate source required to replenish glycogen.
Muscle Protein Synthesis (MPS)
An important part of recovery post exercise is of course muscle tissue repair. This requires proper nutrition meaning the building blocks of muscle being in the form or branch chain amino acids to be able to properly do their job. Some research has demonstrated that consuming alcohol post-exercise can suppress anabolic responses in muscles which means failure to repair properly and of course this prevents progress in the form of gains from exercise sessions. So yes this means your beer in one hand and steak in the other won’t cut it, your process is flawed.
The best way to recover post exercise of course is rest. I often stress one of the window periods of recovery is the sleep window and protein consumption prior to sleep can be of major benefit in enabling proper restoration and repair to the body. That is of course assuming you do sleep. However alcohol consumption interferes with proper sleep and completely removes the benefit of proper rest to recover between sessions.
Post exercise niggles often occur especially in field sport and areas of the body are often in an inflamed state which means that sometimes a reduction in inflammation is required. The sporting teams I work with use many types of methods to try to reduce inflammation post exercise one being an ice bath. However the problem is alcohol is a vasodilator which means it allows a rush of blood to the areas completely contradicting the treatment to reduce inflammation. This explains quite clearly that if you are injured and consuming alcohol it will slow down that healing process.
The Mental Game
Its a fact that endurance performance is very much mind driven. The ability to perform at a high level comes with complete focus and determination. Alcohol of course removes the ability to focus properly as well impairs co-ordination which can lead to the risk of irregular plane movement increasing the risk of injury.
Now that you understand the benefits of alcohol consumption in endurance sport its quite easy to decide how to use it to your advantage. Oh wait a minute I did not give you any benefits ;-).
Ok, lets be clear alcohol is not the best for sports performance and yes I am sure you will tell me many stories of athletes who performed under the influence of alcohol and it is their go to fuel and recovery meal. On the other hand I can assure you the stats are not in their favour from a health perspective and their later years will most likely see issues arising. I will admit though that alcohol does have a very large part to play in social circles and get togethers where people will relax, smile, laugh and interact. Of course happiness and stress relief is an important part of life and can offer longevity.
My advice as an athlete is to limit your intake significantly. Once in a while enjoy a glass of wine or a beer. Keep it as far away from long or quality sessions as possible and absolutely keep it out of race week. Most importantly ensure for every unit of alcohol you consume you take in a much larger amount of fluid to counteract the dehydrating effects.
Moderation is key and health always comes first.
Below is a nice infographic by Dr. Yann Le Meur (Sports Scientist)
Showing the impact Alcohol has on Sports Performance & Recovery in male athletes
all the best
Mark Wolff is a certified exercise & sports nutritionist, endurance nutrition and physiology expert with over 20 years experience. An endurance multi-sport athlete with a running, triathlon, mountain biking and weight lifting background, he works extensively with professional and amateur athletes in a variety of sports disciplines as well as those just wanting to change their lifestyles. He firmly believes that a person can only reach their full potential when their health and nutrition is given the proper focus. Mark’s focus on nutrition and physiology is not just on training and racing, but he places major emphasis on recovery, immune system health, emotional stability, stress management and performance. Mark is co-founder of 32Gi, a sports nutrition company, focused mainly on health and endurance nutrition. He is also co-founder of Rapid Recover focussed on pneumatic compression equipment to improve circulation for recovery and health.