5 Things You Need to Know about Alcohol and Exercise

05/19/2017 05:10 pm ET Updated May 20, 2017
After finishing a 10K in Vienna, I ordered Austria’s popular Hugo cocktail, made with elderberry syrup. While exquisite, the
After finishing a 10K in Vienna, I ordered Austria’s popular Hugo cocktail, made with elderberry syrup. While exquisite, the alcoholic concoction might not have been the best way to hydrate after a race.

The night before the 2015 D.C. Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon, my first half marathon ever, I was sitting at the bar drinking a glass of Chianti at Carmine’s Italian Restaurant in Penn Quarter waiting for my friend to join me for a spaghetti dinner. My friend wasn’t planning to run the race but she’s a seasoned competitor. The restaurant was full of out-of-towners carb loading before the race.

I caught my friend’s eye as she walked into the restaurant but before I had a chance to say hello, she slid my wineglass across the bar.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

It seemed obvious.

“I’m drinking Chianti,” I said, as I pointed to my glass.

“You cannot have alcohol the night before your race,” she said. “Not even one glass.”

“What are you talking about?”

“It’s dehydrating.”

“OMG DON’T BE RIDICULOUS.”

I’m not a big drinker or a great runner but I’m attracted to the social aspects of running and participating in races and inevitably there’s alcohol involved in these events. I mean you see champagne corks popping all over the locker room after championship football and baseball games and beer races have never been more popular. There’s even a whole host of races for wine lovers.

While the effects of alcohol can vary widely from individual to individual, in terms of athletic performance, the use of alcohol can impact motor skills, hydration, aerobic capacity, and recovery, according to Claire Siekaniec, MS, ED, CSSD, in The Effects of Alcohol on Athletic Performance, published in the May 2017 issue of the NSCA Connect. The article popped into my news feed and caught my attention because I was just about to register for my local Suds and Soles 5K, which features a post-race party with live music, beer in the finishers’ corral, and a beer and distillery tasting festival.

Here’s what you need to know.

1. Drinking before exercise

This one is simple. Don’t do it in the hours just before a hard workout or race. Consuming alcohol affects your central nervous system, compromises your motor skills, decreases your coordination, delays your reactions, and impairs your judgment as well as your balance. The kind of stuff that makes up your A game during a race.

According to Siekaniec, research shows even small amounts of alcohol prior to exercise leads to a decrease in endurance and on top of that your body will metabolize alcohol over carbohydrates and lipids, which are your body’s preferred energy sources for endurance exercise.

If you’re accustomed to drinking wine and you consume extra water and carbohydrates with your wine the night before a race, you should be fine, according to Runners World. (I was.)

2. Drinking after exercise

This one is also simple. If they’re serving it in the finishers’ corral and you have to consume alcohol immediately after exercise, just drink a little. But the best thing to do is to replenish carbs, restore fluid balance, and stimulate muscle repair first and then enjoy a glass of beer or wine.

There are several reasons for this. Essentially alcohol consumption can interfere with the recovery process after a race or hard workout. For starters, drinks containing more than 4 percent alcohol (pretty much all beers) can cause you to produce less of an anti-diuretic hormone that your body needs to reabsorb water and to urinate more. So if you’re already dehydrated after a race, drinking beer won’t help and could make things worse. In order to replace lost fluids after a workout or race, you need something re-hydrating, such as water or a sports drink. And alcohol can impact how the body processes carbohydrates and proteins, which you need for recovery, according to Siekaniec. Alcohol significantly decreases the body’s ability to synthesize protein even if you consume adequate amounts of protein, Siekaniec writes, and beer doesn’t have enough carbohydrates or electrolytes for recovery after a long workout or a race despite claims that beer can be considered a post-workout recovery option.

And no. If you’re thinking you should just consume more beer to get more carbs or electrolytes, more is never better where alcohol is involved.

3. Sleep, injury, and hormones

You need adequate, quality sleep for recovery and the production of hormones associated with muscle growth, Siekaniec writes, and although studies show alcohol might help you fall asleep, it interferes with your cycles of restorative sleep throughout the night.

You know by now that every time you exercise your muscles endure tiny tears, causing an important inflammatory response in your body, and it’s this process of repair and adaptation that allows you to progress in your training. According to Siekaniec, alcohol limits the inflammatory response by increasing your body’s production of anti-inflammatory molecules and decreasing the production of pro-inflammatory molecules. On top of that, alcohol can increase blood flow to the injured muscles, possibly increasing the severity of any tears and prolonging your recovery.

If you’re a weight lifter or doing regular strength training in the gym, drinking alcohol after your session can essentially stunt muscle hypertrophy, which is the whole point of resistance training. Siekaniec says drinking large amounts of alcohol after resistance exercise messes up the hormonal balances necessary for hypertrophy by increasing cortisol, which stimulates protein breakdown, and decreasing testosterone, which increases protein synthesis.

So maybe save resistance training sessions for days when you’re not planning to go out to a club or to meet friends for drinks.

4. Hangovers

It’s hard for your body to recover from vigorous exercise if you’ve got a hangover, but in addition, according to Siekaniec, research shows your aerobic capacity decreases by 11 percent while exercising with a hangover. It’s kind of an understatement to say you’d have a competitive edge if you competed without one.

5. Chronic effects of alcohol on exercise

Alcohol is seriously caloric, with 7 calories per gram. Siekaniec says the average drink in the United States contains 14 grams of alcohol, which would be 98 calories and that’s before you add in the calories in soda or juice mixers. Over time, the extra calories in alcohol could have an affect on your body’s composition and impact your performance in the gym or out on the trail, according to Siekaniec.

What’s less obvious is the impact heavy alcohol consumption has on your body’s ability to absorb and utilize important nutrients necessary for optimal athletic performance. Siekaniec notes that if you engage in vigorous exercise you may already have additional nutritional needs and may already be at risk of suffering nutritional deficiencies due to the physical demands of training. What happens when you drink too much too often is your liver cells can become inefficient at activating vitamin D, important for maintaining and developing muscle size and strength, and metabolizing vitamin B6, critical for supporting your nervous system, according to Siekaniec, and can reduce your ability to absorb vitamin B12, important for immune function, thiamin, which enables your body to use carbohydrates as energy, and folate, which is important for neurological functioning.

Oh yes and there this. Long-term alcohol abuse is associated with a high risk of developing cardiovascular disease, liver disease, and cancer, according to Siekaniec, completely reversing the health benefits of exercise.

So yeah, go ahead and celebrate your finish with a beer or two or a glass of wine or even a Cosmo, or a Hugo. Just make sure you’re keeping an eye on how much you’re drinking and when.

For additional information, see the National Strength and Conditioning Associations recommendations for rest and recovery.

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