How Alcohol Affects Athletic Performance

by Ashley Lauretta
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How Alcohol Affects Athletic Performance

Some athletes have alcohol endorsements. Others compete annually in the Flotrack Beer Mile World Championships. Michelob Ultra even markets itself as a light beer for hard athletes. Considering all of that, you’d think alcohol wouldn’t have a negative impact on your performance, right? Wrong.

After seeing a few runners I know take a “dry month” here or there and give up alcohol for 30 days, I wondered, should all runners give up alcohol? I talked to two trainers, who are nutrition specialists, to find out how alcohol affects running performance and what guidelines to follow should you decide a dry month isn’t for you.

HOW ALCOHOL AFFECTS YOUR PERFORMANCE

There are a number of ways alcohol affects the body and inhibits performance. It is important to note that this can vary from person to person, however, there are a few key ways your body processes alcohol that directly and indirectly affect how you run and recover.

“Everyone is affected by alcohol differently depending on many factors, including, but not limited to, the amount consumed on a regular basis, underlying health issues, medication — either prescribed or over-the-counter — and more,” explains Sharon Chamberlin, a certified personal trainer and fitness nutrition coach at Catalyst 4 Fitness. “With this being said, the simple answer is yes, alcohol will negatively affect running performance and any type of physical activity, both in the short term and the long term.”

One main way alcohol affects the body is commonly documented: Alcohol acts as a diuretic. According to Jennifer Weland, owner of Evolve Fitness and Coaching, this means that, while drinking, your body loses more fluid than it takes in (unless you consume it with enough non-alcoholic fluids). Because of this, you are at risk for dehydration, which comes with its own set of dangers for athletes.


READ MORE > WHAT A SERVING OF ALCOHOL LOOKS LIKE [INFOGRAPHIC]


Weland notes other key ways that alcohol affects performance, including making it more difficult for your body to convert energy from protein, carbohydrates and fats into power for your muscles. Alcohol also affects your central nervous system, dilates your blood vessels, impacts how you burn fat, messes with your hormones, throws off your sleep cycle and creates a lot of work for your liver.

“Alcohol is a priority fuel, meaning your body has to process and get rid of it immediately,” says Weland. “That means it can set aside important tasks like glycogen synthesis, a requirement for topping up glycogen stores — a crucial energy source that you need for endurance — in the liver and muscle tissue.”

Chamberlin echoes all of these effects, adding that your appetite will decrease, which could lead to not properly fueling your body to perform at its peak ability during a race. She notes that all of these effects are true no matter the type of alcohol.

WHAT ABOUT RED WINE?

But what about what you’ve heard about red wine being beneficial to the body? Is that just a myth? It comes with all of the effects mentioned above, but doctors have recommended it in moderation for individual consumption.

“Many doctors and publications have published information that a glass of red wine here or there can actually be beneficial; they cite antioxidants in red wine and dark beer that are thought to be protective against cancer and increases in HDL cholesterol [the good cholesterol] from moderate amounts of alcohol,” affirms Weland. “That being said, athletes have to decide if the trade-offs of drinking are worth it.”


READ MORE > IS BEER ACTUALLY A GOOD RECOVERY DRINK?


RULES OF CONSUMPTION

Should you not want to stop drinking completely, taking a dry month could still provide some benefits. Chamberlin notes that even this can lead to enhanced performance during training and races. Additionally, an overall better feeling of well-being may result.

For athletes who are unwilling to give up drinking entirely, Weland has a set of rules she advises her athletes to remember when drinking before and after exercise. They are:

  1. Choose wine and beer, not hard alcohol or mixed drinks. Limit the number of drinks to two or less.
  2. Drink at least one large glass of water for each alcoholic beverage to help stay hydrated.
  3. Watch your food intake while drinking. Stick to lean proteins and vegetables and avoid fatty foods and excess sugar. Some smart carbs like yams or beans are advisable to help your body top off glycogen stores.

“Liquor has a greater effect on the body than beer or wine,” Weland adds. “By virtue of the process used to make hard liquor, it typically has about 30% higher alcohol content and no diluting elements, such as water. Beer and wine do have diluting elements, and they are typically under 20%, with many under 10% alcohol by volume.”

Of course, the other advice is drink moderately, though Chamberlin notes the idea of “responsible consumption” is ambiguous. Each person has their own guidelines and, she adds, “even research studies can’t seem to agree on its meaning.” Because of this, Weland advises a two drink or less maximum, so the body doesn’t have to put as much effort into processing the alcohol.

If you choose to continue drinking during training and racing, following the rules Weland outlined above can diminish the effects on your performance and hopefully eliminate the need to completely wean your body off of alcohol for a month — or a few — at a time to salvage your season.

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  • Mark Kliethermes

    Hi. I deal with the stresses of life (excuse for drinking alcohol) and wonder what the balance should be. I wish i could simply quit but so far it has not been possible. Does anyone truly know and understand this issue? Do we need to do some studies for the various age groups? I am in.