The Impact of Alcohol on Health, Performance, and Recovery
You might have encountered this dilemma before: you want to enjoy some drinks with friends, but you’re worried that the alcohol and extra calories might negatively affect your training. It’s difficult to weight the pros and cons in this situation if you aren’t familiar with the ways in which alcohol can affect your body. In this post I’ll cover how alcohol impacts different aspects of your health, athletic performance, and recovery. Hopefully this information can help you to make more informed decisions regarding your drinking habits and behaviors.
Impact of Alcohol on Health
The truth is I can’t tell you exactly how alcohol consumption will impact your health because everyone is different. There are several factors which influence the way alcohol is metabolized in your body including genetics, biological sex, body mass, nutritional status, activity level, and amount/timing of consumption (Barnes, 2014). Here I’ll give you a general overview of the science behind alcohol metabolism and how it affects health.
You probably already knew this one, but one of the most noticeable effects of alcohol is its ability to dehydrate you. Normally, a hormone called anti-diuretic hormone (ADH) helps your body to retain water and keep your cells well-hydrated and functioning properly. However, ethanol, the type of alcohol in drinks, blocks the effects of ADH leading to excess urination and dehydration (Shirreffs and Maughan, 2006).
Something you might not be aware of is the ability of alcohol to reduce strength and muscular endurance. Your skeletal muscle cells need calcium ions (Ca2+) to contract and generate force. Ethanol has been shown to block the entry of calcium ions into muscle cells, resulting in impaired muscular function (Cofàn et al., 2000).
Energy and Metabolism
Most cells in your body, including your muscle and brain cells, burn glucose (sugar) as their primary source of energy. That’s why it’s so important to consume enough carbohydrates to support your training regimen. Alcohol has been shown to reduce the ability of your cells to break down and metabolize sugars for energy. Not only does it reduce the amount of useable glucose in your body, it inhibits the ability of your cells to use the glucose that is available (Jorfeldt and Juhlin-Dannfelt, 1978).
Alcohol can be extremely calorically dense, especially when you mix in sugary drinks. These extra simple sugars and empty calories are easily metabolized by your body and stored as fat if not used immediately. Moreover, your body preferentially metabolizes alcohol, preventing it from metabolizing other, more beneficial nutrients as efficiently. This can lead to an increase in body fat, compromising your overall health and performance (Health.gov, 2018).
Alcohol is a well-known neurological depressant, meaning that it decreases your functional or nervous activity. While some athletes might use alcohol to calm their nerves before a difficult race or competition, it can also negatively affect balance, reaction time, visual capabilities, recognition, memory, and accuracy of fine motor skills (Suter and Shutz, 2008). Moreover, the ability of alcohol to reduce inhibitions means that you’re more likely to snack on unhealthy junk foods that you wouldn’t normally eat.
Impact of Alcohol on Performance and Recovery
Now that you have a general idea of how alcohol can affect your health, you might be wondering how this translates to athletic performance and recovery. Spoiler alert: it’s probably best not to drink immediately before or after training or competition.
Though studies on alcohol and athletic performance have produced mixed results, many have shown that alcohol consumption has a detrimental effect on performance. In one study, alcohol was shown to significantly increase running times in 200m, 400m, and 800m time trials, but not in the 100m trial. Moreover, researchers in this study found that there was a dose-dependent relationship between alcohol consumption and performance; i.e. more alcohol consumed led to a greater decrease in performance (McNaughton and Preece, 1986).
In another study, researchers compared cycling endurance performance between cyclists who consumed a small drink containing only about two tablespoons of ethanol (~30mL) and those who consumed a non-alcoholic drink. They found that alcohol induced a significant decrease in average cycling power output, oxygen consumption, carbon dioxide, and glucose oxidation and increase in heart rate and ratings of perceived exertion (Lecoultre and Shutz, 2009). These are only a couple of specific examples, but according to many studies, alcohol consumption appears to be detrimental to performance across the board.
Another important consideration for athletes is how alcohol might affect the recovery process. Some claim that beer is an appropriate post-workout recovery drink because of its carbohydrate and electrolyte content. However, beer does not contain nearly enough carbohydrates and electrolytes to recoup the amount of energy burned and water lost during a workout (Siekaniec, Claire, 2018).
Moreover, alcohol can actually inhibit the recovery process by further damaging muscles and preventing protein synthesis. Alcohol consumption has been shown to increase circulating levels of creatine kinase and pro-inflammatory cytokines, which are indicators of muscle tissue damage. Alcohol has also been shown to prevent glucose uptake into muscle cells, inhibiting protein synthesis and proper muscle recovery (Burke et al., 2003; Favier et al., 2008).
Summary and Recommendations
Drinking can be a great means of staying social and connecting with important people in your life. However, you don’t have to sacrifice your training and performance to partake in moderate alcohol consumption. Here are a few recommendations to minimize the negative effects of alcohol on your training.
- Avoid Drinking Immediately Before or After Your Workouts. This way you’ll minimize the negative effects of alcohol on your performance and recovery.
- Eat Before or While Drinking. Keeping your stomach filled, even if only partially, will slow the absorption of alcohol into your bloodstream.
- Fully Rehydrate and Refuel Before Drinking. If you’re planning on drinking after a workout, be sure to fill your body with the proper fluids and nutrients before you do.
- End with Water and/or Electrolytes.Rehydrating after drinking is crucial to ensure your body is able to recover and to avoid that dreaded hangover the following day.
- Always Drink in Moderation.Try to keep your drinking to one to two drinks a day for men, and one a day for women. Note that one “drink” equals 12 ounces of regular beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of hard liquor (80-proof).
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