Emily Brown

Written by Emily Brown

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Should a Runner Drink Alcohol? Evaluating the research on the Health, Training and Performance Effects

Alcohol is widely consumed by a large part of the world’s population, and the literature on the topic shows that alcohol is also consumed by a significant number of athletes ranging across all sports.

In endurance sports, alcohol is a very common component of post-event celebrations as evidenced by post-race beer tents, free drink vouchers on bib numbers, or casual meetings at a local bar or restaurant following an event.

I’ve been in the sport for awhile and I know a great deal of runners, myself included, who enjoy their beer or wine after a hard effort out on the roads or on the track. It signifies a reward for all of the training you’ve done or how well you raced and is also an opportunity to socialize with other runners off the race course.

As common as alcohol consumption is, there is little research and education out there on how alcohol may affect endurance performance and recovery.

While there are some health benefits that may be associated with moderate alcohol consumption, there are other factors related to alcohol that runners should keep in mind the next time they reach for a cold one.

The nutritive value of alcohol

Alcohol is not an essential part of the diet, however, at seven calories per gram, its energy contribution is significant, but not in the beneficial way that carbohydrates, protein and fat energy is utilized.

Alcohol is metabolized in the body as fat. The by-products of alcohol metabolism are converted to fatty acids, which are stored in the liver and sent to the bloodstream. The more alcohol you drink, the more you raise the level of lipids in your blood, which is a risk factor for heart disease (discussed later).

A significant factor for runners who drink alcohol  moderately or regularly is the caloric content of alcohol:

  • 12 oz. of beer (~150 calories)
  • 4 oz. of wine (~100 calories)
  • 1.25 oz. of liquor (~100 calories)

Mixing liquor with sugar sweetened beverages and other types of mixers add significantly to the caloric content of the drink.

The nutritional effects of drinking alcohol

Alcohol inhibits the normal metabolism of vitamins, minerals, and the main energy substrates.

It does this by acting as an “anti-nutrient” — inhibiting the conversion of B vitamins to their active co-enzymes involved in generating energy from carbohydrates, protein and fat.

Furthermore, alcohol can irritate the gastrointestinal tract and cause the malabsorption of nutrients, which may cause a cycle of deficiency with regular consumption unless additional nutrients are consumed concurrently because in order to repair damage and counteract the malabsorption, the nutrient requirements increase.

Lastly, alcohol consumption can impair liver function and thus interfere with the normal metabolism and storage of nutrients.

Mineral depletion is also a concern. Alcohol is a diuretic that increases the urinary excretion of calcium and magnesium. We already know that calcium is essential for maintain adequate bone health and preventing stress fractures and osteoporosis.

Magnesium is important because it is a co-factor for many of the enzymes involved in transferring phosphate groups to produce ATP (energy). Increased magnesium excretion in sweat can result in an increase in muscle cramps, weakness, and cardiac arrhythmias (note this is usual only an issue in those who regularly overconsume alcohol).

Alcohol and cardiovascular health

Benefits of alcohol consumption on cardiovascular health

  • A great deal of observational studies suggest that total mortality, or risk of death, may be reduced in individuals who consume one or two alcoholic drinks per day.
  • Choices may include red wine and dark beer that contain certain antioxidants called polyphenols, which are thought to be protective against cancer.
  • Moderate amounts of alcohol can also raise HDL cholesterol, which is the good cholesterol that helps protect against heart disease.
  • Furthermore, alcohol may influence have an influence on activating the anti-thrombotic mechanism, which reduces the development of dangerous blood clots.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends no more than one drink per day for women and two drinks for men to reap the health benefits of alcohol without risking the negative health effects associated with heavier drinking.

In fact, alcohol’s association with mortality exists on a J-shaped curve, meaning that mortality increases along the consumption of 3 or more drinks per day.

Harmful effects of alcohol consumption on cardiovascular health

  • Too much alcohol consumed regularly can increase your risk of heart disease by raising your blood pressure and blood lipids to harmful levels.
  • It can also increase risk of stroke, liver damage, and cancers of the mouth, esophagus, stomach, liver, breast and colon.

Effect of alcohol on recovery

Consuming alcohol too soon after a hard training session or race can impede your recovery because it can contribute to and exacerbate dehydration, interfere with glycogen synthesis, and impair healing.

As mentioned earlier, alcohol is a diuretic, so it causes your body to lose more fluid than it takes in when drinking it without adequate non-alcoholic fluids.  The resulting dehydration can leave you feeling tired, sick, and sore the next day.

Alcohol may also interfere with glycogen synthesis, since alcohol’s effect on the liver dramatically inhibits the resynthesis of glycogen stores and may also impair muscle glycogen storage.

Some research has shown that it takes nearly twice as long to replace glycogen stores in athletes who have consumed alcoholcompared to those who have not.

However, this may also be due to the displacement of carbohydrate intake in favor of alcohol intake. Contrary to popular belief, beer and wine are not significant sources of carbohydrates and contribute very little to carbohydrate reloading following exercise.

Injury repair

Finally alcohol may impair healing from muscle soreness or acute injury. This is because alcohol is a blood vessel dilator.

With injury or soreness and athlete will usually ice the affected area to constrict the blood vessels and reduce swelling and/or bleeding.

Alcohol does the opposite of this, which impairs healing and increases the amount of time an injury may take to heal.

Performance issues for athletes who drink alcohol

The following is a chart summarizing the findings:

EffectConsequence
Increased risk of hypoglycemiaIn prolonged exercise, hypoglycemia is more likely because alcohol suppresses liver gluconeogenesis
Increased heat lossHypoglycemia results in impairment of temperature regulation, particularly in cold environments
Reduced performance in middle- and long-distance runningAs alcohol intake increases, performance deficits are seen in middle- and long-distance events
Reduced vertical jump height and sprint performanceA 6 percent reduction in vertical jump height and a 10 percent reduction in 80 m sprint performance
Adverse effect on concentrationCentral nervous system effect
Adverse effect on visual perceptionCentral nervous system effect
Adverse effect on reaction timeCentral nervous system effect
Adverse effect on coordinationCentral nervous system effect
Increased risk of dehydrationAlcohol has a diuretic effect
Poor post-exercise glycogen recoveryAlcohol impairs carbohydrate status of the liver and may also impair muscle glycogen storage
Poor post-exercise recoveryAlcohol impairs the repair of injured tissues

In summary

Alcohol is widely consumed by a large number of athletes just as it is in the general population.

Although athletes have special concerns regarding alcohol, including its effect on recovery from exercise and injury, moderate alcohol consumption (1-2) will have a less negative effect than heavier drinking (three or more).

If you choose to drink alcohol, take special care to meet your recovery needs with adequate carbohydrates and fluids first as early as possible, and, as always, drink responsibly and plan for a safe ride home.

References

Shirreffs SM, Maughan RJ. The effect of alcohol on athletic performance. Curr Sprt Med Rep 2006, 5:192-196.

Burke LM, Collier GR, Broad EM, et al. Effect of alcohol intake on muscle glycogen storage after prolonged exercise. J Apple Physiol 2003, 95:983-990.

Clarkson PM, Reichsman F. The effect of ethanol on exercise-induced muscle damage. J Stud Alcohol 1990, 51:19-23.

Benardot, Dan. Advanced Sports Nutrition, 2nd ed. Human Kinetics,  2012.

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References

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2 Responses on “Should a Runner Drink Alcohol? Evaluating the research on the Health, Training and Performance Effects

  1. I am really inspired together with your writing talents and also with the layouht in yoyr blog.
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  2. In your chart above, “Performance issues for athletes who drink alcohol,” I wonder whether these findings are quite what you say. That is, are these not the results of when people actually have alcohol in their systems? There are lots of studies testing the effects of alcohol consumption on performance, where athletes are performing just after ingesting the alcohol. (At one time alcohol was thought to be a performance enhancer, thus the studies.) But this is quite a different question from what most people ask now, since most people aren’t stopping in for a pint or two on the way to the 5K and wondering whether that will affect their time. More accurately, Are there effects of alcohol use on performance after it has been metabolized, say, after a night of sleep or a couple days of not drinking? There’s an interesting study on performance the day after and 2 days after heavy alcohol consumption by rugby players below. Of course, the effects they tested may not all be relevant to distance running, but it’s still an interesting study. Anyway, mostly I’m curious whether the title to your chart should be, “Performance issues for athletes who drink alcohol immediately before physical activity.”

    J Sci Med Sport. 2015 May;18(3):268-71. doi: 10.1016/j.jsams.2014.04.009. Epub 2014 Apr 26.
    Effects of heavy episodic drinking on physical performance in club level rugby union players.
    Prentice C1, Stannard SR1, Barnes MJ2.

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