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.
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:
|Increased risk of hypoglycemia||In prolonged exercise, hypoglycemia is more likely because alcohol suppresses liver gluconeogenesis|
|Increased heat loss||Hypoglycemia results in impairment of temperature regulation, particularly in cold environments|
|Reduced performance in middle- and long-distance running||As alcohol intake increases, performance deficits are seen in middle- and long-distance events|
|Reduced vertical jump height and sprint performance||A 6 percent reduction in vertical jump height and a 10 percent reduction in 80 m sprint performance|
|Adverse effect on concentration||Central nervous system effect|
|Adverse effect on visual perception||Central nervous system effect|
|Adverse effect on reaction time||Central nervous system effect|
|Adverse effect on coordination||Central nervous system effect|
|Increased risk of dehydration||Alcohol has a diuretic effect|
|Poor post-exercise glycogen recovery||Alcohol impairs carbohydrate status of the liver and may also impair muscle glycogen storage|
|Poor post-exercise recovery||Alcohol impairs the repair of injured tissues|
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.
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.