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Athletes and non-athletes alike consume alcohol as a means to celebrate, relax, relieve stress, or reduce inhibitions – maybe even all of the above.  

But when someone chooses to consume alcohol, as little as one drink can have a negative effect on performance. 

Now, this isn’t to say you should never pick up your favorite IPA or any other alcoholic beverage again. However, knowing the effects of alcohol on performance is important to help guide you in making decisions around drinking.

Of course the effects themselves vary depending on quantity and types of exercise, as well as genetics, overall body size and gender, but from an athletic performance standpoint, the acute use of alcohol can influence motor skills, hydration status, aerobic performance, as well as aspects of the recovery process. 

I mean, if you do drink, you’ve been there like I have, and the effects of even a few drinks at night are felt the next day, which is exacerbated the older we get. It can be as simple as a headache or fatigue but can last most of the next day, as recovering with the right fluids and foods can be a challenge, depending on how much alcohol you consumed.

And, no – the “magic” hangover pills or cures that are sold are not quite that magical. At the very least, if you do drink, enjoy a nice large glass (or more) of water before bed.

Now, back to alcohol since use is widespread in the realm of sports and for weekend warriors alike and ranges from the weekend warrior guzzling a beer after completing a 5k run to elite athletes popping champagne in the locker room after a championship win. 

Heck, there’s even a variety of alcohol focused “fun runs” these days where beer is the celebration throughout and again at the end. Who needs a sports drink when you can have a beer?

Alcohol metabolism is complex, and both short and long-term use affects most systems of the body. I’m not going to get into complex biochemistry and metabolism here, but bear with me for a moment.

Factors such as genetics, gender, amount of alcohol ingested, body mass, and nutrition status help explain the large variance in effects that alcohol has within and across individuals. 

From an athletic performance standpoint, the acute use of alcohol can influence motor skills, hydration status, aerobic performance, as well as aspects of the recovery process consequently, influencing subsequent training and competitions. Heck, it can also influence your mood, ability to perform at the office, and in life as a whole, so it’s not just physical performance that’s impacted.

Chronic alcohol use can lead to difficulty in managing body composition, nutritional deficiencies, and depressed immune function, resulting in increased risk of injury and prolonged healing and return-to-play. Now, again, this is more than a drink or two on a Friday or Saturday night, but having worked with athletes across a variety of sports, it’s important to spell out the big picture, because I’ve seen first-hand the highs and resultant lows.

If you currently drink alcohol, it’s of course important to do so moderately and safely.  And the Distilled Spirits industry recently updated their website with this information of what is a standard drink.

Take note of the ABV, particularly with beer, since some ABV’s – specifically with popular IPA’s, double and even triple IPA’s – can go as high as 12+%. That’s essentially equal to 2.5 full beers, but in just one drink.

  • 12 oz, 5% beer

  • 5 oz, 12% ABV wine

  • 1.5 oz, 40% ABV distilled spirits

  • 12 oz, 5% ABV ready to drink beverages (hard seltzers, hard kombucha, etc)

While the acute and chronic effects of alcohol are largely dose-dependent, chronic and heavy intake can increase one’s risk of long-term health effects such as cardiovascular disease, liver disease, and cancer.

Let’s get to specifics around exercise.

Alcohol and Performance

It doesn’t take a lot of alcohol for the acute side effects to set in. The acute side effects can result in depression of central nervous system activity, which can lead to compromised motor skills, decreased coordination, delayed reactions, diminished judgment, and impaired balance.

None of those would feel good on the field, the court, or when pumping iron.

Research wise there hasn’t been a ton done around specific effects, given the nature of that type of study – “here, do this shot and then go out and exercise. Now repeat again and again…”  

But, in the few studies that have examined this question, it’s been found that alcohol ingested prior to exercise led to a decrease in endurance performance because of how it affects the metabolism. Alcohol is metabolized above and beyond carbohydrates and fats, which are the preferred sources of energy.

Alcohol and Recovery

OK, so maybe suggesting you don’t drink before exercise is nothing new and likely not too common.  But what about the common post exercise drink, which is a much more likely scenario.

After exercise you need to replenish glycogen, stimulate muscle protein synthesis for growth and repair and replenish lost fluids. Alcohol hinders all of those.  

First, alcohol often replaces quality nutrition and hydrating liquids. Second, if someone drinks too much alcohol too close to bedtime, recovery will be further impaired because sleep will too, which is the ultimately recovery tool.

If training or performing the next day, recovery will be in the toilet, to say the least.  

Now what?

Again, this isn’t an article to say stop drinking. It’s more about suggesting you drink responsibly, limit the times you do, and if around activity, be wary of the effects. When in doubt, consider non-alcoholic options to set yourself up for max success. 

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