The effect of alcohol on the body is well documented. Not surprisingly, many scientists hypothesize that it harms athletic performance. However, science has struggled to clarify exactly if, how, and when alcohol negatively impacts your training and competition.
Athletic people are more likely to drink alcohol than others — from a glass of wine the night before a race to celebratory binge drinking after a big win.
The general effects of alcohol are well-researched, but its effect on athletes is tougher to unravel.
According to most research, alcohol in moderation doesn’t hurt athletic performance.
However, because each athlete's physical requirements and metabolism are unique, each person needs to decide for themselves how much is too much.
An anti-inflammatory diet and supplements may help reduce recovery time if an athlete drinks more than they had planned.
In addition, every athlete is unique with different sports, body types, metabolism, and drinking habits, making it difficult to offer a one-size-fits-all drinking recommendation.
Athletes and alcohol
Studies suggest that athletic people drink more alcohol than less active people. According to some studies, college athletes in the United States are 20% more likely to drink than their nonathletic peers.
For highly active people, alcohol is a way to celebrate, reward hard work, relax, and socialize with teammates and competitors. Some athletes believe alcohol increases confidence and aggressive performance. Others report it relaxes their tight, sore muscles after a workout or relieves pre-game jitters the night before.
The truth is alcohol may do all of these things for some athletes. Yet, if we’re honest, we know using alcohol to face the stresses, challenges, and recovery of competition is risky, especially when drinking alcohol provides very little benefit — if any — to athletic performance.
To decide if and how much they can drink, every athlete must carefully weigh their goals, sport, and health against the plentiful risks of frequent drinking.
Does alcohol hurt athletic performance?
Scientists are still testing and sifting data to understand alcohol's impact on athletic performance. It's challenging to separate the many variables and different alcohol doses to settle on definite conclusions. In addition, very few athletes overindulge during competition, leaving researchers largely uninterested in studying alcohol's impact right before or during competition.
Celebrating after a big win — often binge drinking — is much more common. Drinking a glass or shot of alcohol the night before competing is also popular. How does alcohol affect you if you drink it after a match or the night before one?
Drinking the night before a competition
First, the good news. The impact of drinking the night before competition or intense training to beat your personal record depends on the amount you drink and your body’s unique response to alcohol.
According to many experts and coaches, if drinking a glass of wine the night before a big race helps you relax and sleep, have at it. Even for many pros, red wine or another drink is part of their pre-game plan. After strict training and eating, drinking in moderation can be a reward or treat.
In the U.S., one standard drink is 0.6oz of pure alcohol, 12oz of beer, 5oz of wine, or a 1.5oz shot of spirits. For most people, one standard drink does not negatively affect athletic prowess.
However, some people are sensitive to certain ingredients in alcohol, like sugar, sulfites, gluten, or corn. One drink could kick off systemic inflammation, making them feel hungover the next day even if they didn’t enjoy a buzz.
In general, for athletes and non-athletes alike, drinking in moderation is key to managing the effects of alcohol. High levels of alcohol can negatively affect your performance the following day.
Alcohol most commonly impacts endurance. A small 2020 study tested recreationally active individuals the morning after a beverage with 1.09oz of ethanol (the kind of alcohol in alcoholic drinks) per kilogram of their weight. Subjects who drank alcohol became exhausted quicker during an intense morning workout than those who drank water only.
Another study tested rugby players the morning after drinking six to more than 20 beers. After the binge, the players reported slept only 1-3 hours that night. The drinking plus lack of sleep reduced their lower body power but didn't significantly impact other anaerobic exercises like sprinting.
Experts say alcohol seems to have less of an impact on strength and power than endurance, perhaps because alcohol impairs coordination and stresses the cardiovascular system more than it weakens muscles.
Since drinking heavily is more common after a competition, let's look at alcohol's effect on recovery.
Drinking after competition
For athletes, efficient and quick recovery is key to following a rigid training and competition schedule. One or two drinks to celebrate or unwind won't hinder most athletes' recovery.
However, while drinking more than the recommended daily allowance — two daily drinks for men and one for women — may not significantly impact strength, it affects recovery, protein metabolism, hormone production, and immune function. Furthermore, it may increase the risk of injury and decision-making.
Nutritionally, the goals of your post-workout recovery are to stimulate protein production, replenish glycogen (your glucose storehouse), and restore fluid balance.
The body stimulates muscle synthesis, known as myofibrillar protein synthesis (MPS), following an intense workout to repair and build muscle. High alcohol intake — about 12 standard drinks — has been shown to hinder MPS even with a high protein post-workout meal. This can hinder recovery and how your muscles adapt to training, known as muscle adaptation.
It’s unclear if alcohol directly hinders glycogen replenishment. However, if you drink alcohol instead of eating a nutrient-dense post-workout meal, you’ll certainly fail to replenish glycogen, protein, and electrolytes, making you feel worse the next day and recover more slowly.
As for rehydration, sorry, beer won’t do the trick after an intense workout or competition. To restore fluid balance, you need both water and electrolytes, and beer doesn’t provide enough electrolytes or other nutrients to replenish your needs.
Unsurprisingly, some scientists are interested in adding sodium to alcohol to improve its hydration power. However, the body needs more than sodium to restore your electrolyte balance thoroughly. After a hard workout, the body will lap up other electrolytes, too, like potassium, magnesium, and calcium.
Alcohol may impact your hormone balance as well. High doses of alcohol after resistance training may hinder muscle adaptation by increasing cortisol levels and decreasing testosterone secretion. One study found excessive drinking decreases the testosterone-to-cortisol ratio, which may interfere with long-term muscle building and training. On the flip side, however, the study also found that short-term muscle recovery was not affected.
As we all know, a night of overindulgence may cause you to stay out later, reducing sleep, increasing injury risk, and lengthening hangover recovery time. Studies say drinking too much also causes low blood sugar, overly dilated veins, and aggravates stomach irritation, all parts of hangover misery. No wonder research shows an approximate 11% decrease in aerobic ability during a hangover.
To manage recovery, it’s essential to address systemic inflammation, the biggest hangover culprit.
Best way to address a hangover
You need anti-inflammatory supplements to speed up your hangover recovery or prevent it altogether. In other words, you need to calm and feed your immune system, which goes into overdrive during a hangover.
Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall wrote an entertaining and helpful book called Hungover: The Morning After and One Man's Quest for the Cure. His hangover prevention plan centers on anti-inflammatory supplements best taken sometime after you're drunk but before you sleep — not an easy task.
Interestingly, his recommendations parallel research on anti-inflammatory diets and supplements. After much anecdotal experimentation, he takes the maximum recommended doses of vitamin B1, B6, and B12, n-acetyl-cysteine (NAC), and an anti-inflammatory oil like frankincense (Boswellia) or CBD.
Some doctors and experts also recommend adding magnesium — an essential mineral and electrolyte — to prevent and treat a hangover. In some forms, magnesium also helps relax tight, crampy, and overworked muscles.
Quercetin, curcumin, and resveratrol — all powerful antioxidants — also have well-documented anti-inflammatory effects, even for athletes. In fact, some people say red wine, packed with resveratrol found in grape skins, relaxes and soothes sore muscles. That's not surprising since alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, but red wine's effect on muscles may have more to do with resveratrol.
Of the many studied benefits of resveratrol, it appears to benefit smooth and skeletal muscles, reduce fatigue, and possibly improve exercise endurance. The preliminary results of one study in mice show that resveratrol helps promote capillary growth, which could explain some of its benefits on muscle performance, energy levels, and muscle relaxation.
Red wine fits the bill if the person is looking for a natural anti-inflammatory. However, more than one or two glasses are needed for complete recovery to experience real benefits. Additionally, drinking alcohol as a hangover remedy isn't recommended. Taking a supplement or adhering to an anti-inflammatory diet is better than relying on red wine.
Boutique clinics and mobile IV therapists offer impressive hangover remedies these days. They're not cheap, but for serious athletes whose binging got the better of them, they could be worth the money for a speedier recovery.
Creating an anti-inflammatory plan after drinking requires personal research and a little trial and error. However, the powerful effects of lowering inflammation with diet and supplements are worth the journey to find what works best.
Benefit vs. risk analysis
When it comes down to it, drinking alcohol is risky. It's a depressant and a toxin with a serious long-term impact on chronic users. However, based on widespread research, if one is going to drink, moderation is the healthiest choice — athlete or not.
Since everyone metabolizes alcohol differently, most people don't need the perfect scientific study to know how much they can drink. Instead, assessing the benefits and risks of drinking should be enough to decide when the risks outweigh the benefits.
To find out, assess your athletic goals and competition plans. Be honest about how well you moderate your drinking. Consider keeping a journal of how you feel and perform after drinking alcohol at different times in your training schedule or when you celebrate a win. Know the recommended guidelines for alcohol consumption. Research and create a particular hangover remedy that works for you.
Bring all these factors together to create a plan. Do your best to follow it and get help if you can’t. Your health and athletic joy aren’t worth the long-term dangers of alcohol addiction.
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