Is Alcohol Slowing You Down?

Running and alcohol have often been linked in my life. I signed up for my first ultra marathon over a couple of beers. I agreed to run my first Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim under the influence of tequila. When I got into the 2017 Western States 100, my friends treated me to a congratulatory (or maybe consolatory) stiff drink.

Post-run boozing is almost ritualistic. The National Institute of Health reports that 28 percent of U.S. adults can be classified as “heavy drinkers.” And, as Harvard Medical School’s Michael Bierer noted, “people who exercise more also tend to drink more alcohol.”

Before completing Sober October last fall, I celebrated long runs with a mimosa (or three) instead of a post-run recovery shake. But when I called it quits, I noticed significant differences in how I felt.

Now that Spring racing season is getting closer, I’m thinking of giving up alcohol while training to give me an extra edge on race day. If you’re considering it too, here’s what you need to know about how alcohol affects athletic performance.

Nutritional Effects

Obviously, alcohol isn’t an essential part of anyone’s diet. But at around seven calories per gram, it can pack on the pounds. Alcohol’s caloric content is a significant factor for runners considering backing off from drink regularly.

Calories are one thing. But the way alcohol interacts with the body may be even more important. Our bodies metabolize alcohol as fat. The by-products of alcohol metabolism are converted to fatty acids, which are stored in the liver and sent to the bloodstream. Alcohol you drink raises the level of lipids in your blood and puts you at a risk for heart disease.

Alcohol consumption can also impair liver function and the body’s ability to absorb and store nutrients. Because alcohol often irritate the gastrointestinal tract, regular consumption can lead to a cycle of deficiency, a leading cause of injury and overtraining in athletes.

Effects on Recovery

Jakob Vingren, a professor of kinesiology at the University of North Texas, studied the impact of post-workout boozing on muscle growth and repair. He concluded that even only occasionally drinking immediately after hard workouts could sabotage your training. Vingren found that even low doses of alcohol can contribute to dehydration and compromise the body’s ability to repair from and adapt to workouts, especially if the beer replaces water and protein.

Giving up post workout drinks could leave you stronger, faster and more prepared on race day. It may also lead to higher quality sleep, especially if you tend to drink before bed regularly, which is key to muscle recovery.

How Drying Out Can Make You Faster

While eliminating your alcoholic beverage of choice won’t directly propel you to a personal best, cutting out booze may help you lose a few pounds. According to some estimates, being just a few pounds lighter can help to shave a few seconds per mile off your race time.

So, Should we Kiss Alcohol Goodbye?

Despite all the signs that alcohol may inhibit athletic performance, Vingren doesn’t see much harm if alcohol is consumed moderately. Unless your drinking causes you to skimp on refueling properly after your training runs, moderate drinking probably won’t have a noticeable effect on your race performance.

It can’t hurt though, so I’m going to give it a go.

“I certainly don’t see a benefit to drinking while training,” Vingren says. “And if you’re worried about whether it’s affecting you, it may be worth cutting out.