Intoxicating Results: A Study of Athletes and Alcohol
I was enjoying a drink with friends the other night at a local bar when two people walk in who appeared as if they had just worked out. My first thought was to applaud them; I hadn’t worked out that day. However, this led my friends and me to an interesting discussion about how alcohol and athletics have begun to seemingly blend together. Tailgating before games, hitting a bar after a team workout, sanctioned races that end with parties, and celebrating victories with champagne have become the norm.
What’s even more interesting is that alcohol consumption is more prevalent among athletes than in those living a sedentary lifestyle. In fact, there is a positive relationship between the amounts one exercises and how much they drink. Yet, despite the normalcy, the concerns associated with alcohol abuse are not unwarranted. Many athletes tend to underestimate how alcohol consumption affects their fitness and athletic performance.
There are benefits associated with alcohol within the recommended limits. However, it is beyond those limits that the overwhelming amount of negative effects truly impact fitness. Understanding the relationship between alcohol and athletic performance is the first step towards creating and maintaining a healthy and social lifestyle.
1. Effect on weight gain
Alcohol’s effects on weight are always at the top of the list when discussing the negative effects of alcohol in conjunction with fitness. At 7 calories per gram and offering little nutritional value, alcohol is full of empty calories. However, the effects of alcohol on body composition and weight go much deeper than having to deal with the excess calories. The body prioritizes metabolizing alcohol above carbs and fats. This drastically decreases the rate at which the body burns fat; studies have shown that after consuming just 24g of alcohol the rate at which our body’s burn fat can decrease by as much as 73%.
2. Muscular Development & Recovery
Alcohol can also diminish or cancel the benefits of exercise on physical gain by affecting the body’s ability to build muscle and repair properly. This happens in a number of ways. First, alcohol disrupts sleep, which in return can lead to a 70% decrease in the body’s production of HGH, an important hormone in the muscle building and repair process. Second, the presence of alcohol in the body can also reduce testosterone and increase cortisol levels, creating a perfect storm of peril for anyone looking to build muscle, lose weight, or recover properly from a workout.
3. Disrupts sleep patterns
Sleep plays a restorative role that is vital to all aspects of your health, including fitness. There is a common misconception that alcohol helps our sleeping habits. While alcohol does reduce the time it takes to fall asleep it actually disturbs sleep in the second half of the night by increasing restlessness and wakefulness. Alcohol also shortens the REM cycle. This can cause fatigue throughout the day as well as poor concentration.
4. Nutrition, Dehydration, & Endurance
Not only is alcohol devoid of nutrients, it actually inhibits the body’s ability to absorb key nutrients. The body views alcohol as a toxin and its primary goal is to eliminate it from the body. Alcohol is dehydrating and acts as a diuretic because the body is desperately trying to excrete the alcohol as quickly as possible. This alone can hurt performance; as little as 2% dehydration has been shown to decreases endurance. This chemical response also interferes with energy production, meaning you may not be able to exercise at or maintain a high intensity workout following a night out.
Put simply, alcohol offers no benefits when it comes to fitness and while abstinence offers the best results for athletic performance, moderation is key if you are looking to improve physically. Consuming five or more alcoholic drinks can affect the body and brain activities for three days, and two consecutive nights of excessive drinking can affect you for five days. That means spending the weekend drinking will affect your workouts for the rest of the week.
Although you cannot eliminate the effects of alcohol consumption there are several ways you can reduce the negative impact it may have on your fitness. First and foremost, avoid excessive drinking and set limits before drinking. Drink in moderation, approximately two - three drinks for men and one - two for women. Second, make sure you eat a well-rounded meal after any workout and before drinking. It is extremely important to give your body the nutrition it needs to build and repair muscles before you drink alcohol and hinder your body’s ability to absorb nutrients and recover. Third, drink plenty of water before drinking, between drinks, and even more after drinking. Dehydration is one of the most detrimental effects alcohol has on the body and drinking as much or more water than alcoholic beverages is necessary to stay hydrated and counteract the presence of alcohol in the body.
It is important to note that this article has only discussed the affects alcohol can have on fitness and athletic performance, not on our health as a whole. There are many ways in which alcohol can play a role in your health outside of what has been mentioned. However, as an athlete, or fitness enthusiast, I encourage you to monitor you alcohol intake and take action to prevent the negative effects of alcohol consumption after you next night out. Remember, alcohol affects you long after your head hits the pillow at night, and could be the difference between just making it through your next workout or setting a new PR.