How Does Alcohol Affect Fitness & Running Performance?

Oct 22, 2016   //   by Larry Maguire   //   Triathlon And Endurance Coaching  //  10 Comments  //  Affiliate Disclosure  

Put that beer down! OK, you don’t have to toss your beer. Enjoy it. But don’t forget to consider the effect of alcohol on the body. How does alcohol affect fitness after all?

I’m sorry to report that the late night G&Ts don’t do your performance any good at all. In fact, the research suggests that consuming alcohol is detrimental to performance and recovery.

Believe it or not though, for a time it was believed that alcohol in small amounts could help improve athletic performance!

Since then, many studies, including this one, titled Alcohol And It’s Effects On Sprint & Middle Distance Running found that alcohol is detrimental. Even if you usually drink moderately, but go wild to celebrate once in a while. That binge drinking makes a difference — and not a positive one.

How alcohol affects running performance

The effect of alcohol on the body

A 2006 paper by Susan M. Shirreffs, PhD at Loughborough University, found that small amounts of alcohol added to an athlete’s diet limited the the ability of the athlete’s liver and muscles to retain glycogen (an important energy store for your body) by almost 50% after eight hours.

That’s pretty significant.

So no matter what sport you do, this presents a significant problem. Other negative effects of alcohol consumption on the body include:

  • Reduced reaction time
  • Motor control impairment
  • Impaired judgement
  • Impaired memory
  • Disruption to sleep patterns
  • Liver function damage
  • Hypoglycemia
  • Raised blood pressure
  • Dehydration
  • Restricted ability for the heart’s to contract during exercise
  • Impaired body temperature regulation

The list goes on.

The effects of alcohol on recovery

Consuming large amounts of alcohol after an event — like when we celebrate a marathon with a few beers — can negatively affect our ability to recover.

You’re probably familiar with the marathon stairs test” right? You know the one. Your legs are so stiff and sore it’s like you’ve got two short planks down the legs of your pants making it impossible to climb the stairs. Forget about going down stairs in the normal fashion. Many a marathon runner has had to resort to sleeping on the living room couch for three days until they could bend their knees again! The effect of alcohol on the body will only make this worse.

Drinking your head off after the race might feel good in the moment, but it won’t aid your recovery one little bit.

One study observed that the alcohol actually causes additional inflammation, reducing the athlete’s ability to adequately recover from strenuous exercise.

To further explain, the folks at Boston University suggest that alcohol can affect the body’s ability to recover in the following ways:

  • Limits the body’s ability to absorb essential nutrients like B1, B12, Folic Acid and Zinc
  • Constricts aerobic metabolism
  • Alcohol sugars are converted into fatty acids (not good for recovery)
  • Lowers oxygen-carrying capacity in the blood
  • Alcohol causes dehydration which can exacerbate muscle strains and niggles

What About Non-Alcoholic Beer?

The folks at James’s Gate brewery in Dublin, home of Guinness and one the world’s most infamous drinking cultures (it’s OK, I’m Irish, I can slag myself off) have told us for years that “Guinness Is Good For You”.

Maybe they were right — to a degree anyway.

Research from 2011 suggests that non-alcoholic beer is good for reducing inflammation and upper respiratory tract infections in marathon runners.

A research team led by Johannes Scherr, M.D. studied 277 healthy male marathon runners participating in the Munich Marathon. They set out to determine whether non-alcoholic beer would show antioxidant, anti-pathogenic and anti-inflammatory properties in their study participants.

The study found that consuming a modest amount of non-alcoholic beer for three weeks before and two weeks after a marathon actually reduces post-race inflammation and the incidence of upper respiratory tract infections. “The naturally occurring polyphenolic compounds of non-alcoholic beer are responsible for fighting these common ailments in distance runners,” the researchers wrote.

Running after Drinking Alcohol

And if you’re worried about your health and performance, don’t even think about running a Beer Mile — that’s when runners race a mile, chugging a beer between each lap of the track. It’s all fun and games until someone has a cardiac arrest.

In the same study mentioned above, the researchers state that “alcohol consumption before exercise decreases myocardial contractility”. In other words, alcohol limits the ability of your heart to contract.

Now I don’t know about you, but that’s enough for me to decide that running after drinking alcohol, specifically downing a can of beer every 400 meters in an hard-run mile, is just a bad idea.

So… should you crack open another beer?

Hopefully I’ve answered the question ‘how does alcohol affect fitness?’. It seems there’s no doubt that alcohol negatively affects you fitness and running performance. I hope this post has gone some way to helping you understand the effect of alcohol on the body.

If you want to perform to your best and live a healthy and active life, there’s no place for over-indulgence in alcohol. Everything in moderation!

About The Author

Larry is an endurance running coach with over 80 Marathons and Ultra Marathons under his belt. He specialises working with marathon runners helping you lose excess body fat, improve strength & flexibility, and achieve your marathon time goals. Larry is the founder of The Smart Runner where you can catch weekly articles and podcasts on training, nutrition & positive mindset. Go grab your FREE copy of 123 Marathon Training, Nutrition & Mindset Tips Larry has prepared for Kinetic Revolution readers.

 

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10 Comments

  • Really interesting – thanks! Another great article

  • Cheers! 😀

  • As a 6.06 beer miler I completely disagree with the above argument. I train every day of the year to maximise my very limited ability. Should I be judged so enjoying a few beers after a hard race, a race I worked many weeks and months for and sacrificed so much for? Come on.

    Train hard, race even harder and above everything else enjoy yourself! Simple.

    • Hi Anthony,

      The good news is you’re not being judged, fire away and drink as much as you want to. We’re all big boys and girls and we get a choice in everything. However, the research doesn’t lie – alcohol and sport might be a good mix for advertisers and sports promoters but they are not a good mix for an athlete’s health.

  • Hi Larry,

    Thanks for your interesting article. A few remarks though: ‘Consuming large amounts of alcohol after an event — like when we celebrate a marathon with a few beers’
    Isn’t that a contradiction; large amounts of alcohol – celebrating with a few beers?
    You shouldn’t drink during sports or sport after you drank a lot of beer, wine or other alcoholics. But if a recreational runner drinks 2 or 3 beers after a half marathon I don’t think that’s that bad. If it influences the recovery I think it will be hardly notable.
    So, most of the article is right but it’s not written very well I would say. The parameters of the research you are mentioning are missing and so the conclusion are hard to verify or to value.

    • Hi Gerton,

      Thanks for your input – duly noted! However, sometimes when I write a piece for another publication there can be a differences between the original piece I write and the published version. I generally go for longer pieces and flesh things out a bit further on my site thesmartrunner.com. I think you’ll get well rounded view of how I write if you want to check that out. Thanks for reading!

      -Larry

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