Impact of Alcohol on Athletic Performance
Carolyn Stocker is Chaski's own Registered Dietician. Carolyn currently teaches nutrition at UMASS Amherst and has an extensive background in sports nutrition. As a lifelong runner, Carolyn is a great resource with lots of knowledge about the influence of nutrition on athletic performance.
[Editor's Note: Chaski does not encourage the consumption of alcohol. This article only addresses the balance of moderate drinking and optimal athletic performance.]
Alcohol can be a great addition to social gatherings, celebrations, or just as a way to relax. As athletes, however, it is important to understand the ways that consuming alcohol can affect performance.
Overall Considerations: education is important!
You've probably learned this over and over in high school health class, but don't forget that everybody responds to alcohol differently and understanding the general facts around drinking is beneficial in deciding what is right for you.
What is considered one drink?
An average drink contains ~14g (0.6 fl. Oz.) of alcohol. This is equivalent to 12 oz. of 5% beer, 5 oz. of 12% wine, or 1.5 oz. of 40% distilled liquor.
How much can we consume?
Athletes can generally follow the USDA guidelines for alcohol consumption (up to one drink/day for women and two drinks/day for men) without any negative consequences. Excessive drinking is considered 4 or more drinks on any day or 8 or more drinks per week for women and 5 or more drinks on any day or 15 or more drinks per week for men.
Alcohol affects individuals differently.
Weight, sex, food consumed, drinking rate, and type of drink are different things to consider.
The more people weigh, the more body water they have, so the more dilute the alcohol in their blood is after consuming a given amount. Males have more body water and more stomach alcohol dehydrogenase activity so they have a lower blood alcohol level after consuming a given amount of alcohol than females of the same size. Hormone levels can also affect absorption, so tolerance in females can vary with their monthly cycle.
Food in the stomach slows alcohol absorption and, therefore, lowers the blood alcohol level. Always have food in your stomach when drinking, and try to prioritize whole foods like yogurt, salmon, eggs, etc. The body metabolizes alcohol slowly; as the number of drinks per hour increases, so will the blood alcohol level. Further, the amount of alcohol in a drink affects how fast the blood alcohol level rises. This means that there is a difference between drinking a glass of red wine with dinner and throwing a few back at your New Years Eve party!
Combining alcohol, which is a depressant, with caffeine (energy drinks, caffeinated soda, coffee), which is a stimulant, will mask the true effects of alcohol and may lead to drinking more than usual. Try to keep your morning coffee in the morning and alcohol at night (it's 5 o'clock somewhere isn't always the best motto to go by).
Given all of these factors, alcohol consumption can impact athletic performance if not managed correctly.
Excessive alcohol consumption can decrease performance and recovery for up to 3-5 days.
Dehydration. While hydration is always important to focus on, it is crucial to get your fluids in after drinking. Alcohol is a known diuretic which can cause dehydration and electrolyte imbalances. This may lead to an increase in cramps and muscle pulls or strains. It is always a good idea to drink water while drinking alcohol to stay on top of hydration.
Decrease in motor skills and increase in injury risk. Alcohol results in slower reaction times decreased hand-eye coordination, and balance which may result in an increased risk of injury.
Interferes with muscle gain and can result in a decrease in strength. Alcohol diminishes muscle protein synthesis which leads to a decrease in strength adaptations.
Depletes energy for muscles and decreases endurance performance. Alcohol leads to imbalances of water and our energy-yielding nutrients in our body thus decreasing the ability for the body to produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is the primary fuel for our working cells. Lower ATP production may lead to fatigue quicker and decrease lactate threshold.
Disrupts sleep and depresses the immune system. Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep is negatively impacted, leading to a lower rate of recovery from workouts, illness, and injury. Alcohol impairs the ability of our immune cells to fight off foreign substances and slows the recovery process by delaying healing.
Alters hormones. Increases cortisol, the stress hormone that influences metabolism, growth, digestion, and reproduction while decreasing human growth hormone (HGH) and testosterone which are key for muscle growth and repair.
Overall Health Effects
Nutrient deficiencies. Decreases vitamin and mineral absorption—specifically Thiamine (Vitamin B1), Vitamin B12, Folate, and Zinc. Alcohol consumption may also influence the food we choose to consume or replace a nutrient-dense meal.
Weight Gain. Alcohol has little to no nutritional value but is very energy-dense. On average, alcohol beverages contain 100-200 Calories with some mixed drinks exceeding 500 Calories. The energy provided from alcohol is converted to fat and stored, resulting in an increase in body fat.
Diseases. Over the long-term, chronic drinking can greatly damage the cardiovascular system, liver, pancreas, and increase the risk of dementia and mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety.
If you don’t drink, it is not necessary to start. You can always check out Athletic Brewing's non-alcoholic craft beers! Chaski Coach Maggie Fox is pictured enjoying a non-alcoholic beer this past summer. If you do drink, do so in moderation and take these points into consideration when weighing how drinking may impact your training, competition, recovery, and overall goals. Avoid or limit drinking for two days leading up to your events. For post-workout always consume a meal and rehydrate before alcohol consumption!
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2015 – 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th Edition. December 2015. Available at https://health.gov/our-work/food-nutrition/previous-dietary-guidelines/2015.
— Carolyn Stocker
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