With the festive season now behind us, many are turning their thoughts once again to training in preparation for spring and summer events. But do you have to turn your back on booze and live like a monk, or is there a happy medium where you can enjoy a few drinks after training without harming your recovery?

Government guidelines in the UK suggest no more than 14 units per week, equivalent to a standard glass of wine or a pint of lower strength (4%) beer every day for maintaining health. But do these suggestions also apply to athletes in training?

Effects of drinking on athletes

No one would be surprised to hear that alcohol has the potential to affect your recovery, and here are the ways in which it acts:

  1. Hydration

Alcohol is a diuretic, i.e. it makes you lose more fluid than the drink contains, and if not replaced will leave you feeling less than sparkling the next day.

  1. Refuelling

Replacement of glycogen, the preferred muscle fuel, is vital after exercise, but studies show it takes nearly twice as long to replace in athletes who have consumed alcohol.

  1. Muscle rebuilding

Alcohol suppresses the protein synthesis needed to repair & strengthen muscles, impairing your adaptation to training. It also increases post exercise muscle soreness (ouch!).

  1. Sleep

A drink or two might help you doze off more quickly if your mind is active, but most readers won’t be surprised to hear that alcohol interferes with your sleep quality.  Particularly REM sleep later in the night during which memories are stored (so it’s really not a cover up to say you can’t remember what happened last night). A follow-on consequence is reduced ability to concentrate next day, and an increased risk of injury in sports requiring precise coordination.

Alcohol and HRV

There aren’t many studies relating alcohol consumption and Heart Rate Variability, but one which does looked at the all-encompassing SDNN measure of HRV. They showed HRV declined with increasing weekly alcohol consumption:

The data shows a minimal impact for the recommended 2 small drinks per day, but by the time you get to twice that amount, HRV is reduced by ~10%. Doubling again reduces HRV by 25% compared to no alcohol. The researchers observed higher resting heart rates in heavier drinkers, also associated with higher risk of heart attacks and stroke.

How much can you drink without impacting your recovery?

A 2014 review study concluded that 0.5g per Kg of bodyweight was unlikely to impact recovery. This translates to 5 units (2 pints beer / glasses of wine) for an 80Kg athlete but only 3 units (1 large glass of wine) for a 50 Kg person.

There are several tips that can help minimise the impact of alcohol on your recovery:

  1. Try to leave as much time as possible between finishing training and having an alcoholic drink. Try to fit in a recovery drink with carbs in between (contrary to popular opinion, beer and wine don’t contain useful quantities of carbs for athletes).
  2. Drink water or soft drinks to reduce the effective alcohol concentration to 3%. That means alternating pints of beer with pints of water, or drinking 3 glasses of water for each glass of wine.
  3. Eat salty snacks. Studies have found reduced impact of alcohol when taken together with salt, as the salt helps you retain water.
  4. Pre-event abstinence. You’ve spent weeks and months preparing to give your best at a competition, so don’t jeopardise your performance by drinking in the 3-4 days leading up to it.

Summary

Whilst it’s clear that excess alcohol impacts your recovery in several respects, that doesn’t mean you have to be a party pooper and not enjoy a couple of drinks to be social after training or events.

The key things to remember are to pay sufficient attention to rehydration by drinking water or energy drinks before starting on the alcoholic drinks. Then try to make the effective alcohol intake equivalent to 3% by alternating regular strength beer with the same amount of water, and each glass of wine with 3x as much water or soft drinks.

References

Peak Performance Issue 357.

Sports Med. 2014 Jul;44(7):909-19. doi: 10.1007/s40279-014-0192-8.

Alcohol: impact on sports performance and recovery in male athletes.

Barnes MJ. Relations between alcohol consumption, heart rate, and heart rate variability in men. J M Ryan, L G Howes Heart 2002;88:641–642

 

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