15 Oct 2021
7 min read
Research shows most of us like a drink. When polled, just over half of adults had consumed alcohol in the preceding week. It was a slightly higher percentage of men versus women – with around one in 10 drinking on each of the previous five days. What is the alcohol affect on athletic performance, and particularly endurance sport and triathlon?
While we know it’s likely to be detrimental, is it as negative as many believe? And while it’s understandable that professional athletes might abstain, what about amateurs who care about their performance, but want to enjoy the social aspects too?
If you’re looking to justify your alcohol intake, the bad news is that there’s not many positives here. You could perhaps argue it quells the nerves the night before a big race and allows you to sleep better, but alcohol is proven to lower quality sleep and most sports psychologists will tell you nerves can be positive provided that adrenaline is directed in the right area.
On the other hand, the negative effects of alcohol create quite a list:
Alcohol can lead to dehydration, impair temperature regulation and accelerate fatigue. Research also suggests competing with a handover can decrease aerobic performance capacity by as much as 11%.
Alcohol slows your reaction time and negatively affects hand-eye coordination, balance and judgment, as well as stamina and strength, power and speed. Research has shown these effects can last for up to 72 hours before it is out of your system.
It delays essential muscle repair, so bad news for triathletes and endurance athletes who rely on the body regenerating to come back fitter and faster.
Often highly calorific, alcohol consumption can lead to increased body fat, accelerated because it temporarily halts the body’s lipid oxidation, meaning to struggle to use fat as an energy source. Its stimulant effect can also result in poor dietary choices and increased food consumption.
Alcohol both decreases vitamin and mineral absorption and utilises nutrients to help clear alcohol out of your system – leaving less available for other necessary body processes.
Alcohol can compromise the immune function and slow down the healing process.
Alcohol can mess with sleep patterns by reducing time spent in deep, restful sleep or the quality needed for recovery.
The amount of alcohol that it takes to affect athletic performance is different for each one of us. Your height, weight and sex are just some of the factors that play a part in how alcohol affects you.
While guidelines on drinking alcohol from the UK Chief Medical Officers suggest that men and women do not drink more than 14 units a week on a regular basis, this is with health concerns, not athletic performance in mind.
For those looking to compete, the more alcohol that is consumed in the days ahead of an event, the more it will negatively impact the performance.
There’s no right or wrong answer, and it largely depends on your personality type and relationship with alcohol.For some of us, one drink might rarely stop at one and abstaining completely might be part of the process of getting in the right headspace for training and the goal in a few weeks or months’ time. For others, having a glass or two of wine with an evening meal isn’t going to detract hugely from the next day’s training performance.
Mindset with regard to training consistency should be considered. If you change habits to forego every social occasion because you want to avoid the temptation of alcohol, workouts can become a chore, unenjoyable and ultimately won’t be performed optimally or even at all. Equally, often triathletes need to operate to strict schedules to meet their training demands, and alcohol is one of the easiest ways of derailing this.
Try not to ever use training as an excuse to be able to have an alcoholic drink. While diet is a key part of performance – and what you eat matters to fuel you for day-to-day life and competition – a reductionist approach to ‘calories out through exercise, calories in through alcohol’ isn’t helpful to optimise performance or our relationship with exercise and food.
There are no hard and fast rules about drinking alcohol ahead of competition, however, drinking in excess before you compete would be irresponsible. In the unlikely event of arriving at the race inebriated, the race director would be within their rights to stop you competing for safety reasons.
If you choose to drink alcohol, experts suggest avoiding anything in excess of low-volume drinking, for example, a single glass of red wine, for at least 48 hours before your event.
It’s personal preference when it comes to how you celebrate your achievements as long as you are of legal age and you’re in an establishment where alcohol isn’t prohibited.
If you’ve been living a monastic existence for months ahead of your endurance goal, no-one is going to begrudge you a celebratory drink in the aftermath.
But to make it more enjoyable – and avoid ill-effects the next day – consider fully rehydrating and refuelling first.This can be easier said than done as you’re on a post-event high, but your body will be depleted after racing and will thank you for some good quality carbs, fats and protein. It doesn’t have to be no-fun food. A good quality burger with all the trimmings, for example, can cover the necessary food groups and get your recovery underway.
While you could try to make a case for improved team spirit improving performance, there are probably less detrimental ways to achieve the camaraderie than drinking alcohol, so the overarching answer here is: No.
Professional athletes aren’t necessarily any different from amateurs when it comes to attitudes towards alcohol, although because their livelihood depends on results most are stricter in terms of the consumption, particularly ahead of competition.
Some will abstain completely, whereas others might have a glass of wine with dinner. Endurance athletes tend to have slighter physiques than the general population, so professionals realise that the chances are if they do drink to excess, the negative effect will be even greater.
There are more serious concerns than performance for those that drink too much alcohol because they are at greater risk of serious health conditions.
While most of us know alcohol can damage the liver, alcohol consumption is also linked to heart problems, high blood pressure, poor mental health, and seven types of cancer.
Taking personal responsibility is paramount, and this is going to be easier to do when sober as willpower tends to wane once we start to drink alcohol.
Plan ahead to understand the social situation you’re getting into. If you have an early evening social engagement, realise this might present an opportunity to drink more, and take necessary precautions, including pacing yourself.Don’t be frightened of telling others if you’re training and want to cut back on alcohol. Letting friends know will help their understanding and you might even plan social engagements that don’t include alcohol.
Eat before or during your night out as carbohydrate-rich foods helps replenish muscle fuel stores and slows down the rate at which alcohol can be absorbed into the bloodstream. Eating will also slow your drinking pace and mean you’re full more quickly and perhaps less craving of a drink.
Offering to be the designated driver can also be a smart move, as it automatically puts a block on any alcohol consumption. If you are drinking, either try not to get caught up in fast-paced rounds or let someone constantly top up your glass.
Finishing off the evening with water and rehydrating before sleep is also good practice.
It sounds a crafty idea, but unfortunately alcohol cannot be used as an energy substitute because unlike calories from the food we eat, your muscles aren’t able to use alcohol calories for fuel.
Calories from alcohol are not converted to glycogen, so aren’t a good source of energy for your body during exercise – instead your body instead converts the energy from alcohol into fatty acids and stores them in our fat tissue.
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