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Why Alcohol and Exercise Don't Mix

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Big-time boozing is the drug of choice for some athletes [1]. But "don’t drink and drive” shouldn't just apply behind the wheel — it applies on the field, too. Alcohol can negatively impact what happens both on and off the court, impairing performance and strength even after there's been time to sober up [2] [3].

Boozin’ Blues — The Need-to-Know

Photo by Aleksandra Flora

To play up to par (or even birdie!), athletes need energy. But a few brewskies can cause us to lose that athletic oomph: Alcohol can't be stored as energy in the muscles (since it’s not a nutrient), so it's stored as fat instead [4]. (Sup, beer belly?) Alcohol’s effect on the liver can also cause a shortage of oxygen, which interferes with the production of adenosine triphosphate synthesis (ATP) — a direct energy source for muscles [5].

Booze should also hit the penalty box for interference, since it gets in the way of metabolizing carbohydrates used for energy. Studies have (sadly) discovered drinking alcohol right before working out can inhibit the circulation of glucose, which the body uses for energy [6]. (So don’t use margaritas for a mid-workout boost.) Sippin’ on gin and juice can cause the pancreas to secrete its digestive enzymes inside itself rather than sending them to the intestine to digest nutrients properly. (Yikes!) This can inflame the pancreas and halt transportation of key nutrients — like thiamin, folic acid, and zinc — to the bloodstream [7].

It’s no surprise that working out while dehydrated isn't ideal and — shocker! —alcohol can lead to dehydration. This can not only prolong muscle recovery (due to decreased blood flow in the muscles) but can also increase risk of heat-related illnesses like heat stroke [8] [9] [10] [11].

A third strike? Alcohol can also negate all that work in the weight room. While studies on humans have been harder to execute (most participants don't take well to the suggestion of chugging a few beers before hitting the squat rack…), alcohol has proved to diminish protein synthesis in rats, which stops muscle growth by preventing the repair of damaged muscles [12]. Hitting the bottle may also decrease levels of human growth hormone (HGH), which helps the body build muscle [13]. Our favorite cocktails may even interfere with protein digestion and absorption. Looks like post-workout protein can’t fix everything.

No Wine, No Whining — Your Action Plan

Survey says: It’s best to skip out on the drinks before working out. Alcohol can linger in the blood even after a good night's rest (and even after the "seal" is broken), so ban the booze at least a day before the big game. As for being intoxicated during exercise, that’s clearly a no (go) brainer: Alcohol affects judgment and coordination, making anything from completing a play to finishing a rep a difficult and dangerous task. Alcohol’s diuretic effect also increases the need to urinate, resulting in the loss of electrolytes. Sorry guys, but it looks like a beer mile is probably not the best idea. As for those beers to celebrate the big win, the biggest sacrifice is the quality of muscle recovery, which could hinder that next step up to the plate [14].

Still, it’s not all bad news. In moderation (the "one for women, two for men" drink rule works well), alcohol may be okay. Another study found that a small (think one shot or less) OJ and vodka had no negative effect on muscle recovery [15]. And in general, some sips could increase HDL cholesterol (the good kind!), reduce insulin resistance to protect the heart, and even reduce stress [16] [17]. So perhaps stick to a drink or two a few days before the big race, then refocus on carbo-loading without the beer.

This article has been verified by Greatist Experts Jason Edmonds and Jenn Cassetty

I'm the marketing director at Greatist, and when I'm not hanging at HQ with my best buds (aka co-workers...) you can find me training for... Read More »

Works Cited

  1. Interaction between alcohol and exercise: physiological and haematological implications. El-Sayed, M.S., Ali, N., El-Sayed A. Faculty of Science, Liverpool John Moores University, Liverpool, UK. Sports Medicine, 2005;35(3):257-69.
  2. The effect of exercise, alcohol or both combined on health and physical performance. Suter, P.M., Schutz, Y. Department of Medicine, Clinic and Policlinic, University Hospital, Zurich, Switzerland. International Journal of Obesity, 2008 Dec;32 Suppl 6:S48-52.
  3. The effect of alcohol on athletic performance. Shirreffs, S.M., Maughan, R.J. School of Sport and Exercise Sciences, Loughborough University, Leicestershire, UK. Currents Sports Medicine Reports, 2006 Jun;5(4):192-6.
  4. Interaction between alcohol and exercise: physiological and haematological implications. El-Sayed, M.S., Ali, N., El-Sayed, A.Z. Faculty of Science, Liverpool John Moores University, Liverpool, UK. Sports Medicine, 2005;35(3):257-69.
  5. Correlation between adenosine triphosphate content and apoptosis in liver of rats treated with alcohol. Fukumura, A., Tsutsumi, M., Tsuchishima, M., et al. Division of Gastroenterology, Department of Internal Medicine, Kanazawa Medical University, Ishikawa, Japan. Alcoholism, Clinical, and Experimental Research, 2003 Aug;27(8 Suppl):12S-5S.
  6. Carbohydrate ingestion during prolonged exercise: effects on metabolism and performance. Coggan, A.R., Coyle, E.F. Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews, 1991;19:1-40.
  7. Human pancreatic digestive enzymes. Whitcomb, D.C., Lowe, M.E.  Department of Medicine, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Digestive Diseases and Sciences, 2007 Jan;52(1):1-17.
  8. The effect of glycerol and desmopressin on exercise performance and hydration in triathletes. Inder, W.J., Swanney, M.P., Donald, R.A., et al. Department of Endocrinology, Christchurch Hospital, New Zealand. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 1998 Aug;30(8):1263-9.
  9. Dehydration and symptoms of delayed-onset muscle soreness in hyperthermic males. Cleary, M.A., Sweeney, L.A., Kendrick, Z.V., et al. Department of Health, Physical Education, and Recreation, Florida International University, Miami, FL. Journal of Athletic Training, 2005 Oct-Dec;40(4):288-97.
  10. National athletic trainers' association position statement: fluid replacement for athletes. Casa, D.J., Armstrong, L.E., Hillman, S.K., et al. University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT. Journal of Athletic Training, 2000 Apr;35(2):212-24.
  11. Muscle blood flow is reduced with dehydration during prolonged exercise in humans. Gonzalez-Alonso, J., Calbet, J.A., Nielsen, B. Human Physiology Department, August Krogh Institute, University of Copenhagen, DK-2100 Copenhagen O, Denmark. The Journal of Physiology, 1998 Dec 15;513 ( Pt 3):895-905.
  12. Alcohol-induced decrease in muscle protein synthesis associated with increased binding of mTOR and raptor: Comparable effects in young and mature rats. Lang, C.H., Pruznak, A.M., Nystrom, G.J., et al. Department of Cellular and Molecular Physiology, The Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine, Hershey, PA. Nutrition & Metabolism, 2009 Jan 20;6:4.
  13. The exercise-induced growth hormone response in athletes. Godfrey, R.J., Madgwick, Z., Whyte, G.P. Brunel University, Uxbridge, Middlesex, UK. Sports Medicine, 2003;33(8):599-613.
  14. Post-exercise alcohol ingestion exacerbates eccentric-exercise induced losses in performance. Barnes MJ, Mündel T, Stannard SR. Institute of Food, Nutrition, and Human Health, Massey University, Private Bag 11-222, Palmerston North, New Zealand European Journal of Applied Physiology. 2010 March;108(5):1009-14. Epub 2009 Dec 11.
  15. A low dose of alcohol does not impact skeletal muscle performance after exercise-induced muscle damage. Barnes MJ, Mündel T, Stannard SR. Institute of Food, Nutrition, and Human Health, Massey University, Private Bag 11-222, Palmerston North, New Zealand. European Journal of Applied Physiology. 2011 Apr;111(4):725-9. Epub 2010 Sep 28.
  16. Alcohol consumption raises HDL cholesterol levels by increasing the transport rate of apolipoproteins A-I and A-II. De Oliveira, E., Foster, D., McGee H.M., et al. Rockefeller University, New York, NY. Circulation, 2000 Nov 7;102(19):2347-52.
  17. Alcohol consumption and insulin resistance in young adults. Flanagan, D.E., Moore, V.M., Godsland, I.F. University of Southampton, Southampton; Imperial College School of Medicine, London, UK. The European Journal of Clinical Investigation, 2000 Apr;30(4):297-301.