If you think all gym-goers are health fiends who either avoid drinking altogether or only indulge in the occasional tequila and soda or antioxidant-packed red wine, sip on this: According to a study from the University of Miami, frequent exercisers as a whole drink more than non-exercisers.
With the community surrounding fitness these days, the thought of athletes drinking alcohol post-workout isn’t all that surprising—obstacle course races reward finishers with a cold one, wine yoga is officially a thing, and boutique studios and CrossFit boxes alike are well-acquainted with the sound of corks popping for special events and in-studio happy hours. But do exercise and booze actually go together like rum and coke? Not to be a total buzzkill, but it turns out, not so much.
Your Body on Booze
To grasp how alcohol impacts us after exercise, we first need to understand how it affects our bodies in general. We can thank our livers for taking the brunt of it, as they’re responsible for breaking down and metabolizing toxins. But once alcohol enters our bloodstream through the stomach, it also touches nearly every other organ and system, explains registered dietitian and ACSM exercise physiologist Jim White.
“When you drink, your body expends energy on detoxifying itself rather than on more beneficial processes such as muscle repair, healing, and growth,” White says.
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And not to be a real party pooper, but that’s just the beginning. “Alcohol thins blood, kills brain cells, may have negative cardiovascular implications, and interferes with sleep—let’s not forget that sleep is critical in recovery,” says clinical psychologist and substance abuse expert John Mayer, Ph.D. As if all that isn’t sobering enough, there are also some reported negative effects on mood.
If none of that drove you into sobriety, let’s get to the question at hand: How long do you need to wait after a sweat session to drink alcohol?
Sweat Then Swig
While there’s not a ton of research on exactly how long after a workout you should wait to drink up, our experts agree that heading for the hooch straight after a HIIT class can counteract the hard work you just put in, so it’s best to wait at least an hour. “The most critical period for recovery is within a one-hour period after exercise, so you should definitely avoid drinking within this window and focus on replenishing electrolytes, rehydrating, and fueling correctly,” Mayer says.
But ideally, one hour between workouts and booze is the bare minimum. “If you can, it’s best to wait at least six hours,” White says. “So if you know you’re going to go out and drink on Saturday evening, try to get your workout done by noon.”
Marie Spano, RD, CSCS, agrees. “Research shows that alcohol can impact the rate of protein synthesis—which is basically the process by which your muscles grow and repair—so really, the longer you can go without it, the better,” she says.
When we work out, we’re creating micro tears in our muscles so that they repair and grow back stronger. So if you’re chugging a margarita post-HIIT class, the muscles worked during those zillion burpees might not actually repair—an essential step to reaping the benefits of your workout. Plus, studies also show that alcohol may decrease levels of human growth hormone (HGH), which helps the body build muscle. Oof.
All Things in Moderation
Whatever the timeline, if you do decide to booze it up, Mayer says serving size is the biggest thing to keep in mind. Two related studies from the Journal of Clinical Investigation compared the rate of liver protein synthesis in people consuming alcohol in different quantities.
One study found that the rate of synthesis was suppressed by 24 percent after people consumed 71 grams of pure alcohol (approximately five beers), but a second found that it was not suppressed when people consumed just 28 grams of alcohol, which is about the amount found in about two standard beers. And while neither study specifies time-after-pump, science certainly suggests that drinking upward of five beers impairs muscle growth and recovery.
Here’s the Chaser
So does being super serious about your workouts mean you have to swear off alcohol completely? That depends on your goals. Are you gunning for the Olympics? Athletes who consume alcohol at least once a week are more than twice as likely as non-drinkers to get injured, so maybe yeah, hold off on the mimosas at brunch. But let’s face it—that’s not gonna happen for most social butterflies who are just trying to stay in shape. And luckily there are things you can do to lighten the load on your precious machine of a body without quitting booze altogether.
“Eating and re-hydrating before drinking can help,” White says. “The best choices for fueling your body after exercise are protein and complex carbs. Your body needs protein to increase protein synthesis and carbohydrates to increase glycogen storage,” he says.
And while research is limited, one study published in Alcohol Journal did show that beverages with a higher concentration of alcohol had more dehydration effects. So drinking a beer with a lower alcohol percentage (like 3.5 percent) as opposed to some IPAs (that have upwards of 9 percent alcohol) may make a difference.
So if an after-gym pub crawl is your jam, just remember: If you refuel beforehand, drink in moderation, and wait a few hours after exercise, there’s little evidence that suggests you’ll completely undo your hard work at the gym.
“Just don’t let drinking become a reward mechanism for exercise. The joy of exercise should be the activity itself, not the alcohol after. It’s easy to fall into the mentality of ‘I work out to drink,’ but that ultimately doesn’t set you up for success in or out of the gym,” Mayer says.
Gabrielle Kassel is an an athleisure-wearing, adaptogen-taking, left-swiping, CrossFitting, New York-based writer with a knack for thinking about wellness-as-lifestyle. In her free time, she can be found reading self-help books, bench-pressing, or practicing hygge. Follow her on Instagram.