We've been taught that alcohol and sports don't go hand in hand. They say you can't be a successful athlete if you drink (alcohol). And yet we often see professional athletes with a bottle of booze in their hand.
When it comes to health, and not just sports performance, a positive influence that a moderate alcohol intake has on cardiovascular system is well documented. But that's another subject. In this article I will provide a short description on how alcohol influences sports performance, more specifically, recovery from training or competition.
There's different data on frequency and level of alcohol intake. According to some studies, athletes consume more alcohol than the „average“population (7). Also, there is data on the fact that alcohol makes for up to 5% of their daily energy intake (1). However, this data varies depending on the sport, country, and many other factors. There are few studies on the alcohol's effect on sports performance, because ethics committees do not easily approve these potentially dangerous experiments. (Imagine someone with 3 permilles of alcohol squatting 150 kilos). Negative effects were noted, affecting metabolism, muscles, nervous system, cardiovascular functions, and thermoregulation (3), but, when you transfer these to sports court, the results aren't unanimous. Some positive correlation has even been found with team sports performance, where alcohol consumption is an important component of „teambuilding“ and a method for resolving tension (2).
Consuming alcohol in the period of 8 hours post-training has a mild, statistically insignificant, slowing effect on glycogen resynthesis (6), and this effect disappears within 24 hours (8). Of course, this is relevant in conditions when in the same time period one ingested the quantity of carbs necessary for resynthesis. In practice, this would mean that alcohol won't have a negative effect on glycogen resynthesis if a person trains once a day. In these conditions, glycogen renewal is not that important because within a normal diet, glycogen can be fully restored within 24 hours. In case of two or more trainings a day, one must pay attention to glycogen resynthesis. In this case I would recommend minimizing the consumption of alcohol, and possibly to consume none at all.
Alcohol is a diuretic, meaning it enhances fluid release. For every gram of alcohol consumed, 10 ml of urine is released (4). The mechanism responsible for this is inhibition of ADH (anti-diuretic hormone), but this effect can be seen only when consuming beverages with the level of alcohol over 4% (5).
Protein synthesis (muscle mass)
Question that will interest many (all?) people trying to gain muscle mass, or at least, not lose it, is: „Does alcohol inhibit protein synthesis in muscles?“ In laymen's terms: „Can I have muscles if I drink“? The answer is: „yes“. Even though there is not plenty of research directly proving the effect of alcohol on protein synthesis, many athletes and bodybuilders drink (even a lot), and still progress in terms of strength and muscle mass. It's not the perfect evidence, but as we await lab confirmations, we'll just have to go with it.
Seeing as it works as a peripheral vasodilator – causes blood vessels to widen near the surface of the body – it has a negative effect on thermoregulation. This is particularly visible in cold conditions, where it enhances the loss of precious warmth (4).
In higher dosages, which, I hope, no one ingests just before or during training or competition, it has a negative effect on balance, reaction time, recognition, memory, and precision of motor skills (1). The video at the bottom of this article says it all.
An almost inevitable hangover day after alcohol enjoyment clearly compromises the performance, more specifically, its aerobic component (9). The effect on anaerobic component has not been noticed. Mechanisms of negative effect of hangover haven't been thoroughly explained, but they probably include dehydration, the acid-base imbalance, changes in glucose metabolism etc. (10) I wouldn't recommend getting drunk the day (night) before an important competition, especially the one that includes even the smallest component of endurance (aerobic metabolism).
While negative effects on endurance sports performance have been more or less well documented, most of literature doesn't point out a significant link between acute ingestion of alcohol and anaerobic performance (lifting weights, sprinting...). Interestingly enough, these studies, even though they are sparse, have been done while subjects were directly under the influence of alcohol (drunk). It would be fun to at least witness these studies, if not be a part of them.
Someone might get an impression that I advocate the consumption of alcohol among athletes. That's not true, of course. What I'm trying to do through my work is to demystify certain diet (and sport) habits and point out that things are generally not black and white.
In the end, who says you can't drink and compete?!
1. Burke, LM, Maughan, RJ (2002) Alcohol In sport. In: Sports Nutrition, Blackwell Science.
2. Martens, Matthew P., et al. "Development of the athlete drinking scale." Psychology of addictive behaviors 19.2 (2005): 158.
3. Suter, P. M., and Y. Schutz. "The effect of exercise, alcohol or both combined on health and physical performance." International Journal of Obesity 32 (2008): S48-S52.
4. Vella, Luke D., and David Cameron-Smith. "Alcohol, athletic performance and recovery." Nutrients 2.8 (2010): 781-789.
5. Shirreffs, Susan M., and Ronald J. Maughan. "Restoration of fluid balance after exercise-induced dehydration: effects of alcohol consumption." Journal of Applied Physiology 83.4 (1997): 1152-1158.
6. Jorfeldt, Lennart, and Anders Juhlin-Dannfelt. "The influence of ethanol on splanchnic and skeletal muscle metabolism in man." Metabolism 27.1 (1978): 97-106.
7. Lorente, Fabrice O., et al. "Alcohol use and intoxication in sport university students." Alcohol and Alcoholism 38.5 (2003): 427-430.
8. Burke, Louise M., et al. "Effect of alcohol intake on muscle glycogen storage after prolonged exercise." Journal of Applied Physiology 95.3 (2003): 983-990.
9. O’Brien, Conor P. "Alcohol and sport." Sports Medicine 15.2 (1993): 71-77.
10. Wiese, Jeffrey G., Michael G. Shlipak, and Warren S. Browner. "The alcohol hangover." Annals of internal medicine 132.11 (2000): 897-902.