Running and Alcohol: What You Need to Know
For many runners a post-race beer is as much a part of the racing experience as portaloos and energy chews. And while the occasional indulgence seems harmless enough, a number of athletes are abstaining for the purpose of better health and increased performance. So what exactly is the current consensus on running and alcohol? Is the occasional beer harmless? Or should it be avoided? Let’s have a look at what the experts have to say.
First things first
But before we delve a little deeper into the potential impacts of alcohol on athletic performance, let’s just remind ourselves that there are folks who should avoid tippling altogether. These include:
- Persons with a history of alcohol abuse
- Persons under the age of 21
- Individuals with coexisting conditions, for example those at risk of having a stroke
- Persons taking medication that could potentially interact with alcohol (confirm with your doctor if unsure)
- Individuals with altered liver function or liver cirrhosis
- Pregnant women
- Persons with altered or raised triglyceride levels
- Anyone driving or planning to drive
In addition, runners with Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes should be mindful that alcohol consumption may cause hypoglycemia.
Moderate vs. heavy alcohol consumption
So does this mean that not falling into one of these groups automatically gives you the green light to imbibe? Not necessarily. In addition to taking note of these risk groups, it’s also important to differentiate between heavy and moderate alcohol consumption.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans (2015 – 2020) regards up to one drink per day for women and up to two for men as moderate alcohol consumption. Heavy alcohol consumption, on the other hand, is defined as consuming more than four alcoholic drinks per day for men and more than three for women.
Heavy drinking can have devastating and even life-threatening consequences on both drinkers and their families. These consequences include, but are not limited to:
- Increased risk of violence
- Mental health problems
- Alcoholic hepatitis
- A wide range of cancers, including cancer of the liver, colon, rectum, esophagus, throat, mouth, larynx and breast
- Chronic disease of the heart muscle (i.e. cardiomyopathy)
- High blood pressure
- Fatty liver
- Nerve damage
- Impaired short- and long term cognitive function
In terms of athletic performance, heavy alcohol consumption has been directly linked to the rate of injury sustained at sporting events. It also logically appears to have a negative effect on exercise capacity.
The rather sobering statistics state that excessive drinking causes 88 000 deaths in the United States annually. This includes 1 out of 10 deaths for adults between the ages of 22 and 64. It was also estimated in 2006 that the economic cost of excessive drinking added up to US$224 billion in the United States that year.
It goes without saying that heavy alcohol consumption should be avoided at all costs.
The impacts of moderate alcohol consumption on athletic performance
So now that we’ve established that specific risk groups should abstain from drinking alcohol, and that heavy drinking should always be avoided, let’s have a look at the potential impacts of moderate alcohol consumption on athletic performance. These impacts are less severe than those for heavy drinking listed above, but are nonetheless quite a mouthful:
- Causing or contributing to dehydration, which, in turn, may contribute to muscle cramps, pulls, strains and general fatigue
- Interfering with or preventing quality sleep
- Slowing reaction time and reducing hand-eye coordination
- Interfering with the breakdown of lactic acid
- The ingestion of empty calories, which could lead to easy weight gain
- Decreased uptake of glucose and amino acids by the muscles
- Adverse impacts on the body’s energy supply and metabolism of vitamins and minerals
- Impairment of the body’s metabolic processes during exercise
- Possible perturbation of the body’s temperature regulation mechanisms
- Delayed recovery as a result of increased dehydration, interference with glycogen synthesis and impaired healing
- Decreased concentration
- Reduced sprint performance
Not all doom and gloom
And while this certainly doesn’t paint a rosy picture, there is also good news for those who like to crack that post-race beer. Research has linked the following health benefits to the moderate consumption of alcohol:
- Drinks containing antioxidants called polyphenols (e.g. red wine and dark beer) may provide some protection against certain cancers
- Potential protection against the thinning of the bones
- Moderate amounts of alcohol may raise HDL (or “good”) cholesterol and thereby provide protection against heart disease
- Alcohol consumption at moderate levels may reduce the risk of dementia in older adults
- Moderate wine consumption may reduce the risk of developing depression
- The moderate consumption of alcohol may impact the activation of the anti-thrombotic mechanism, thereby reducing the chance of dangerous blood clots
Keep in mind, though, that the Dietary Guidelines for Americans advise against taking up drinking if you’re a non-drinker. Even if it is to reap these perceived health benefits. Also keep in mind that a 2015 study published in The BMJ warns that the perceived benefits of moderate drinking may have been overestimated in the past.
So, taking all this into consideration, it appears that the onus is on you. If you want to avoid all the potential negative impacts of alcohol on both your body and your athletic performance (and there’s a bunch!), then steer clear. But, if you feel that these potential impacts are a small price to pay for indulging in that post-race beer, the choice is yours to make. Just remember that, if you do choose to indulge, moderation is key. Proper hydration in between drinks is also crucial, and make sure that you stick to the listed limits of moderate alcohol consumption. Never make heavy drinking a lifestyle and don’t drink and drive!
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