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Alcohol and Athletic Performance

Updated: Nov 20, 2023

While everyone can probably agree that alcohol is not good for athletic performance, how exactly does it impact it?


Football culture is intertwined with alcohol consumption. This is as true of professional clubs as it is of Sunday League—Arsenal had aTuesday Drinking Clubin the 80s–90s until Arsène Wenger put a stop to that. Only a couple of years later, Arsenal won their first Premier League title… correlation or causation? Okay, it’s a stretch to say that not drinking during the week caused success on the pitch; it’s more likely a marker indicative of how Wenger improved the professionalism of the club. But still, alcohol is something to be limited if you’re serious about performing your best.


A great example of correlation or causation: did the bird cause the bend in metal when it landed or are their positions just correlated with one another? Source: unknown.


Alcohol Impairs Energy Metabolism

Alcohol has been shown to reduce the rate that blood glucose—the best fuel for moderate- to high-intensity exercise—enters the muscles at rest (1), as well as during exercise (2). This may be particularly important if you drink after training or a match as you may store less glucose in your muscles during the recovery process, leading to less stored energy (glycogen) available for use during your next bout of exercise.


Indeed, this has been shown in another trial. In cyclists who drank alcohol with carbohydrates after a bout of exercise, they had less stored glycogen 8 hours after completion compared to when eating carbohydrates only (3). The amount of alcohol they consumed works out to be about *eight 330 mL bottles of beer. Going on the lash and consuming more than this may further worsen this effect—particularly a problem if you have training or a match soon after.


*the individuals were about 71 kg, so you would need more or less alcohol than given here to maintain the same blood concentration in this study if you are bigger or smaller, respectively


Alcohol Impairs Muscle Protein Synthesis

In a study of physically active males, the rate of muscle protein synthesis was 24% lower when participants were given a whey protein shake plus alcohol versus just a whey protein shake after a hard resistance training and cycling session (4). The amount of alcohol given works out to be about *nine 330 mL bottles of beer.


*the individuals were about 80 kg, so you would need more or less alcohol than given here to maintain the same blood concentration in this study if you are bigger or smaller, respectively


Again, this highlights the potential for impaired muscle recovery following training if you drink a lot of alcohol afterwards. From my time in college as an undergraduate student, heading out on the lash after a gym session was a very common occurrence. If your goal is to recover optimally, this should be limited, and less alcohol should be consumed when you do go out.


Advertisement for Carlsberg during an England match. (Source: Alcohol Health Alliance)


Alcohol Impairs Hydration

Alcohol is a diuretic, that is, a substance that promotes the increased production of urine. This means that alcohol increases the amount of water excreted from the body, which is not optimal for staying hydrated. When cyclists were given alcohol (1 L of 4% strength beer) the following morning after a hard evening session, they produced more urine compared to when they were given non-alcoholic beer instead (5). This effect may be more pronounced when higher levels of alcohol are consumed, as this study only gave what works out to be two 500 mL cans of beer, or a little less than two pints.


Summary

Research suggests that alcohol consumption offers virtually no benefits to performance, but a number of potential negatives. Here, we discussed the main factors through which it may worsen performance, but there are more mechanisms described in the literature, including adverse impacts on muscle function, thermoregulation, and neurological function (6). Whether performance would be meaningfully impacted by very moderate amounts of alcohol (e.g., one or two drinks in the evening) is less clear. Bottom line: enjoy alcohol responsibly; see drinkaware.ie for guidance on responsible drinking and alcohol support services, if necessary.


That’s it for January. If you have struggled to make your resolutions stick, read our first article of the month on how to make strategic action plans to finish the month on a high.


If you want to end January on a further positive note, become a member of Training121 by emailing us at [email protected].


Take care!


Patrick Elliott, BSc, MPH

Health and Nutrition Science Communication Officer at Training121

Founder of Just Health — Instagram: @just.health.info


Health Disclaimer: this article is for informational and educational purposes only, and is not a substitute for professional advice. For health advice, speak to a physician or other qualified health-care professional, and for nutrition advice, speak to a qualified nutrition professional (e.g., registered dietitian). The use of information on this site is solely at your own risk.


References

(1) Jorfeldt L, Juhlin-Dannfelt A. The influence of ethanol on splanchnic and skeletal muscle metabolism in man. Metabolism. 1978;27(1):97-106. Available at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/619229/


(2) Juhlin-Dannfelt A, Ahlborg G, Hagenfeldt L, Jorfeldt L, Felig P. Influence of ethanol on splanchnic and skeletal muscle substrate turnover during prolonged exercise in man. Am J Physiol. 1977;233(3):E195-E202. Available at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/910908/


(3) Burke LM, Collier GR, Broad EM, et al. Effect of alcohol intake on muscle glycogen storage after prolonged exercise. J Appl Physiol (1985). 2003;95(3):983-90. Available at: https://journals.physiology.org/doi/epdf/10.1152/japplphysiol.00115.2003


(4) Parr EB, Camera DM, Areta JL, et al. Alcohol ingestion impairs maximal post-exercise rates of myofibrillar protein synthesis following a single bout of concurrent training. PLoS One. 2014;9(2):e88384. Available at: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0088384


(5) Hobson RM, Maughan RJ. Hydration status and the diuretic action of a small dose of alcohol. Alcohol Alcohol. 2010;45(4):366-73. Available at: https://academic.oup.com/alcalc/article/45/4/366/155478


(6) Vella LD, Cameron-Smith D. Alcohol, athletic performance and recovery. Nutrients. 2010;2(8):781-9. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3257708/


Technical Terms

Glucose: All carbohydrates are broken down into this simple sugar molecule. It is the only sugar molecule that can be used to create energy (ATP) in the human body.


Glycogen: The stored version of glucose. When we eat carbohydrates, most is stored as glycogen in our muscles and liver.


Muscle Protein Synthesis: The process where muscle is built and repaired in the body.


Diuretic: Any substance that promotes diuresis, or urine production. All diuretics increase the excretion of water from the body, through the kidneys. On the other hand, an antidiuretic is an agent that reduces the excretion of water in urine.

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