Why giving up alcohol does wonders for your performance.

Towards the end of January is a good time to talk about alcohol, hydration and performance because, after the festive period, many of us set a New Year's Resolution to lay off the booze. At least for a while. And now we're starting to miss it. Here's something to keep your motivation up...

 Athletes and Alcohol, an unlikely mix?

The relationship between alcohol and performance

There are stories of early Grand Tour riders using brandy, beer and champagne to help them through really long stages. Whilst these appear to be true, few people today would drink alcohol during exercise. (One notable exception is the Beer Mile - beermile.com - which does a fine job of blurring the line between drinking and competing, but I'd consider that a niche event...)

Instead, for most of us, alcohol is more likely to be part of the social scene around your sport. Research (1) suggests that drinking and physical activity actually go hand in hand for a lot of people (i.e. that those who exercise more, tend to drink more on the day of the event).

But, will having a few more drinks than normal harm performance? There's a few things to consider here...

1. Dehydration

This is always put forward as THE major reason that drinking is harmful to performance. And with good reason. It's said to occur because of the 'diuresis' caused by alcohol (i.e. consuming it makes you pee more).

One study (2) saw a distinct correlation between the amount of alcohol consumed and post-exercise urine output. i.e. booze does in fact increase fluid loss and therefore thwart rehydration efforts.

Correcting your fluid balance takes time and your performance may suffer in the meantime.

Drunk guy in a traffic cone

2. Muscle function and recovery
A ‘how did that traffic cone end up in my bed’ level of hangover affects motor skills and reaction speeds dramatically.Alcohol plays havoc with your neurological system so is really bad for any sport relying on those faculties.

But is there something more sinister going on too?

Studies (3) have shown that even moderate amounts of alcohol consumed after hard exercise can impair muscle recovery, which ought to hamper long term fitness gains from the exercise you’ve just done.

Alcohol also opens up your blood vessels (i.e. it's a ‘vasodilator’). It’s long been suggested that it can slow the healing of even minor injuries by increasing swelling in traumatized areas after exercise.

In other words, it seems likely that having a few drinks after training/competing is unlikely to do you too many favours in the short term!

3. Effect on body weight

Alcohol contains a hell of a lot of energy (7 calories per gram, compared with 4 from carbohydrates). So, whilst a single drink is not going to affect your waistline much, even a modest amount of alcohol in your diet can contribute to unwanted weight gain when tallied up.

More body fat is clearly not going to make you go faster and so here's a good reason to moderate your alcohol intake!

Lots of beer makes you fat.

How to rehydrate if you do treat yourself to a night on the tiles...

Enough with the negatives. If you just don't fancy going teetotal for life, what's the best way to minimize the detrimental effects of any drinks you do treat yourself to?

1. Moderation, moderation, moderation.

Of course, first up is the boring but powerful concept of ‘moderation’.

A lot of the issues around alcohol, hydration and performance are highly dependent on how much you're drinking.

Obvious, right?

Try telling yourself that next time you're contemplating a round of tequila slammers towards the end of the night! One good way to moderate is to plan ahead and nominate yourself as the designated driver...

Designated driver

2. Just add water. (and maybe some sodium...)
It really is a sensible idea to work some water into the mix whilst you’re out. If peer pressure is an issue, get the bartender to add in a few ice cubes and some mint and you've got yourself a mojito...

If you want to get really tactical take in something with quite a bit of sodium in it during the evening and/or before you go to bed. It's well proven that fluid retention and sodium content of drinks are closely linked (5).

(Disclaimer, I own an hydration business and, surprisingly enough, a pint of our own H2Pro Hydrate 1500 is the solution of choice in the Precision Hydration office!).

Whilst this is not going to make the problem go away completely, it may just take the edge off. I think Team Sky calls that sort of thing a 'Marginal gain'...

3. Plan accordingly (and be realistic)

Plan your training around any big nights out (or vice versa depending on your priorities), so that you’re not having to try to do anything super strenuous the morning after the night before.


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