It probably goes without saying that not drinking alcohol is generally beneficial to your health and performance. It's not always easy to say 'no' though, so we thought it was worth highlighting some key points about alcohol's effects on performance that might help you make decisions about whether to indulge or not...
The relationship between alcohol and performance
There are stories of early Grand Tour bike riders using brandy, beer and champagne to help them through really long stages. Whilst there is little doubt these tales are true, I think it's fair to say that few people today would drink alcohol during exercise as a matter of course or to enhance performance.
(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 far more likely to be part of the social scene around sport.
Some research points to the idea that drinking and physical activity might actually go hand in hand for a lot of people (i.e. that those who exercise more, tend to drink a bit more on the day of an event / session than non-exercisers).
But, will having a few more drinks than normal harm performance? There's a few things to consider here.
Alcohol and dehydration
This is always put forward as a major reason that drinking is harmful to performance. And with good reason. It occurs because of the diuresis caused by alcohol (i.e. consuming it makes you pee more) so you end up in a negative fluid balance more easily if you consume a lot of it.
This study reported a correlation between the amount of alcohol consumed and post-exercise urine output. i.e. boozing increased fluid losses and therefore thwarted rehydration efforts. Of course in the real world anyone who has had a night on the town and woken up the following morning with a mouth as dry as a camel's flip flop will find it hard to argue with their findings.
The bottom line on this one is that your fluid balance post exercise is an important part of the overall recovery process and takes time if sweat losses have been significant. Therefore your performance may well suffer in the meantime if you hamper the process further by putting alcohol in when water or an electrolyte drink is actually what's needed.
Alcohol, muscle function and recovery
A ‘how did that traffic cone end up in my bed’ level of hangover clearly 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 deeper going on too?
Studies 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 this attribute can slow the healing of even minor injuries by increasing swelling in traumatised areas after exercise.
In other words, it seems likely that having a few drinks directly after training/competing is unlikely to do you too many favours in the short term or medium term when it comes to locking in or maximising the gains from your hard work.
Alcohol and body weight
Alcohol contains a hell of a lot of energy (7 calories per gram, compared with 4 from carbohydrates) and it has other effects such as altering your metabolism. Jack from Porsche Human Performance delves into alcohol's effects on your waistline in more detail in a guest blog for us, so I won't dive into that further here. But, it's safe to say that even a modest amount of alcohol in your diet can contribute to unwanted weight gain.
More body fat is clearly not going to make you go faster and so here's a good reason to moderate your alcohol intake on its own.
Enough with the negatives for now though...
How to reduce alcohol's impact on your performance
If you just don't fancy going 100% teetotal for life, what's the best way to minimise the potential 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 extremely dependent on how much you're drinking.
Try telling yourself that next time you're contemplating a round of tequila slammers towards the end of the night. In that respect one good way to 'moderate' is to plan ahead and nominate yourself as the designated driver from time to time at least....
2. Just add water (and maybe some sodium...)
To help counter the dehydrating effects of booze it really is a sensible idea to work some water into the mix whilst you’re out on the town. As boring as it seems 1 water in every 2-3 rounds of 'proper' drinks can make a big difference.
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 a drink 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 and that might do something to take the edge off your headache the next morning.
Our 1,500mg/l electrolyte supplements are ideal for this, so we've been told ;-)
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.
As tempting as it might be try to avoid smashing a hard, guilt fuelled training session immediately after a big night out. Your body is already going to be under a lot of stress recovering from the prior night's abuse so whilst a thrashing might help clear your conscience it could lead to more harm than good overall.