Do Alcohol and Exercise Mix?
It seems that everyone has an opinion on how alcohol affects exercise, so I thought I’d actually try to dig up some research and find the truth. There are three conditions that we have to look at: working out right after drinking, drinking after working out, and working out while hungover. Most of us have seen or have actually been the tool that decides to get in a quick workout at the bar to show off and claims to have “beer muscles.” We have heard not to drink after working out, or we’ll “lose all our gainz.” Many of us have also experienced some terrible hungover workouts, and some of us have even had some glorious hungover workouts. I’m going to attempt to answer these questions by looking at some actual research. Yes, people actually get paid to research these things.
Drinking and then working out seems like a terrible idea. I would hate to be a test subject in these studies, even if I got free alcohol. Some researchers decided to make subjects drink a moderate amount (a couple of drinks, or the equivalent of half of the legal limit for driving) and then ride a bike for an hour. They found that the cyclists had 4% less leg power after drinking than when they were sober. While this may be critical for a tour de France rider, it is really not a big difference to the layperson. Other than that, there was really no difference between the two conditions. They cite other studies and note how there have been conflicting results in the past. In other words, some studies show that alcohol impairs performance, and some show that it doesn’t. They also show that alcohol doesn’t affect sprint times or strength. So it might have an impact on endurance exercise, but it probably doesn’t have much of an effect on anaerobic exercise. Keep in mind that these studies were not on subjects who were black-out drunk, they simply had a few drinks.
Many people consider alcohol a carbohydrate. This is partially true, but not exactly. Your muscles can’t use alcohol for fuel. Not only that, but alcohol may stop your liver from creating glucose, and hinders your ability to metabolize lactate and glycerol, two important processes in providing energy for endurance exercise. This makes it difficult to keep your energy levels up for a period of time, which is why alcohol would affect endurance performance but not anaerobic. It also explains why you might crave carbs after a night of drinking, or why carbs might help cure your hangover. Since your muscles can’t use alcohol for energy, working out won’t help process alcohol or help you recover. Sorry!
Alcohol causes some other problems that might affect performance. We all know that there is a decreased ability to balance, react, and think clearly. This means that alcohol probably isn’t the best thing to consume during a team sport. It also affects your ability to regulate your body temperature. Since alcohol dilates your blood vessels it will push blood out to your limbs and away from your core. This results in a drop in core temperature, which actually decreases performance. However, not all of the effects of alcohol are bad! When you drink you get decreased fear and anxiety, which makes you better at competition because fear can’t cloud your mind or waste your energy. Alcohol also lowers your rating of perceived exertion, or how difficult you think exercise is. This explains why that drunk guy at the bar can crank out way more push-ups than you can expect, it doesn’t feel as difficult to him. All in all, drinking a little before a workout shouldn’t affect it very much. The positives and the negatives should balance each other out, as long as your lack of balance doesn’t cause you to fall flat on your face.
“Don’t drink after a workout, bro, you’ll lose all your gainz.” Is this “bro” correct? Actually, he’s spot on. First of all, alcohol blunts your muscle’s ability to synthesize protein which will definitely cause you to lose some of your “gainz.” Additionally alcohol can inhibit your ability to store glucose after a workout. Storing sugars after your workout allows you to recover and have energy for the next workout and is definitely not good for recovery. The only thing that’s a little fuzzy is rehydration. Someone actually tested the theory that you can’t rehydrate with beer. A group of runners drank either mineral water or 3 cups of beer plus a little water after a run. There were no differences in rehydration between the groups. The theory that you can’t rehydrate with a cool alcoholic beverage after a workout doesn’t hold much ground. All in all you should avoid drinking after a workout if at all possible, but once in a while it won’t kill you, especially if you are just exercising for fun.
If you had to test a group of athletes on the effect of drinking the night before a workout, what’s the first group of athletes you would ask? That’s right, rugby players. Since this particular group loves to drink the night after a game, a group of researchers simply had them come in for a workout the night after a binge. These guys put in a serious night of drinking after a game and only slept an average of 2 hours that night, then came in to the lab to perform some tests. Their lower body power decreased significantly, but their lower body strength, sprint performance, and hydration levels were all fairly the same. Alcohol did affect their health though, according to an AUDIT score. What does this tell us? Well, alcohol will definitely affect your quality of sleep. We already know that it will affect your ability to recover by inhibiting glucose storage in muscles. However, it doesn’t seem to affect strength or sprint performance. Your best bet is to have some carbs in the morning and get your workout over with. As long as you can get enough glycogen back in your muscles your workout probably shouldn’t suffer too much. It’s important to note that this was a one-time thing and that you shouldn’t attempt to do this more than once in a while.
So, does exercise and alcohol mix? Well, it can. You can probably drink a little before your workout and if you’re not chasing serious results you should be able to drink after as well. While it may not feel great, you can probably get in a pretty good workout even if you’re hungover. My favorite quote from some of the researchers: “the notion that alcohol consumption effects performance has not received enough consistent validation to advance beyond being anecdotal.” In other words, it’s not a big deal.
Note: alcohol consumption is probably not very healthy and I’m not trying to argue that it is. I’m just saying that it probably doesn’t affect performance as much as we think.
I wrote a different version of this article for Elite Daily, which you can find here: http://elitedaily.com/wellness/drinking-booze-workout-bad/1508444/
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