Drinking and running. Many runners enjoy alcohol, after all, there are a lot of carbs in beer and what calls for a celebratory drink more than a race well run? We’re even known to occasionally drink in the middle of a run or a race. With a name like Pimento, you’d be correct in picturing me with my favorite Bloody Mary brimming with green olives after a 20-miler.
We might like to keep our heads in the sand because that craft porter in our fridge is calling our name, but the reality is alcohol is doing your training no favors. We runners are dedicated, resilient, and committed. We pour hours into working out and chasing our goals, yet we often pour on the alcohol. We can cling to the red wine is good for you! studies and rationalize that, as performance-focused runners we’re so healthy we’re immune to alcohol’s deleterious effects, but what if all that rationalizing is just that: rationalizing?
Always the scientist at heart, I went on a journey through current research to see how alcohol, even in moderation, affects our training over time. What exactly does that Riesling do to your body once you swallow it? If you have a big goal that you are willing to make sacrifices to train for, is it worth it or necessary to give up alcohol in order to nail that goal? What impact is that post-run drink having on your recovery?
How Your Body Processes Alcohol
The alcohol we drink for fun is a chemical called ethanol. Once ingested, it crosses the membranes of all the cells and tissues in your body very quickly. When that drink hits your stomach, the alcohol diffuses into your bloodstream, mostly from your small intestine, and goes everywhere, including your brain. A depressant, alcohol binds to your brain cell receptors, slowing down their functioning, while at the same causing your neurons to release Dopamine, your body’s feel-good chemical. The result? That sleepy, happy, ready-for-a-good time feeling.
Yeah! Not so fast. Our bodies process alcohol like a poison. While you’re loving life and having a great ol’ time, your liver is working overtime to get that poison out of your body. To do that our livers make an enzyme, alcohol dehydrogenase, that breaks alcohol down into toxic aceteldehyde. Using another enzyme, your body then breaks down this aceteldehyde into acetate, which you excrete mostly through urine. If aceteldehyde builds up faster than your body can process it you will experience headache, nausea, and vomiting – oops!
That’s not all. As your body is processing and trying to get rid of the alcohol you drank, throughout the process of breaking it down into acetate it’s producing by-products called free radicals. Together, aceteldehyde and these free radicals damage your liver and wreak havoc on all the other cells in your body. Sounds bad, but for runners like us, it’s particularly destructive because they damage proteins that help your cells make and store glycogen, the main fuel your cells use to make energy for endurance.
On average, your liver can process one ounce of alcohol per hour. That rate is affected by several things: how much you’re drinking, what you’re drinking and its proof, your weight and gender, and how much food you have in your stomach (more food slows absorption). Genetic factors, like how much enzyme your liver makes can also play a part. The amount of damage alcohol, aceteldehyde and those free-radicals do also varies from person to person. We all seem to know that 95-year-old lady in the family who chain-smoked and drank whiskey every day, but is still kicking around with no apparent disease, while other people develop cancer or cirrhosis young in life. The problem is, you don’t know where you are going to fall on that spectrum.
Alcohol’s Effect on Your (Runner’s) Body
Most marathon training plans are around 16 weeks long. The reason they take time is because you are physiologically changing your cellular structure: by building your muscles and cardiopulmonary system and increasing the mitochondria in your muscle cells so you can perform more efficiently. Your body needs time, nutrition, and rest in order to do all that. Alcohol impairs those processes, by:
• Altering your sleep cycles: this impacts your body’s ability to store glycogen, which is necessary for your muscles to make ATP/energy to do work. So over time, drinking will leave you with less stored glycogen→ reduced production of ATP→ decreased endurance.
• Increasing the stress hormone cortisol: this reduces human growth hormone by up to 70%, which is necessary for muscle repair and growth. Over time, then, drinking will impair your muscles from optimally repairing and becoming stronger.
• Making your liver release a toxin that attacks testosterone, a hormone that is also essential to muscle repair and growth.
• Dehydrating you by affecting the water balance in your cells, which puts you at increased risk of cramps, tweaks/pulls/strains and further impairs your cells’ ability to make glycogen.
• Reducing protein synthesis (muscle growth and repair) by up to 33%.
• Decreasing blood sugar levels, which stops your body from being able to replenish your glycogen stores after you’ve used them up running, negatively affecting your endurance in a big way.
Additionally, alcohol provides you with very little nutrition in the abundant calories you take in when you drink it. Those empty calories add up and, over time, that can lead to unwanted weight gain if you continue to eat normally. Of course, even if you try to balance your calories by eating less when you drink more, you are short-changing your body’s need for extra macronutrients and vitamins as it tries to recover and rebuild from your training.
So how much is too much? How often is too often? If you are going to drink while you train, is there a time that is better or worse than another?
Timing and Habits
Before running. It might be a no brainer, but this old study had sprinters and middle-distance runners drink before running 100 meters, then 200, 400, and 800. (How do I sign up for these types of experiments?!) Their results showed no impact on the shortest sprint (100m), but the largest negative effect happened at the longest distance they tested, 800m. The researchers concluded drinking before running is a bad idea. Thanks science for confirming what we all pretty much knew anyway.
After running. Directly after is actually not great, either, and even a moderate amount has an effect on your muscle recovery. In this, what I call the “Screwdriver” study, researchers had their subjects workout then drink one screwdriver (orange juice and vodka). They measured peak muscle strength after, and found the worse losses in peak strength were 36 hours after the workout and drink. Sure, this was a small study, but the results were statistically significant. The researchers concluded that, “…to minimize exercise related losses in muscle function and expedite recovery, participants in sports involving eccentric muscle work should avoid alcohol-containing beverages in the post-event period.”
If your habit is to follow a tough workout with a beverage, you really might be impacting your muscles’ strength and ability to recover as well as affecting your cells’ ability to store glycogen for endurance. We all know people who are fast and also drink; you might even be one. Maybe the impact is small, but if you are really gunning for a goal time and are maximizing your health in other areas, perhaps consider cutting back on your post-run beverages.
The thing about habits is that they occur over and over and over; their impact adds up. If your post-run reward is a donut, all those empty calories add up and become an extra pound, or five, over time. The same goes with a post-run beer. Occasionally? No big deal. Habit? Empty calories plus the impaired muscle recovery, blood sugar levels, and glycogen storage.
Must We Runners Teetotal?
Alcohol, even in moderate amounts, has an impact on your body’s ability to recover and perform at an optimal level. Your wine habit likely also means your muscles struggle to rebuild after a workout and restore glycogen stores and your electrolyte balance might be off due to chronic dehydration, putting you at a higher risk for a muscle injury. When trying for a big goal, we runners often ratchet down on our bad habits and get more stringent with good ones: we try to get better sleep, we eat healthier, or whatever. If we are doing those positive things for our performance, cutting down on alcohol makes as much sense as increasing sleep and core work.
What do you do to minimize the bad effects of alcohol when you do plan on drinking? Slow down; remember your liver’s one ounce per hour rule, have a glass of water with your drink, and make sure you have some food in your stomach before you start so that you don’t overload your body’s ability to process the poison. Plus, getting tipsy too fast can often lead to more drinks than you intended and other risky decisions like eating those fried pickles you wouldn’t touch if you were sober … among other things.
If you do plan on celebrating a good run with a drink, take the time to first rehydrate with water and refuel with a balanced meal of real food before switching to the booze. Remember those free radicals I mentioned that form from your body’s attempt to get rid of alcohol? Eating a diet high in fruits and vegetable provides you with the antioxidants that help destroy those roving, cell-damaging molecules.
Oddly enough, and on a positive note, maybe all that running we’re doing will cause us to voluntarily put down the daiquiris. This study found that rats who liked alcohol when sedentary were then offered unlimited access to a running wheel and alcohol, voluntarily drank less the more they ran. So, who knows; keep running and maybe your cravings will change.
Do you change your drinking habits when you’re training for a big race or goal time? Has running helped you cut back on drinking? Do you rationalize your bad habits with your good ones? Do you hate me for writing this?