The Truth About Alcohol and Running

imageDrinking 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?

Photo of hydration vest with liquor bottles where hydration bottles should be.
During is also not advised.

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.

Cheers!

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?

I'm an elementary P.E. teacher with a long-term, ongoing marathon addiction.The next big goal? Keeping up my BQ streak while aiming for a 3:10! I write about the not-so-glamorous side of running and fitting in serious training with a family while staying sane(ish).

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27 comments

  1. Love this article, very well written! I’m a mom of 1 who’s still running competitively (clocking my marathon PR of 2:53 post-pregnancy). I keep it pretty moderate, but I LOVE my wine with dinner every night! Thinking about instituting a ‘no wine on hard workout days’ during my hard training cycles :) Thanks for the comprehensive look at the biology picture on this! I’m a dietitian (RDN) that works with some athletes, so I can point them to this article as a nice summary of the impact of alcohol during training.

    Cheers! Keep up the great blog!

  2. I just stumbled upon this blog the other day and think it’s the most comprehensive and reader friendly article I have read on alcohol and running – thank you! About 3 years ago, I PRd in every distance I ran – 5k to full marathon. Fast forward to present day and I can’t hit a PR to save my life despite the different training plans I try. Not to mention super slow recovery times. The difference between now and then: higher volume drinking. This article explained a great deal of my running performance and recovery issues. The fact about the liver taking one hour to process one ounce of alcohol is forever burned into my brain. I don’t care how many times I’ve read some of this before, the way this article was written made a serious impression. I’m not quitting, but I’m not drinking my cocktails like water any more. I think I may just savor them from now on. 1 ounce = 1 hour. Thanks so much!

  3. This article had me thinking that maybe I should start to track my alcohol consumption on my training logs to see if I notice any patterns. Otherwise, I know I’ll just keep on rationalizing those post-run beers!

  4. Timely post. I had been pondering my 1-2 drink/night habit earlier this winter. After calculating the yearly expense, the calories, and wondering about its overall effect on my health and training, I decided I needed to change my ways. For the past six weeks, I’ve only partaken occasionally and I’m down to 1-3 drinks per week. Honestly, I can’t say I’m feeling much different or that I’m running any stronger or faster. I haven’t lost any weight. (But I am in the middle of an intense marathon training cycle, so I’m eating like a horse.) I’ll be interested to see if my times improve this spring when I start racing.

    I thought it would be much harder to break my habit. I read Gretchen Rubin’s “Better Than Before” and it gave me some useful insights and tips on how to make the change. I highly recommend the book if you are looking to break bad or cultivate good habits.

  5. Love the post but as the last commenter said and as you implied, it (alcohol effects) is partly individual and for women, partly cyclical. I’m of the camp that moderation is key. Like post commenters, I like my wine and even the occasional cocktail (no beer!). If I drink too much hard alcohol I am sluggish and run worse the next day. So, I avoid it before any serious workout or long run. But, I will have a glass of wine or two if there is enough time before my workout. If it starts to have a noticeable effect, I’d stop. The question is whether it’s a noticeable effect. When you realize improvement in performance (new PRs, pace gains, heart rate levels) you believe all is good, what I don’t know is whether I’m hindering the level of improvement by continuing to drink 3-5 nights a week.

    This post is timely because I was just having this discussion with my BF regarding whether we should “get on the wagon” before Boston. I’m just not sure I’d enjoy training without the ability to reward myself. I have definitely cut back as I’ve aged (mid-40s), so maybe I’ve found the right mix or maybe I’m just unknowingly sacrificing further training gains.

    I do believe there are positive benefits to low alcohol consumption as cited in numerous studies but we have to remind ourselves that is 1 glass/drink a day (and not the generous pour of vodka, whiskey or your hard liquor of choice).

    I’ll definitely keep this post in mind as Boston draws near. Love to hear more comments on this.

    1. Yes, I think what Camille is saying is not necessarily in conflict with what Pimento is saying. What Pimento is saying is that at some point alcohol can very much impede performance and negatively impact health. What Camille is saying is that at low levels alcohol can improve health and possibly performance. The issue seems to be that the negative affects are more significant than the benefits – that doesn’t mean there are no benefits, but that if in doubt it might be wise to leave it out to improve performance because the negative effects can be pretty bad. If you feel like you know where your “moderation” is then you probably have nothing to worry about. The real question is where is the tipping point from moderation and health benefits to beyond moderation and negative health consequences.

  6. In the interest of getting to the truth of the matter, I wanted to share this dissenting opinion from Camille Herron from Facebook:

    “Um, no. This article is largely wrong. One of the talks I gave in grad school was on alcohol and bone. I studied bone recovery and how to enhance it. Alcohol in moderation most definitely enhances musculoskeletal health. The effect is most strong in women because alcohol is a phytoestrogen. A human study they did in our lab after I left also confirmed this (up to 3 drinks of wine). I actually started drinking more/consistently after everything I learned in grad school. I even became my own guinea pig when I fractured a rib while completing my thesis- drank beer, ate meat, fruits and veggies, and ran easy= healed my rib in 3 wks! I could go on and on….”

    So maybe all hope is not lost! :)

  7. Great post!! Prior to becoming pregnant (19 weeks today) I would drink pretty freely even when I was training. A drink (or 3 or 4) a day and I’ve always wondered what it would do for my performance if I cut back some. I cut out drinking when i found out i was pregnant (duh…) and while i have the “pregnant tired” going on, I feel awesome other than that. Oh, and saved tons of money….

  8. This is a great post. I have noticed an increase in my morning stress score if I have more than one drink in an evening. Maybe I will experiment and see if zero drinks noticeably decreases my stress score (facilitating more and harder training).

  9. I really appreciate this post, and found it interesting in a lot of ways- you even have me considering taking a hiatus before Boston for a few weeks. Honestly, as much as I joke about drinking (Barley= Beer). Running really has made it so I drink less. Especially when I get into more miles or harder training, I find myself not reaching for that beer or glass of wine as frequently or even at all. I have 0-3 drinks/week typically when in training for a goal race for the most part, and I’d like to think that’s moderation. Are there random weeks it might be more, sure. But as much as I love running, I won’t turn down a cocktail to celebrate a friends promotion, or I won’t turn down Brian randomly suggesting we stop at the bar we first met at for a drink (cue the awwwsss)….you know what I mean, you have to live your life still.

    1. Awwwwww :) I totally agree about the living/enjoying life thing, that’s why I’m not going back to total prohibition during this training cycle!

  10. Super interesting post! I have in the past cut back on drinking during a hard training cycle, but I wasn’t sure it really made a difference. I typically only drink 1-2 beers 2-3 nights a week though, so maybe the difference isn’t big enough to be detectable?

    1. Maybe you’re so securely in the moderation-zone, it didn’t. I was more a glass of wine/night, and definitely noticed a difference when I took January off drinking.

  11. Thank you for researching all this! I generally drink only rarely and just one drink at a time but I’ve almost completely stopped just in the name of saving money. I’m glad to have all this knowledge now to reinforce my willpower!

  12. Pimento: Very informative post. We read more and more how important sleep is for body recovery and general good health. Poor sleep also impacts cortisol levels. As women age our testosterone production decreases, which impacts muscles ability to recover. Alcohol’s impact on these three systems alone should be wake-up call for runners and non-runners alike.

  13. Thank you so much for writing about this, because I have been thinking about it a lot lately. I decided to do Dry January this year, because I had built up a pretty steady cocktail-a-day habit. In fact, on one of the past posts here asking if we drank during a training cycle, I think I commented, “Oh Lord yes. Every day.” And after one particularly sluggish “easy” run, I thought, “Ok. No more booze.” Within a couple days, my easy pace dropped by about a minute, I didn’t run out of gas on my long run, and my sleep quality improved a ton. So now, no booze if I have a run scheduled the following day…or if I do, it’s only before an easy, short run and it’s a VERY conscious decision and I am fully ok with not feeling super fantastic the next day. And I am having the best training cycle I have had in a long time. (I’ve also lost about six pounds…despite replacing some of the alcohol calories with cupcakes.)

    1. Alcohol severely affects my sleep and I definitely notice the bonk effect on runs after a night of boozing (which for me these days might be 2 drinks!) I only drink if struggling the next day or two is worth it. I don’t know if it’s kids or age or something else, but I just can’t handle much drinking any more.

      1. I’m thinking it’s age – another big factor in me cutting down was a NASTY headache the day after I’d had all of *two* gin tonics. And they were small! Hello, 41.

    2. I did the Dry January too, and was really surprised at how good I felt after the first week or so. I’d slid into a glass of wine making dinner every night routine. I slept better, recovered faster, hit my workouts… I agree that age seems to have an impact on the morning after effects. Now that I’m moving into marathon training, I’m not going to go to total Prohibition- I like having a date night with my husband or book club with my friends, but I am definitely not letting the daily wine habit make a reappearance!

      1. The daily wine habit thing… so after I had my heart surgery thing back in January of 2013, I struggled with anxiety in the weeks immediately after, so I thought … maybe I just need to relax. I’ll try a glass a wine each night while I do the dishes. Within 3 days I realized I was making everything worse – I was MORE anxious, I was sleeping worse, and my heart palpitations got really bad after that glass of wine. So, right then and there I realized it wasn’t worth it … for me. That and that time I went to a wedding in Nov 13 and had a hangover until Wednesday (the wedding was on Saturday ?) So 2013 was the year I became really boring.