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Alcohol and exercise performance

I don’t think anyone would begrudge an individual the ability to consume alcohol. It is a large part of society and can play an important part in social interaction, certainly around sport and exercise. The question is, for those who take their sport or exercise seriously, to what extent does alcohol impact or impair performance. Here are some thoughts to digest:

> Alcohol is a depressant, not a stimulant. It affects the central nervous system, which is why our balance, movement and co-ordination are impaired in addition to concentration and reaction time. The amount of alcohol and/or drinking duration that affects performance is not known, however, the more alcohol you consume, the greater the reduction in “performance”.

> The impact of alcohol can be immediate, and also last for hours. Furthermore, it appears to impact both endurance and strength/power based exercise, so no one sport or exercise is immune. Whilst there is individual variation in how much alcohol impacts performance, there will not be any individuals where at least one important aspect of performance, adaptation or recovery will be compromised.

> Two simple facts: 1) the liver general break down one unit of alcohol per hour, and 2) alcohol can remain in the body for as long as 24 hours. Consequently, if you do want to drink in and around training, the timing of alcohol and/or specific training sessions becomes an important consideration.

> Alcohol immediately post exercise inhibits recovery in two ways. Firstly, it can blunt the adaptive response to exercise so your training session will not be as powerful. Secondly, alcohol is a diuretic so urine output is increased. Interestingly, the diuretic effect of alcohol post-exercise only appears to affect fluid balance when a drink is at least 4% in strength

>  Begin the “classical” recovery process post exercise before you start about consuming alcohol. This should mean that you prioritise the importance of protein, carbohydrate and fluid. Furthermore, the intake of food is shown to slow the absorption of alcohol.

> Although more anecdotal than scientific, it would appear that alcohol has the secondary impact of reducing the quality of food choice in the periods during and after (the “hangover”) alcohol consumption. This typically means high fat, calorie dense convenience foods.

> Although alcohol is a sedative, it typically reduces sleep quality. Sleep is important to the total recovery process, specifically growth hormone, so avoiding the heavy alcohol consumption on a frequent basis is important otherwise you will be significantly reducing the impact of the hard hours you are putting into the gym

>  Regular drinking will inevitably lead to weight gain. Alcohol contains 7kcal per gram, and in many instances is accompanied by additional drinks (in the case of spirits) that also include a significant amount of sugar. Many underestimate this as it is not an “acute” response,  but it will catch up on you!

So what does this all mean? Well, the decision and behaviour of alcohol consumption is yours and ultimately it does perhaps depend on how serious you take your sport or exercise. Alcohol will inhibit “performance” in the short term and if consumed chronically, then definitely in the long term.

You can minimise the impact of alcohol by prioritising post exercise recovery first before alcohol consumption and by planning alcohol intake smartly around training. For most, it can easily be controlled and you can find the balance – although arguably the old adage of “train hard, play hard” is perhaps not the right interpretation given that the “harder you play”, the tougher it is to train hard, or more specifically you might not be able to train hard enough! In simple terms, common sense applies.