During those last few weeks of intense training before a race, you might be tempted to reward yourself with a beer or two after a long day. And while it’s true that there are no hard-and-fast rules to combining alcohol and working out before a big race or endurance event (you’re in charge of your own nutrition and health regimen, after all) it’s important to know that alcohol can (and will) affect not only your hydration, but also your blood circulation to your muscles, and even your sleep quality. Here’s what you need to know about drinking alcohol while training for a Spartan race or DEKA event.
Can You Combine Alcohol and Working Out?
What Does "Drink" Mean, Exactly?
There’s nothing concrete that says that you can’t have the occasional drink during your training process. According to Natalie Allen, MS, RD, the dietary guidelines are one drink — equivalent to a 12-ounce glass of beer, a 1.5 ounce shot, or a 5-ounce glass of wine — a day for women and up to two a day for men.
The key is that if you are going to be drinking, make sure that you’re not filling up on alcohol and cutting out good carbs or any of the protein or healthy fats that you need in your pre-race nutrition regime, Allen says. You’ll need to drink enough water throughout the day to accompany the alcohol as well, meaning about 2 liters of fluid per day as a minimum.
How Long Before a Race Should You Stop Drinking Alcohol?
“It is advantageous for athletes to focus on optimal nutrition and hydration throughout an entire training schedule, but it's especially crucial close to a race,” Allison Knott, MS, RDN, CSSD, says. “This may mean avoiding alcohol for a week, a month, or throughout the whole training schedule; everyone is different.”
While you won't die if you don't skip happy hour for an entire month before a race, in the days immediately before a big athletic event, it will help your performance to cut out alcohol entirely. Research from the American College of Sports Medicine Health and Fitness Journal found that working out while hungover could decrease aerobic capacity by 11%. (Plus, your muscles might also have an easier time recovering from the big race if you don’t have any alcohol in your system either, Knott says.)
Combat the Effects of Booze With Hydration
Anyone who's woken up the morning after a few drinks knows that alcohol dries out your mouth and dehydrates the hell out of you, but it can also cause you to lose fluid and impact your athletic performance.
“Being one to two percent dehydrated negatively affects performance by nearly 20%, research has shown,” Allen says.
Specifically, dehydration makes it difficult for adequate blood supply to reach the muscles in the body, according to Knott.
“Dehydration will impact the body's ability to regulate temperature,” she says.
And if you don’t fill up with the equivalent amount of fluid while you're out drinking, it could be tricky to stay hydrated. Your muscle recovery might also suffer if you’re drinking your carbohydrates instead of refueling with good carbs — like whole grains — to replace the glycogen supply in your muscles. Plus, Knott says, you’re likely not getting a good night’s sleep after drinking, which is a key time period for muscle recovery.
For endurance athletes, who may not have to worry as much as a sedentary person about the calories associated with drinking alcohol, the most important factor is hydration. Allen suggests having a rehydration plan in place if you do drink alcohol.
Fill up a water bottle in the morning and set a goal to drink enough refills each day to equal those 2 liters. And when you’re running a race, drink water (or even sports drinks) during especially long races to ensure that you have enough electrolytes during the event.
Does Alcohol Have Any Benefits for Athletes?
The short answer is no, not really. And there aren’t any benefits to starting drinking if you don’t already drink as part of your regular social routine, Knott says. Allen recommends that — if you must drink — switch to a heart-healthier glass of red wine with a meal or a nonalcoholic brand of beer.
And if you’re just looking for extra antioxidants, turn to foods like cherries and red peppers instead of wine, she says, as those have more nutritional value and won’t dehydrate you.