Why Moderation Matters: 6 Surprising Ways Alcohol Sabotages Your Training

Why Moderation Matters: 6 Surprising Ways Alcohol Sabotages Your Training
Presented by Spartan Training®

Sponsored by Athletic Brewing Company

No booze... no problem? Probably true. We all know—most likely from personal experience, ugh, hangovers—that drinking alcohol in excess absolutely murders your fitness and feel-good vibes. While there are no hard and fast rules as to how much you can indulge, less is always, always more.

Now, we're not saying you have to go off the sauce completely. But, "research has not yet identified the ‘optimal’ amount to drink to keep from impacting exercise," according to Jim White, RD, ACSM EX-P, and owner of Jim White Fitness & Nutrition Studios. "However, following the dietary guidelines and CDC recommendations is always the best bet." That means as a good rule of thumb, moderate drinking should reach no more than two drinks per day for men, and one drink for women. A "drink" is defined as a 12 oz beer, 5 oz wine, or 1.5 oz shot of liquor. "Keep in mind that this is for a single day, so one drink per day is not to be confused with seven drinks for the week to be spent at any one sitting," says White. In essence, avoid binging like the plague.

We asked White for his expert take on how too much alcohol can severely set you back, beyond butt-kicking hangovers. And his answers may actually shock you. 

Related: Training for a Spartan Race & Dying for a Beer? Drink This!

How Alcohol Can Set You Back, Way Back

1. Yes, Even One Beer Over the Nightly BBQ Has An Impact

Studies, like research published in Alcohol Alcohol, have shown that even small amounts of alcohol—as little as one ounce—taken before exercise can decrease power output and increase heart rate response, and rate of perceived exertion. Essentially this means your body is working SO much harder, just to get 'er done. "Consuming alcohol post-exercise will also negatively impact the athlete’s recovery by reducing muscle protein synthesis, [which negatively impacts recovery]," says White. "Anecdotal evidence of “day after” symptoms also paint the picture that consuming alcohol provides little benefit on performance." In other words, there's just no way it can benefit you, so stop telling yourself that.

2. You Can Count on Cramping More

According to White, alcohol impacts your body through de-regulating muscle contractions and decreasing strength output. "We don’t know the exact mechanism by which alcohol diminishes strength, but it may involve calcium, which is an ion utilized in muscle contraction, or an excess amount of creatine kinase building up in the bloodstream," says White. Cramps, muscle pain, and a lack of balance and spacial orientation are common symptoms after a night of drinking that prohibit optimal exercise performance. So even if we don't know exactly how it makes you weaker, and the jury on research is still out, one thing's for sure: you can count on feeling less powerful in your performance. Guaranteed.

3. It Wreaks Havoc On Your Hydration

Any athlete who's been around the block knows just how important hydration is to performance. Without proper hydration, you're in for a long haul. And nothing messes with your hydration more than booze. "Hydration status is integral for health but takes a big hit when alcohol is consumed in excess," says White. Alcohol is a diuretic, increasing urine production so you lose more water from drinking alcoholic drinks, than other foods or beverages. "It has an effect of dilating blood vessels, which increases fluid loss through evaporation, which also contributes to dehydration," he says. "Good hydration helps regulate body temperature, and consuming alcohol will actually interfere with our central thermoregulatory mechanism, which helps modulate body temperature during exercise. Without properly hydrating, energy production, join lubrication, muscle cramping and nutrient transport will also be impacted."

4. It Messes with Your Metabolism

Proper recovery is all about maintaining a strong metabolism. In order to bounce back, your body needs to circulate much-needed nutrients to your muscles via the metabolic process. But the bad news is that alcohol greatly disrupts your metabolism—a.k.a. your body's ability to recover. "Blood glucose levels decrease in response to exercise, to provide energy to the muscles to fuel a workout," says White. "Alcohol actually reduces the energy stores available, making it harder to fuel endurance exercise and synthesize new protein after exercise for muscle recovery."

5. Your Sleep Schedule Sucks

Your body needs deep REM cycle sleep to repair and regenerate muscle tissue, and prevent injury. Booze shells out a major blow to your sleep patterns because it slows the central nervous system and impacts your ability to reach a deep sleep state. "If the central nervous system activity is reduced, our sleep duration and quality will be impacted—this means less time in REM sleep and more time spent in the earliest sleep stage," says White. And if you're not sleeping well, you're definitely not recovering well. That's a dangerous game because the more you push yourself, without proper recovery, the more you run the risk of injury.

6. It Manifests Mental Fog

Beyond the physical pitfalls to overindulging, alcohol can make a mess of your mental game. Because it's a depressant, it slows your central nervous system, which impairs your balance, reaction time, memory and motor skills. Sounds terrible, right? "Beyond impacting you while inebriated, lasting effects can follow into the next day, which may feel like a numbing of your mental capacity and sharpness during a workout," says White. Limiting the number of drinks you consume before exercise will help you to avoid mental fog and stay on your A game.

Drinking Too Much? Here's How to Cut Back—Alcohol Moderation 101

1. Hydrate & Eat While You Imbibe

Keeping your drinking habits within CDC recommendations will preserve your performance and recovery for most athletes, says White. Remember to hydrate while you drink booze, matching at least one glass of water in between drinks, or before bed, to help with rehydration. White also recommends to his clients to avoid sugary syrups or artificial additives in pre-made cocktails and bottled drinks to help reduce gut irritation and digestive complications. Lastly, "if you drink, you should eat a nutritionally dense meal beforehand, and keep healthy snacks available for after drinking to reduce the likelihood of making compromised food decisions," says White. "If you do find yourself in a situation of consuming more than the recommend amount of drinks every now and then, these tips can help you get back on your feet and ready to exercise again in less time."

2. Get Real With Yourself, But Non-Judgmentally

It goes without saying, but if you're worried you have a substance abuse issue, talk to your medical health care provider and seek support from one of the many programs out there. "If you notice your alcohol intake is becoming a habit that impacts your fitness goals, first, take some time to reflect and non-judgementally assess the behavior," says White. "Can you identify the most appealing factor to you? Maybe you enjoy the taste, or the social aspect of drinking with friends. What part of drinking are you least willing to let go of?" Ask yourself these questions, answer them honestly (a journal helps!) and brainstorm a few ways to work around your non-negotiables. Then set an achievable goal. "Make sure to include an accountability buddy or get a support system involved to help hold you to the goals and changes you desire to make," says White.

3. Opt for an N/A Substitute

With today's sober-curious culture on the rise, and non-alcoholic craft beer only getting tastier, there are many options out there for alcohol-free beer, wine and even spirits. Chances are, your local booze shop has a non-alcoholic section you can browse and try new ways to get the flavor and feeling, without the headache. "If you crave the taste of a craft beer but want to avoid paying the price with your workouts, non-alcoholic beer can be a good substitute," says White. "Most N/A beers include more carbs in the form of added sugar to compensate for the flavor removed with alcohol. Carbohydrates work to fuel energy production and build up reserves for exercise." And interestingly, when paired with proper hydration and a source of protein, N/A beer can actually help recovery, rather than work against you.

TRY IT: Run Wild N/A IPA

Aye, it’s true. If you’re a craft-beer freak like us, there’s nothing better than a perfectly balanced IPA—the marriage of hops and malts that create smashing flavor and bite. This Run Wild non-alcoholic IPA, by our partner, Athletic Brewing Company, is brewed with a blend of five varieties of Northwest hops, and carries just enough bitterness to overtake its malty undernotes. Plus, it’s only 70 calories (most IPAs run 150+) so you can feel good knowing you’re not overindulging. Consider this your best friend when it comes to backyard grill outs this summer. It pairs well with marinated chicken, salmon, veggies, you name it. (Hint: it also works as a placebo beer to calm pre-race nerves the night before you hit the starting line.) 


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