We've rounded up everything you need to know about non-alcoholic beer: why it's the best recovery drink EVER, how to leverage a sober-curious lifestyle into enhanced performance, and the pro-athlete take on ditching booze for max gains. Plus, our all-time favorite option for N/A beer that tastes just like the real deal. (Because it is!)
We all know booze is bad for you. Between hangovers, headaches, and performance setbacks, drinking alcohol can not only impact your mental game but also make you slower, heavier, and lethargic AF.
Here’s the cool thing: living a sober-curious lifestyle has been taking athletics (and the U.S.) by storm. According to Gallup, a polling organization that has, in part, surveyed Americans on their alcohol consumption since 1939, the amount of adults who report drinking alcoholic beverages dropped 5% since their last poll in 2019. According to Forbes, non-alcoholic beer sales are up over 35% in both 2019 and 2020, against alcoholic beverage sales, which are generally flat or decreasing each year. On Google Trends, searches for “benefits of quitting drinking” have gone up 70% in the last five years. The point is: cutting back is becoming the norm, and alcohol-free options are (nearly) everywhere.
Sober Curious Definition: It’s Vague, But Worth Exploring
The term “sober curious” doesn’t have a standardized definition. Originally coined by author Ruby Warrington in her book Sober Curious: The Blissful Sleep, Greater Focus, Limitless Presence, and Deep Connection Awaiting Us All On the Other Side of Alcohol, living a sober-curious lifestyle leaves much room for interpretation.
“My personal interpretation [on what “sober curious” means] is [that it applies to] those who are becoming more mindful about how alcohol intake is making them feel, and discovering how changing their alcohol intake affects their life,” says Hayden James, RDN, CD, CDCES.
James says checking in with yourself in situations that include alcohol can help set better boundaries for success. “A simple question is, ‘How do I want to feel right now/today/this evening?’ or ‘How do I want to feel tomorrow morning?’,” she says. “This simple check in allows you to assess what's important to you right now, and the immediate future, to make a decision that honors what you really want.” It also avoids the mentality of ‘I shouldn’t have alcohol’ which can lead to feeling restricted, frustrated, or revert to old patterns of consumption, she says. Instead, get clear on your intentions, like: ‘I have a big workout tomorrow and want to feel top notch, so I’ll stick to one drink tonight’. “Also check in with yourself on what you like about alcohol — the taste? The carbonation? The presentation? The buzz? This can help you outline alternatives,” says James.
Whether you want to dial back your consumption, limit it to special occasions, or cut out alcohol altogether, the fact is: there’s virtually no downside to avoiding booze. In addition to sharper physical and mental acuity during workouts, you’ll recover faster, sleep deeper, absorb nutrients more efficiently, and stay hydrated, among a myriad of other health benefits.
With Dry January just around the corner, there’s no better time to start drinking less. To add a personal spin on how avoiding alcohol boosts athletic performance, we turned to a few Spartan elites. We asked Alyssa Hawley, Spartan Pro and full-time fitness coach, Slyvie Manaigre, Spartan Canadian Champion, and Nicole Mericle, Spartan World Champion and Trifecta World Champion, for their take on all-things booze. Use their tips, first hand experiences, and words of wisdom below to dial back (or kick the can, entirely) so you can focus on what really matters: pulling off your best performance ever.
How 3 Spartan Pros Leverage a Sober-Curious Lifestyle for Better Performance
On Cutting Back
SPARTAN RACE: How did you first become aware of the crappy side effects of drinking on your performance, and what did your journey look like of cutting it out, or cutting back?
ALYSSA HAWLEY: I began cutting back on alcohol when I started on my fitness journey (and not long after, Spartan racing) back in 2015. I realized that it wasn’t beneficial to reaching my goals. I also started just flat out not wanting to drink as much because of the new outlet I had for working out. That’s not to say I haven’t had periods where I have just completely not cared about how much I drink (looking at you, 2020) but I’d say it’s more of an ebb and flow throughout the year where sometimes I cut it out completely, or other times where I choose to allow myself a bit more room. Having said that, if I am trying to cut back, it is way easier to just steer clear completely because then there is no room for your brain to try to talk you into it, or to act based on emotion. Through trial and error, I have found that if I have one beer, I am more likely going to have two or even three, so it’s best to just cut it out. If I am in a good place and I can have a drink without consequences, I will have a rule of two with a glass of water in between.
SYLVIE MANAIGRE: I decided in 2019 to completely cut out alcohol — not a drop for the entire year. I can say that the one decision to cut out alcohol had a lot of residual benefits: I ate better, I slept better, I didn't have as many crazy highs or lows, I felt in control of my life and better all around.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Read Sylvie’s essay about cutting out alcohol for a year, and how she was able to take her training and racing to a whole new level.
NICOLE MERICLE: I became more aware of my alcohol intake a couple years ago as research on the detrimental effects of alcohol on performance and sleep were highlighted more and more. I wouldn't say I cut alcohol out completely, but I am more aware of when and how much I consume. If I am going to drink, I try to stop drinking as early as possible in order to limit the impact it will have on my sleep. I have committed to a month of no alcohol as an experiment, which is reminiscent of how I would approach my college running seasons. Back then, I didn't drink as often and I would completely eliminate alcohol during my race season. Now, I drink more casually, as in, not like a college party animal. I'll have a glass of wine at night here and there. Big nights out with multiple drinks is a rarity these days, and for good reason. Hangovers are never fun, especially as I get older.
Drinking + Athletic Performance
SR: Have you ever worked out hungover, and if so, what did that look like and how did it feel? (Don't worry about oversharing — everyone has a brutal Saturday morning long run story...)
AH: I have actually worked out many times hungover, and even have done a local race hungover. It really isn’t enjoyable as you can imagine, and I definitely don’t expect to gain any fitness from it, but it’s kind of my way of punishing myself for mistakes I made the night before. “You chose to drink; now you have to suffer the consequences.”
SM: It's no secret, I used to party — a lot. When I first discovered OCR people, I would show up to workouts hungover, sometimes probably still inebriated. It didn't feel great, but it felt better than not working out at all... Being surrounded by awesome healthy OCR humans gave me a reason to cut back.
NM: I've always been very dedicated to training and maximizing my running performance, so I've never indulged the night before important hard workouts. I have, however, stayed up too late and had a little too much to drink the day before a scheduled long run. I've admittedly postponed, or even skipped, a long run on account of being too hungover. Running hungover feels terrible and it puts you at greater risk of injury due to dehydration. Being a more mature athlete now, I definitely take more consideration before drinking the night before a long run.
SR: How does avoiding alcohol impact your performance for the better?
AH: I use a Whoop strap and one of the benefits of it is the habit tracker. So each morning, I do a “yes or no or how much” to questions from the day before. After a month, I get a Monthly Performance Assessment that breaks down how those behaviors affect my recovery positively, negatively, or not at all. Alcohol is the only one that has “significant negative impact” on my recovery. It drops my recovery on average 18% the next day every time I drink. Seeing that was a huge eye opener, and now I can be a little more strategic on if or when I choose to drink. So obviously just on data alone, avoiding alcohol significantly helps me recover better and thus perform better in not just workouts but everyday life. I feel much more accomplished, energized, and motivated when I abstain, and I think the biggest thing for me is the guilt. Every time I drink and it affects my recovery and workouts, I beat myself up about it. But by abstaining from it, I don’t have to deal with the negative mental thoughts that distract me from other things I could be accomplishing.
SM: The number one benefit for me is consistency. When I don't drink, I stick to my programs. I hit my paces. I am motivated to chase some personal bests.
NM: Hydration, sleep, and reaction time are the things most noticeable when it comes to avoiding alcohol.
Managing the Social Scene
SR: Our culture is so steeped in alcohol ads and propaganda it's tough to get away from, even with the best of intentions — what have been the most challenging parts of ditching alcohol for you, and how do you manage those?
AH: Ditching alcohol for me has been really hard for me socially in two different ways. It’s so ingrained in our culture to “meet up for drinks”, or have a drink after a hard day, or have a beer while watching the game, or even just going on a date night. I have fallen into that trap of needing it to have a good time because I have always been such an introvert that alcohol was a way for me to open myself up to new people, or just be more talkative and outgoing. But the other half for me is doing it because everyone else is and that’s just what you do. So for the first one, managing it has been journaling and positive self-talk and talking about it in therapy. And the latter has been subbing for a N/A beverage or soda, and that way I am still feeling like I am drinking as part of the group.
SM: Times are changing. Sober curiosity is a thing. Socially speaking, sobriety isn't the big 'buzz kill' it used to be... If you are used to drinking in social settings, it can be weird at first, but eventually, you realize that you can go out and have a good time without drinking. Sure, you'll get the occasional person that doesn't understand your choice, but if you are confident about your decision, people will generally respect you and your choice.
NM: If I have an important training day or race, I'll typically just avoid a situation in which I may be tempted to drink and stay up late. Not going is the best way to avoid indulging, if that's something you're worried about. If there's an event I have to go to, having a fun non-alcoholic drink is a good way to avoid the peer pressure of drinking and still feel like you're fitting in.
Pro Tips to Live a Sober-Curious Lifestyle
SR: What advice would you give to other Spartans interested in cutting out booze to improve their life and performance? Any words of wisdom, mantras, mindfulness tricks, or nutrition tips that worked for you?
AH: Switching to a good N/A beverage was the first thing that helped me the most when cutting out alcohol. That way, I still felt like I was partaking in a normal way with everyone else. Journaling and talking it out with my therapist has also been really powerful. Getting to the root of the “why” behind drinking can be life changing. And lastly, just focusing on (and constantly reminding myself of) the little things I gain when I don’t drink. This was hard at first because I had so much FOMO. But what ended up being more powerful was telling myself the next morning (when I normally would have drank): “It feels so good to not be hungover this morning” or “I have so much energy” or “I can be so much more productive today” or “I was really present with my wife because I wasn’t drinking”... things like that. Any little positive thing you can think of goes a long way!
SM: I found that so much of my drinking was habitual. I loved getting my big wine glass and pouring myself a glass to enjoy after work, before dinner, with dinner, before bed... next thing you know, it was a whole bottle. When I decided to cut out alcohol, I still took out my big wine glass when I got home from work, but instead, filled it with water, sparkling water, juice, or whatever healthy delicious treat I had in the fridge. I realized that my habit was more about the act, than the liquid inside the glass. It turns out I just really like drinking out of wine glasses.
NM: If you think alcohol may be affecting your performance, I'd start by tracking your consumption. Then commit to a week or a month alcohol-free. See how you feel. You may be surprised to see improvements in performance, sleep, or mood. You certainly don't have to cut out alcohol completely forever, but I'd recommend being more mindful of when and how much you consume. Drink earlier to avoid detrimental effects to your sleep. Stick to one or two drinks to avoid a hangover the next day. Another tip would be to stagger your alcoholic drinks. Have one, then have a glass of water or a non alcoholic beverage.
SR: What are your favorite alcohol-free drinks when you're in the mood for booze but want to recover fast?
AH: I really enjoy Athletic Brewing for N/A beer! I was blown away by how great it tasted and it really cures my itch when a beer just sounds so good. In the evenings with dinner, I enjoy Zevia soda.
SM: N/A beer has come a long way... When I was at sporting events, I would get N/A beers that tasted just like regular beer. I like IPAs, so it's cool that companies are making N/A hoppier options now.
NM: I love Athletic Brewing's Upside Dawn Golden Ale. It's gluten-reduced, too. Paired with a source of protein, it can be part of a great post-run recovery snack. I like that I can have a beer without any detrimental effects. They also make a fabulous hopped sparkling water. Black Cherry and Blood Orange are my favorite flavors. A fizzy water is always a great option for a non-alcoholic drink that feels a bit fancier. I also save sodas for special occasions. A good root beer is another favorite non-alcoholic drink of mine and fits with a special night out with friends.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The term “sober curious” may not apply to people with alcohol use disorder. If you feel you struggle with your alcohol consumption, ask your medical healthcare provider for more information on how to change your drinking habits.