During those last few stressful weeks of squeezing in your pre-race training sessions, your first instinct upon getting home might be to pop open a cold one. 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 may affect not only your hydration, but also blood circulation to your muscles, and even your sleep quality. Here’s what dietitians want you to know about sipping on your favorite brews and cocktails in the weeks leading up to race day.
Can You Combine Alcohol and Working Out?
When we say “drink,” here’s what we mean.
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 a day for women and up to two a day for men. One drink is equivalent to a 12-ounce glass of beer, a 1.5 ounce shot, or a 5-ounce glass of wine, for all the heavy pourers out there.
The key is that if you are going to be drinking, make sure 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, says Allen. You’ll need to drink enough water throughout the day to accompany the alcohol as well. That means about 2 liters of fluid per day, as a minimum, if you’re training according to Allen.
How Long Before a Race Should You Cut Out Alcohol?
“It is advantageous for athletes to focus on optimal nutrition and hydration throughout a training schedule, but especially close to a race,” says Allison Knott, MS, RDN, CSSD. “This may mean avoiding alcohol for a week or a month or throughout the training schedule; everyone is different.”
You don’t need to skip happy hour for an entire month before a race, but in the days immediately before a big athletic event, it may help your performance to cut out booze. Knott points out research from the American College of Sports Medicine Health and Fitness Journal, which found that working out while hungover could decrease aerobic capacity by 11 percent. Your muscles might also have an easier time recovering from the big race if you don’t have any alcohol in your system either, says Knott.
Combat the Effects of Booze with Hydration
We all know from waking up the morning after a few drinks that alcohol dries out your mouth and dehydrates the heck out of you. But it also can cause you to lose fluid and may impact your athletic performance. “Being one to two percent dehydrated negatively affects performance by 10 to 15 percent, research has shown,” says Allen.
Specifically, dehydration makes it difficult for adequate blood supply to reach the muscles in the body, according to Knott. “Additionally, 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 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 the muscles. Plus, Knott says, you’re likely not getting as good of a night’s sleep after drinking, which is a key time period for muscle recovery.
For endurance athletes, who may not have to worry about the calories associated with drinking alcohol, the most important factor is hydration. Allen suggests to have 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 two liters. And when you’re participating in a race, drink water, or even sports drinks, during especially long races, to ensure you have enough electrolytes during the event. Luckily, dehydration is easy to correct, Allen says, and can be realigned in just a day.
Does Alcohol Have Any Benefits for Athletes?
The short answer is no, not really. There aren’t specific benefits to starting drinking if you don’t already drink as part of your regular social routine, says Knott. Allen recommends potentially switching to a heart-healthier glass of red wine with a meal if you plan to drink. However, if you’re 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. Or if you go for a glass of wine and some dark chocolate (we’re not judging!) just remember that moderation and rehydration are key.