I Trained for My First 50K and Drank N/A Beer. Here's What I Learned.
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!)
I’m somewhere on the outskirts of Bureau of Land Management country near Moab, Utah. It’s 7 a.m. and I rip off my sweats and puffy jacket that shelter me from the brisk November wind.
My hydration vest, jam-packed with jerky sticks, stroopwafels, caffeinated gels, water, chips, and other fuel, clings to my torso. I breathe deeply — a last-ditch effort to shake off pre-race jitters.
“WAVE TWO RUNNERS! Three minutes and thirty seconds to the gun!,” a race official squawks through a megaphone. My gaze locks on a giant red digital timer. I hand off the bundle of warm apparel to my family. Then, shiver. Two minutes to go.
I shake my limbs and jump around, partly because other runners appear to think it’s a good idea, and mostly because I don’t know shit about warming up for an ultramarathon. One minute to go.
I give my family a nervous-but-determined smile and skip to the starting line. I feel a fire in my belly — perhaps my unwavering resolve, perhaps my breakfast threatening to regurgitate. This is the moment I’ve been training for.
Earlier this year in March, I decided to tackle my first 50K. Why? Admittedly, my competitive nature yearned to prove I had the gumption and grit. But I also wanted to have fun and feel good alongside other racers after an isolated year of pandemic-inspired fitness challenges in 2020.
My training took nine months, 1,000+ trail miles, and three pairs of shoes — not to mention, workouts where I felt like Superwoman, and others where I felt like dumpster fire. I quadrupled my daily protein intake and experimented with intra-workout fueling. I slept (on average) ten hours a night and took foam rolling, yoga, and bodywork more seriously than ever before. I canceled most social commitments to make room for training. I opted for N/A beer and (especially, in the last month) steered clear of ALL booze. Bar none. Long story short: I did a lot of things right. But I also got frustrated. I made a million mistakes and learned lessons the hard way. (Sometimes twice.)
As I approached the starting line, I had no idea what would happen on that race course. But I sure as hell was ready to give it a shot.
“THREE. TWO. ONE!” Screams the lady with the megaphone. BOOM.
I begin to run, just as the sun kisses the tops of the desert cliffs that surround me.
What’s the Point of N/A Beer? No Alcohol Training Setbacks.
Picking the ultramarathon is easy. Training for the race is not. Whether you tackle it with the help of a coach and nutritionist, or on your own, there are many variables at play. From fuel bonks (eat early, eat often!) to proper gear (chafing is real!), the more you amp up mileage, the more you’ll learn.
Shifting body composition, evolving nutritional needs, and a demanding recovery regimen is just the beginning. As a 50K newbie, I didn’t know much. But I did know this: Boozing too hard is bad for any training program. Duh.
Beyond the immediate hangovers and headaches, just a few drinks can severely inhibit your athletic performance and screw your long-term goals. “Both acute and chronic uses of alcohol can affect health and athletic performance,” says Corinna Coffin, MS, RD and Spartan Elite Pro Athlete. Of course, factors like genetics, gender, amount of alcohol ingested, body mass, and nutrition status all play a part in how alcohol affects any given athlete. But in general, “acute alcohol consumption influences motor skills, hydration status, aerobic performance, and certain aspects of the recovery process.”
Chronic alcohol use can have more serious repercussions, like nutritional deficiencies, inhibited immune function, and changes in body composition or repressed muscular adaptations to training stimuli, she says. (In other words, alcohol + athletics = not good. Period.)
But, What If You Crave a Beer Post Workout? (You’re Not Alone)
After finishing long runs over 10+ miles, I’d frequently want a beer. I asked Coffin why, and she explained, “The strain of physical activity often leaves us craving a cool, carbohydrate-rich refreshment with hydrating electrolytes. While sports drinks and chocolate milk certainly fit the bill, as it turns out, so does beer.” Essentially made from fermented grains, beer provides a rich source of carbs and electrolytes necessary to replenish depleted glycogen stores in muscles. It also doesn’t fatigue your body like fruity, sugary drinks typically ingested to fuel a workout.
The thing is: it’s the alcohol that makes beer a less-than-ideal recovery drink. Remove it, and voilà: you get the same post-workout thirst quencher without the recovery setbacks — or sugary gut-rot.
Spartan Pro Nicole Mericle’s Advice to Crush An Ultramarathon
Before my race, I gave Nicole Mericle, Spartan World Champion, Trifecta World Champion and 11-time U.S. National Series podium holder, a call. I knew she had just bagged her first ultra in 2020 (a 46-miler over the Rocky Mountains). She also struggles with hip issues (like me) and is interested in a sober-curious lifestyle (like me). So, I figured she’d have epic training and pre-race advice for ultra beginners. Here’s what stuck out most, from our conversation and from my own trial-and-error training, just in case you’re chasing your first 50K or Spartan Ultra.
1. Sleep Like It’s Your Job + Steer Clear of Booze
“The most important thing to note is that training adaptations only happen in the recovery period,” says Mericle. “It’s so important to put the training in, but if you're not recovering properly, you won't see progress. This can lead to injury, overtraining or both.” Bottom line: you won’t reach your potential. “Sleep is the biggest part of recovery,” she says. “Anything you can do to maximize your sleep, from keeping a consistent bedtime to maintaining the levels of darkness and temperature in your bedroom to steering clear of alcohol, is worth it.”
The main thing, Mericle says, that helps her sleep, is avoiding alcohol after 6 p.m. “If I’m very deep in training, my body is more taxed and it’s not worth it to drink any alcohol, so I opt for a seltzer water or an Athletic Brewing Company brew instead — they’re better options to get quality calories or hydration without the downsides to alcohol.”
MY TAKE: Early on in my training program, I undervalued sleep. I was so focused on mileage I almost forgot about recovery. It wasn’t until month six, when I made 10+ hours of sleep per night a non-negotiable priority, did I start to feel huge progress. Sure, everyone has different training needs, but everyone needs rest. (Plus, opting for N/A beer helped me recover quicker, no doubt.)
2. Face Your Fears + Make a Mental Game Strategy
Attempting to crush an ultra isn’t easy. In fact, many fears come up in training, from injuries to nutrition to self-worth. “When it comes to racing and my mental game, I try to sit down a considerable amount of time before a race and think about the things I’m fearful of,” says Mericle. “I list them out, like: ‘OK, I’m afraid of not being able to finish, of getting injured, of not doing well’, and I dive into all those things and I examine where the fear is coming from, and most importantly, if this presents itself in the race, I ask myself, ‘how am I going to deal with this’?”
MY TAKE: Embracing (and diffusing) my fears was the single most important thing I could’ve done to mentally prepare myself for race day. I took Mericle’s advice and performed a thought exercise where I worked out the worst things that could happen during the race and how I’d respond. Then, I set it aside and shifted my focus back to race-day logistics.
3. Embrace the Adventure + Let Go of Expectations
“My ultra was so far out of my comfort zone in my typical OCR-race distance that my expectations were lower,” Mericle tells me. “When you’re in that state of unknown, you don’t have many preconceived expectations. For me that was a good thing and just meant I felt a lot more comfortable pacing (and not being in a competition mindset) until about halfway when I hit an aid station to recalibrate, and was able to pick up the pace. Going into an ultra is a great example of letting go, because no matter how hard you’ve trained, you have to consider the potential of not being able to finish.”
MY TAKE: In accepting the race as an adventure (and disregarding the actual finish), I was able to be more present and enjoy each moment. Each mile was painful, but glorious, and an accomplishment in and of itself.
My Bottom Line: Ultras Are Worth It, But Take MAJOR Commitment. Be Ready.
Ultras aren’t for the faint of heart. But, here’s the secret: with enough time, proper nutrition, and deliberate recovery, most athletes can most likely handle it.
On my race day, my lungs pump with my strides as I jump across slick rock. My arms swish against my hydration vest. Miles — and hours — tick by as I chase the clock. I follow blue ribbons marking the single track that winds between cacti and juniper.
Around mile 27, without warning, it hits me: this is the furthest I’ve run. Ever.
That fire I felt in my belly at the start stokes itself. A cocktail of soda, caffeinated gummies, and Eminem powers me over the last few miles of arduous sandy wash through the red digital timer — my first ultra finish — feeling like a damn rock star.
I’m not really sure how I did it. It was a nine-month blur of long runs, gear tests, non-alcoholic beers, protein shakes, pep talks, cold showers, self doubts, epic sleeps, and a whole lot of trust. But something magical happened in those last ten steps before my timer chip triggered my finish. And I hope, one day, if you have the guts to try it, you feel the same, too.
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.