Thursday, April 17, 2008

Alcohol and Training

I'm a beer enthusiast.  Back in college our favorite bar served 100 varieties and you could get your name permanently on the wall if you tried 'em all.  I enjoy a casual conversation over a few beers...  I also enjoy an enthusiastic night on the town with a few too many beverages.  But neither fits well with my current training and racing goals so they're on the back burner.  My friend Jeff recently went 6 months without a drink after getting into ultra running.  Ben and I both joke about what lightweights we've become in recent years.

But how strongly does alcohol affect performance?  I know two strong racers on the Tri-California & ITU circuits who will have nine or ten beers after a race.  Are they giving the rest of us an opportunity to catch up?  Or does a bit of cutting loose help them train more effectively the rest of the time, while having a negligible effect on recovery from that race?

Here are some theories that I've heard about alcohol and training: 

  • Alcohol is a diuretic and can inhibit proper hydration.  I'm rather confident about this one.  A common recommendation is to drink 1 or 2 glasses of water with each beer to mitigate these effects.
  • Alcohol inhibits the body's ability to secrete human growth hormone, greatly diminishing recovery and therefore the desired Training Effect.  (Remember the adage that training makes you weaker and recovery makes you stronger?)  I once heard that a single drink reduces the Training Effect by 30%, two drinks by 60% and at three drinks you may as well have not worked out at all.  But I can't find confirmation or denial of this online.  I couldn't find any articles about alcohol on Science of Sport.
  • Possible effects on electrolyte and mineral retention, making you more likely to cramp the next day.
  • The extra calories will make you put on weight if you don't offset them elsewhere.  No argument here.  It's interesting to note that I've recently seen alcohol pulled out of the Carbohydrate macronutrient bucket (4 cal/gram) and into its own bucket, in the neighborhood of 7 cal/gram.
  • In Ball Four, Jim Bouton talks about baseball players being forced to run the morning after a hard drinking session in order to "get the bad blood out."  As unscientific as that sounds, I have certainly seen hangover symptoms decrease after doing an aerobic workout the next day.  Most memorably, Don Ruthven and I had a few too many last May after the Capital of Texas triathlon got rained out.  A 2-3 hour ride the next morning with Josh Lee took care of my nausea but I still had that feeling of sleep deprivation until I got a real night's sleep.  Does aerobic training have a proven effect on hangover symptoms?

Much of what I was able to find online about alcohol and sport focused on the effects of being intoxicated *during* activity.  I found three interesting points in this area:

  • As expected, coordination is inhibited.  This hurts performance in "skill sports."
  • As for endurance sports, research seemed somewhat inconclusive.  There is more certainty about the lack or an ergogenic effect than about the presence of a detrimental effect...  but with dehydration and an unscientific expectation of gastro distress I am not planning to race drunk anytime soon.
  • The most interesting point was that a drink or two can be helpful for competitors in shooting sports where relaxation is key!

Two recent experiences I've had support the belief that alcohol affects recovery much more than workout performance. 

  1. Last week I was offered a sample of a newly formulated Mac and Jack's IPA a few hours before my scheduled track workout.  It would have been impolite to decline so I hung out and consumed about 12 ounces of beer.  My stomach didn't feel great as I warmed up two hours later but I successfully ran a challenging 8x1000m workout on a day where many of my training group buddies fell off pace.
  2. This past Sunday I raced in a masters swim meet and then volunteered at the Brad Lewis Memorial Criterium.  Afterwards it's traditional to go grab a few beers with the team and I decided to partake but to limit myself to one.  I figured the hours between my competition and my beer had given me plenty of time to rehydrate and to replenish my muscle glycogen stores...  but I woke up the next morning with some very slight (but noticeable) hangover symptoms and I struggled then failed to maintain my target wattages on a morning computrainer ride.

Note - although I've had a beer *twice* in the last week I assure you that those two sessions constitute a quarter of my drinking engagements this calendar year.

So if I do want to have a beer or two, what is the ideal timing relative to my hard training sessions?  Only after an easy day?  Only before an easy day?  Only during a recovery week?  Never?  What am I sacrificing?  How major are the effects of a heavier binge? 

I look forward your comments, anecdotes and links.

1 comment:

  1. Hey I appreciate the article; I gave up alcohol for 13 months completely a year or two ago and definitely notice the differences! I too enjoy a glass of wine occasionally with dinner and friends, but given I've become such a light weight and I'm more aware of the damages to the sacrifices it’s just not really worth it anymore. Whether it's a workout, work day or just a lazy day laying at Greenlake it makes me perform worst, spacey and feel energetically drained, like in a haze the next day. I miss more of life’s amazing opportunities and experiences living in the clouds and daze of the afterthought.