Updated: March 5th, 2022
The effect of alcohol on running performance and recovery.

It’s no secret that athletes consume alcohol, heck, I know running clubs that meet outside a local bar, only to return and end their session, with a swift drink before heading home. And I’m not saying that needs to stop, running is an incredibly social activity, it’s being part of a community. But what impact does alcohol have on your running performance, or even on your recovery? Oh, I’m so glad you asked…

For starters, how much is too much? Because the guidelines on consumption differ from country to country. For starters, an average glass of wine in the USA is 5oz (150ml) whereas, in the UK, it’s 175 ml for a regular, but then, you will find it served in smaller glasses throughout Spain. And drinking too many will inevitably impact your running, regardless of whether you are sticking to your training plan, working hard, eating right and adhering to the intensity of each session.

What will alcohol affect most?

Your Sleep

There are 4 individual stages of sleep, they are:

    Stage 1 – N1
    Stage 2 – N2
    Stage 3 – N3/deep sleep
    Stage 4 – REM sleep

And they are determined based on the brain activity patterns throughout a night’s sleep. Experts say that stage 3 is critical for restorative sleep, allowing the body to repair and recover. Whereas REM sleep is integral for cognitive functions: memory, learning and creativity.

Each person will go through numerous stages throughout the night, making up your total sleep. But alcohol interferes with the stages and patterns of sleep. Alcohol decreases REM sleep early on in the night, but as the alcohol wears off, the body rebounds with prolonged REM stages (ideally REM sleep lasts for 10-60 minutes) – where your brain is more active, and getting less deep restoring sleep which is vital for a runner, wouldn’t you think?

Sleeping cat in a cosy bed

Dehydration levels

Alcohol seems to have this magic power of increased thirst and urination, which no surprise, leads to increased fluid loss. In fact, up to 3% of body weight can be lost within 4 hours of consumption – a serious problem in hotter climates. It’s probably best to go T-total if your training or racing in the heat. Because not only do you lose water through drinking alcohol, if you then go running, sweating will completely dry out whatever reserve you had left in the tank.

Remember the problems that come from dehydration? If being brain fogged, lethargic and thirsty doesn’t prevent you from running, fatigue and muscle cramps will.

Dehydrated runner

Your Muscles

Higher alcohol levels in the blood prevents calcium ions to your muscles, meaning muscle recruitment is affected, leading to a loss in power output. Excessive amounts of alcohol impacts testosterone levels (a male-dominated hormone that promotes muscle growth) so not only will you struggle to build muscle throughout your training, you will also lose the ability to effectively use the ones you have… not ideal!

Arm wrestle. Strong arm vs weak

Your Proprioception (and inability to stay upright)

After a few drinks, balance starts to become an issue. But how does that impact your training? Well with the decreased capability for muscle firing and recruitment, when we need it most (your foot heading down a pothole, or vulnerable ankle on a tree root for example) your body will not be able to react in time, leading to ankle sprains, trips and falls. Joint and ligament injuries are much more prevalent when proprioception isn’t up to scratch.

Runner rolling ankle on unsteady terrain

Empty calories = extra weight

It goes without saying I suspect, but alcohol does not contain one nutritional benefit, yet is 7 calories per gram. Those 7 calories are stored in the body just like fat and will sit around the stomach area (is there a reason they call it beer belly?) As a runner, carrying additional weight is not ideal. Heading for longer distances, you are putting yourself at higher risk of injury carrying extra weight, so be mindful and check for signs of weight gain around the belly, if you are drinking excessively.

Beer belly on show as man pours another beer

Sugar cravings

Stabilising your bloody sugar levels is a sport within itself, especially training so much. And craving junk food is a sign they are out of balance, and what is the one thing you crave when you drink alcohol? JUNK FOOD! Why? Because your liver is struggling to produce the amount of glucose you need to counteract the blood sugar levels swimming around your body.
And what is junk food good for? Nothing really, not for you, a runner in training!

Box of junk food, donuts and cakes half eaten

Affect of alcohol on recovery

See, it is not just your performance that is impacted, the all-important recovery time will take a hit too! The strain put on the liver, it’s too busy regulating your body and its blood flow than it is in getting you recovered to the fullest.

Could a regular glass of wine stagnate your progress? Could it undo all your hard work? According to the research, yes, it advises runners to ditch the alcohol and focus on consuming foods that will help us recover post-run, to give the body every chance of recharging as possible.

A 2014 study concludes that “If athletes are to consume alcohol after sport/exercise, a dose of approximately 0.5 g/kg body weight is unlikely to impact most aspects of recovery”.

That being said, let’s not forget the 8,000 marathon runners who run the French Medoc Marathon in costumes, every year. They serve wine at water stations there because the course winds its way through some of the best and most famous vineyards in the world.

French marathon wine at the water station

So, armed with information, and the relevant research… It’s down to you to decide, vino or not to vino?

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