Alcohol and Exercise: An Uneasy Mix

You’ve had a mind-blowing workout, the fourth of the week. Your nutrition has been on point and you’ve even been drinking more water. But now it’s Friday night. The boys/girls are about to hit the town and you don’t want to miss out. You know that you’re going to drink too much – and probably eat a bit of junk in the process. But, with all of your hard work, you can afford to let loose with a Friday night booze up – can’t you?

Alcohol Alert

Alcohol is otherwise known as ethanol. It provides 7 calories per gram. It is also a poison, not really a food source (apart from the sugars in the alcoholic drink). Alcohol, unlike food, is 20% directly absorbed through the stomach and the other 80% absorbed through the small intestine. The rate of absorption will depend on how empty one’s stomach is, the concentration of alcohol in the drink and the type of beverage eg. carbonated vs not. Most of us are well aware of the serious risks associated with alcohol. It is one of the most abused drugs worldwide and is responsible for 1 in 20 deaths in the United States. While a minimum amount of alcohol can actually combat cardiovascular disease (mainly red wine) due to the presence of such nutrients as polyphenols, the benefits quickly disappear when the amount consumed increases.

Alcohol and Working Out

Historically, some athletes thought alcohol improved their exercise performance. It is now recognized, however, that alcohol can severely reduce the quality and intensity of performance. Alcohol is a depressant, not a stimulant. It affects the central nervous system, including the brain. As a result, movement, coordination, concentration, balance and reaction time are all impaired. Alcohol begins to harm the body within minutes of consumption. Consuming 4-8 beers after a competitive game of football can impair muscle function and strength the following day. Aerobic performance will also be impaired for 24 hours. This is due to the alcohols inhibiting of the body’s ability to resynthesise adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is the energy currency of all cells through a process called gluconeogenesis in the liver. It will pay, then, to think about the timing of your next workout following a night out on the town.

Alcohol and Recovery

We need protein, carbohydrates and fluid post exercise to make sure that our bodies are in positive protein balance, that they replenish glycogen and that they rehydrate. Drinking alcohol compromises each of these requirements. Firstly, alcohol blunts the molecular signals that initiate muscle protein synthesis and, therefore, has the potential to inhibit muscle growth and adaptation. Secondly, alcohol is a diuretic. This means that it increases urine output. The more fluid that is removed from the body in urine and sweat, the more you dehydrate. The effect of this can last for days unless sufficient water is consumed.

Long Term Effects of Alcohol

Weight Gain: Regular drinking will lead to fat gain. Alcohol contains a large number of calories and many beers, mixers and alcopops / RTDs are loaded with sugars that provide additional calories. On top of this, once you are under the influence, your inhibitions go out the window and you are more inclined to eat anything in sight, healthy or not (and usually much larger amounts than usual too!). It also may not have come into your thoughts that alcohol is a poison or at least something the body does not want in it. Hence it feels it needs to rid of this ASAP (via an enzyme alcohol dehydropgenase)! This means, the body is working overtime to amend this dangerous situation. In the process, all your training and nutrition efforts are coming unstuck. Poor Adaptations to Training: Regular drinking will, over time, hinder improvements to performance. An effective training program is one that manipulates the intensity, frequency and duration of sessions. Frequent drinking makes it hard to sustain these basic principles. Bad eating caused by hangovers also impairs progress due to poor nutrition for recovery. Higher Risk of Injury: People who drink regularly are more likely to get injured, often during training, than those who do not. Liver Load: Long term drinking (which includes weekend drinks of 5 or so drinks per night) will lead to long-term-stress on your liver. This leads to a cascade of problems but if training is a priority for you, no doubt fat loss and/or muscle gain, along with training performance would also be high on your priority list. Liver stress paves the way to developing a number of not so favourable hormonal reactions in the body such as higher levels of aromatase leading to oestrogen excess and/or dominance or redirecting the metabolic pathways in such a way that testosterone levels drop and cannot be maintained at an optimal level. Both of these examples will result in an inability to gain lean muscle for a faster metabolism and also make you gain fat which will then also be harder to lose. Of course, serious long term abuse puts your health at severe risk. Cirrhosis of the liver is definitely not something you want to face. I can guarantee, training will be the last thing on your mind.

Do You Really Have to Go Dry?

If you are a dedicated athlete and want to get the most from each training session, then you need to get your mind around avoiding anything except small amounts of alcohol. If you do choose to combine drinking and training, follow these common sense tips: • Eat carbs before drinking • Select and pace your drinks • Drink water before retiring • Plan your nutrition – know exactly how you will recover nutritionally so as to bounce back quickly

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