Booze and athletic performance: the health effects of alcohol
As we’re not the Daily Mail here at 33 I’ll not be boring on here about how booze can either make you super healthy, or kill you stone dead overnight. These polar opposites are simply the result of lobbying and hokey science from heavily invested pro and anti booze groups, and deserve no more than a permanent vacation in the bin.
Instead, this one's all about the health effects of alcohol for athletes, how best to incorporate alcohol into your training regime should you want to, and the best choices to make when ordering at the bar.
Alcohol and performance: the basics
“You’ll never find yourself in a race thinking: I wish I’d spent more time in the pub”
From a great friend and training partner, this is the truest quote of all when it comes to alcohol and performance. Because when you’re looking for maximum physical potential the only sensible amount of alcohol to drink is none - on every metric, booze slows you down:
- Alcohol is a diuretic, causing dehydration
- It reduces strength, disrupts sleep and reduces testosterone
- It can increase heart rhythm abnormalities
- "I can't wait to go training", said no one with a hangover, ever
And alcohol is only sending your weight and waistline one way
- When you drink, the acetate in the alcohol becomes your sole fuel source. All the other carbohydrates and fat in your bloodstream are ignored and left with only one place to go: your waistline
- It increases your appetite, an effect magnified the more you drink, with a focus on fatty, salty foods. Midnight kebabs don’t help weight management
- As a final kicker, all alcohol, even the high quality stuff, is high in sugars and contains zero nutrients
"Oooh, dragon fruit!" And other things no one ever said after seven pints and a yard of tequila
Blimey, does this mean I should give up drinking altogether?
Fortunately, no, unless you want to of course.
Alcohol in moderation can have its benefits as a relaxing treat at the end of hard day, or an enjoyable tipple when out with friends. Plus it adds a further dimension to the enjoyment of great food and company. A healthy relationship with booze is no bad thing.
If you do want to give it up though, you’ll quickly find a lot of drinking is basically habit. Once you’ve shifted your mindset, you’ll be surprised at how little booze you’ll miss, if any.
So what is a healthy relationship with alcohol?
Aha, now here we can really get into the weeds. After all, everyone’s different.
The only real answer is: a relationship you’re happy with.
If you’re at ease with your drinking, happy you’re enjoying its benefits with no detriment to performance in any area of your life - fitness, work or relationships - then rock on.
If you’re not at ease with it - and deep down you’ll know if this is the case - change can’t come too soon.
At the lighter end of the scale, focusing on alcohol’s after effects (slower race times, weight gain, painful hangovers) is a great trigger for not ordering that extra drink, and at the heavier end professional help is the best place to start.
Too many evenings looking like this? Might be time to ease off the gas on the booze front
For anyone facing friendly peer pressure for a drink they’d prefer not to have, never underestimate the power of having a massive race in the calendar.
Explaining you’re in training to run the Sahara/race an Ironman/cycle to Scotland will have even the hardiest boozers rushing to the bar to buy your lime and soda.
But alcohol’s a natural product, it can’t be all bad?
True, and the adverts would certainly have you believe all beer, wine, cider and spirits are the loving products of painstaking artisan processes, refined since time immemorial and handed down through the generations, all so the drink in your glass is as pure as angel's tears.
Clearly though, this is basically b*llocks.
Like any other mass-produced global consumer product, booze is made by the gallon in the most cost-efficient way possible, which is why if you do ever visit the working end of a major alcohol factory you’ll find a place that looks like a steel works and smells like a cross between a cheap hotel and an oil refinery.
The ingredients in alcohol don't have to be legally declared, hence you’ll find no ingredients labels to guide you. Truth is, there are a ton of low rent ingredients allowed in all alcohol production.
Here’s a quick overview:
Beer can, among other things, legally contain
- Non-GMO rice
- Propylene glycol
- High fructose corn syrup
- Dried fish swim bladders
Yes, you read the last part right. Called isinglass, it makes drinks look clear. It’s also why most beer and wine is not vegan
Wine. Rather more than fermented grape juice
A lot of extras are allowed in wine to alter colour, texture, taste and alcohol content. These include
- And, of course, those pesky fish bladders again
Cider. Now with 72 extra ingredients
Shining the clearest light on just how much manipulation is allowed in alcohol production are the UK government’s guidelines for cider production, listing no fewer than 72 extra permitted ingredients, including:
- Dimethyl dicarbonate
- An unlimited amount of high fructose corn syrup
- Colourings including acid brilliant green (E142)
- And tartrazine (E102)
Craft breweries, small distilleries and independent vineyards are all potentially better, but still far from guaranteed. So with no ingredients label to sort one from another, how can you drink smart?
How to drink smart when you fancy a tipple
Several really simple tips for this one, and they are:
- Drink certified organic for improved ingredients
- Go heavy on the ice when appropriate (G&Ts good, rare Merlot less so)
- Accept no alcohol is perfect and enjoy what you want in moderation
- Alternate alcoholic drinks with water
- Go very high quality - a small amount of something pricey you can really savour is much better in all respects than a lot of cheap stuff you don’t even notice
- Swerve the booze altogether and swap for lime and soda
Booze less, live more. Of course you could always mix up our Chia Energy Gels with gin & tonic, but it's not recommended ;)
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