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Alcohol & Athletes: The good, the bad and the ugly


Brought to you courtesy of Nancy Clark, MS RD CSSD.


When asked Is beer good for runners? running legend Jim Fixx's answer was “Sure, if it's the other guy drinking it!" By abstaining from alcohol, you can indeed gain an advantage over your competitor’s poor judgment. Just how bad is alcohol for athletes? Does it have any health benefits, too? Let’s look at some of the good, the bad, and the ugly regarding alcohol and athletes.

The good: Socializing with a glass of wine, a beer, or a cocktail can add a nice touch to the end of the day for those who like to relax with an alcoholic beverage. Raising a glass to celebrate a victory is a fond tradition. But we know surprisingly little about possible health benefits of drinking in moderation because almost all studies are based on self-reported information that gets tangled up with lifestyle. Do adults who do moderate social drinking enjoy a healthier lifestyle than non- or heavy-drinkers? Does alcohol make them healthier—or do social connections make the difference? While moderate alcohol intake has been linked to reduced risk of heart disease, so has eating a healthy diet and being physically active.

• The bad: Alcohol has a negative reputation regarding athletics, be it heavy beer consumption after a hard work-out, or teams enmeshed in a culture of binge drinking. Student-athletes binge-drink more than non-athletes. Male athletes binge-drink more than female athletes. And all athletes drink more than non-athletes. The higher alcohol intake of athletes can be attributed to stress and anxiety associated with being a competitive athlete, increased muscle pain and soreness, socializing or bonding with teammates, and the belief the athlete “earned”the drink—a reward for having completed the hard effort.

The ugly: Alcohol is the 3rd leading preventable cause of death in the US. (Tobacco is Number One. A poor diet with inactive lifestyle is Number Two.) Any level of alcohol intake can contribute to several types of cancer

How do you know if you have a drinking problem? Moderate drinkers typically sip (not gulp) their drinks, stop drinking before they get drunk, and do not drive after drinking. Problem drinkers commonly drink to get drunk and to solve their problems. They drink at inappropriate times (such as before going to work) and may become loud/angry or silent/reclusive. People addicted to alcohol start drinking with no plan, deny drinking, hide bottles, and miss work or school because of hangovers.

Alcohol management

Despite the bad and the ugly, alcohol is an undeniable part of our sports culture. The following tips offer suggestions for helping athletes manage alcohol.

Don't drink excessive alcohol before an event—especially in the summer heat!Drinking too much the night before an event will hurt your performance the next day. You’ll notice a slower reaction time and reduced eye-hand coordination and balance. Research with Australian rugby players who consumed on average 9 beers post-game (with a range of <1 to 22 beers) indicates—no surprise— their high alcohol intake impaired their performance. Other studies report athletes are less able to do repeated sprints (think soccer, hockey) and jumps (volleyball, basketball). Among heat-stricken summer runners, a common denominator was booze the night before the race.

• If you are going to drink the night before or after an event, plan to also consume a proper sports meal with extra water. While excessive drinking is obviously problematic, a modest amount of alcohol consumed along with a balanced meal will unlikely have a negative impact. Yes, alcohol impairs glycogen resynthesis a bit. But in the real world of sports drinking, athletes who are heavy drinkers tend to make high fat food choices (nachos, burgers, etc.). The lack of healthful grains, fruits and veggies (carbohydrates) more significantly hinders glycogen replacement!

• First quench your post-exercise thirst with water, then enjoy alcohol, if desired. Alcohol is a diuretic; it stimulates the formation of excess urine. Whiskey and other spirits with a high alcohol content will dehydrate (not rehydrate) you. If you “must” drink spirits, ask for extra ice with the cocktail. Beer would be the better choice, given the alcohol content of beer is lower and the water content is higher. Yes, dehydrated adult athletes can rehydrate with a beer or two. Low-alcohol beer is the wiser choice, and no-alcohol beer the wisest beer choice.

• Heavy alcohol intake is not on the list of Best Recovery Practices for athletes to follow! Remember: bad things happen during exercise and good things happen during recovery. Wisely chosen recovery fluids and foods help you rehydrate, refuel, and repair your muscles. Adding alcohol to the mix slows down muscle repair, protein synthesis and adaptation processes. Yet a glass or two of wine or beer, along with plenty of water and food, is permissible.

Alcohol is a source of calories that can quickly add up. Add in the calories in the pizza, nachos or munchies that you can easily overeat when alcohol lowers your inhibitions, and you can easily succeed in gaining body fat. Just five Heineken Light Beers add 500 calories. A goblet of wine can easily add 200 calories. Be wary of drinks that come with umbrellas! (400-800 calories/10-ounces)!

• Don’t drink alcohol if you want a good night’s sleep. Alcohol might help you fall asleep faster, but it disrupts your sleep cycle. You’ll get less restorative sleep. Alcohol alters body temperature, which can affect how well you sleep. It also aggravates snoring (due to relaxed muscles and a lower breathing rate), so your bed partner becomes sleep deprived and grumpy. Plus, you’ll need to go to the bathroom more often in the middle of the night. None of this enhances athletic performance.

• If you don’t want to drink, be prepared to quickly say “No thanks” in a polite but convincing voice. If the person keeps insisting, respond again: “Î don’t want to drink today. I’d appreciate if you’d help me out.” Instead, be pleased that you will enjoy the natural high of exercise.

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