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Can Alcohol Impede Your Progress in the Gym?

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  • Post last modified:September 26, 2023

If you believe all fitness enthusiasts only indulge in the occasional glass of red wine or vodka with a squeeze of lime, you would be gravely mistaken. As a collective, individuals who frequent the gym consume a greater amount of alcohol compared to those who do not, according to a study conducted by the University of Miami. Moreover, the trend of combining alcohol with exercise extends beyond merely attending a happy hour or two. Fitness studios now offer wine bars after barre classes, obstacle course races reward finishers with a cold brew, and wine yoga does not even wait until the workout is complete before serving alcohol.

Consequently, does this imply that alcohol and exercise complement each other as perfectly as vodka and soda? Furthermore, how much can one drink before their fitness levels begin to suffer? We sought the insights of two experts to find out.

How Alcohol Impacts Your Body

In order to comprehend how alcohol affects your fitness, it is essential to grasp its general impact on the body. Even a mere sip of beer, wine, or whiskey will remain in your system for approximately two hours, with the liver playing a pivotal role in breaking down the alcohol into acetic acid, as stated by Kim Larson, R.D.N., the proprietor of Total Health and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics. Once the alcohol enters the bloodstream through the stomach, it permeates almost every organ in the body.

Within a matter of minutes, the alcohol will reach your brain, impairing judgment, slowing cognitive function, and influencing mood, explains Paul Hokemeyer, Ph.D., a Colorado-based addictions psychologist. Not to mention, alcohol affects motor function and alters your response to stimuli, according to Hokemeyer.

It is worth noting that one does not need to consume alcohol to the extent of developing fatty liver disease (a condition that arises from excessive and prolonged drinking) for these nights out after attending barre classes to have a detrimental impact on one’s health.

The Consequences of Drinking after a Workout

No matter how intensely you push yourself during a boot-camp class, if you immediately head to the bar afterward, achieving your fitness goals might prove more challenging. Alcohol interferes with your hormones and inflammatory response to exercise, making it more arduous for your body to repair and recover from the micro muscle tears that occur during training, according to Hokemeyer. Your body needs to mend these tears and grow back stronger in order to witness progress. However, if alcohol is in the picture, your body is preoccupied with metabolizing the alcohol instead of recuperating from the workout, as Larson points out.

As a matter of fact, a study conducted by Northwestern Medicine revealed that individuals may consume greater quantities of alcohol on days when they exercise. Not to mention, the detrimental effects of alcohol on muscular repair and development are heightened if you opt for a beer instead of a suitable post-workout source of fuel such as protein, carbohydrates, and fats, according to Larson.

(If you’re having a mental block on what you should be consuming, take a look at our manual to the finest post-workout snacks for every workout.)

Hard workouts deplete the glycogen stores (i.e. energy) in your body, and consuming alcohol hinders that recovery and recharging process. Scientific studies have proven that athletes who indulge in alcohol at least once a week are more than twice as likely as non-drinkers to sustain injuries, with researchers attributing this to the “hangover effect” of alcohol, which diminishes athletic performance.

Alcohol & Desiccation

You are already aware that you lose water and electrolytes through perspiration when you engage in physical exercise, which can lead to lightheadedness and desiccation. However, nothing signifies desiccation quite like the combination of exercise and alcohol, both of which have been extensively demonstrated to increase fluid loss, according to Hokemeyer.

The consumption of alcohol prolongs recovery after exercise by partially impeding rehydration, which can impact performance, states Larson. Nevertheless, not all experts are in agreement on this matter. In fact, research has discovered that consuming a beer after a grueling workout was sufficient as a tool for desiccation, or at least, drinking did not produce the same diuretic response after a workout as it would during a typical night out.

Regardless, when rehydration is delayed following a workout, muscles recuperate at a slower pace and glycogen is restored more gradually, both of which can impede overall performance, particularly on consecutive training days, according to Larson.

Alcohol-induced desiccation isn’t solely an issue after a workout, but it significantly impacts your fitness regimen if you’ve experienced a late night prior to training as well. Dehydration caused by alcohol can reduce performance by 10 percent or more, she says. This is because exercising while hungover also diminishes the availability of glucose fuel during exercise, resulting in increased thirst and decreased energy. Simply put: Whether it’s duration, speed, or intensity, your fitness will suffer.

Calories in Alcohol

If you prioritize fitness, it’s highly likely that you also prioritize nutritious food. While there’s no hard and fast rule that stipulates that weightlifting enthusiasts must meticulously count their macronutrients, it’s probably best to avoid wasting your daily caloric intake on nutrient-deficient food or beverages. And, well, alcohol is replete with empty calories. That’s because alcohol provides no beneficial nutrients whatsoever, and even consuming just one drink can result in unnecessary calories (and sugar), explains Larson. (Go grocery shopping: The Calorie-Dense Foods to Select and Skip)

While some athletes may attempt to circumvent this rule by imbibing a lower-calorie beverage such as tequila, the effects of alcohol on sports recovery remain the same, according to Hokemeyer. “Alcohol is alcohol,” he asserts.

What’s Your Tolerance?

Evidently, there exists a threshold for every athlete whereby alcohol starts to hinder their aerobic performance (e.g., makes HIIT class feel inhumane and cycling feel torturous), according to research. Predictably, this threshold varies for each individual, says Hokemeyer.

To determine the amount of alcohol you can consume (not only in one sitting, but overall) before it begins to interfere with your fitness goals, he suggests a simple approach – keep track of your progress. “If you’re failing to achieve your target within a specific timeframe, you should examine your lifestyle choices (and alcohol consumption should be at the forefront of that list),” he states. If you prefer not to learn through trial and error, a general guideline for moderate alcohol intake is one beverage per day for women, states Larson. Furthermore, bear in mind that alcohol affects women differently than men, meaning that women process alcohol differently and become intoxicated more quickly, even if they consume the same quantity, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

The Bottom Line On Booze

Does committing fully to your workouts imply that you must completely abstain from alcohol? Going dry will help you stay on track and maintain optimal performance, but it is not the preferred option for most regular athletes. Some suggestions to limit both the hangover and the impact of a night out on your fitness include opting for beverages with lower alcohol content, moderating the number of drinks consumed in succession, and ensuring hydration by drinking plenty of water during and after a night out.

Enjoying the occasional drink or two after a workout can be a pleasurable way to reward yourself after a demanding burpee-filled Tabata session, and it won’t completely hinder your progress unless you are following a specialized training program for a race or strength competition. If you fall into the latter category, apologies, but it would be better to abstain from drinking until after you achieve that goal. And remember, if you choose to indulge, pay even closer attention to your diet by incorporating ample amounts of nourishing fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, whole-grain carbohydrates, and healthy fats for balance.

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