Alcohol and Athletics

Alcohol and athletics seem to go hand in hand. Competitors gather at the pub after a team workout, celebrate victories with champagne, and quench thirst with a cold beer. One might think that the detrimental effects of alcohol on performance would make athletes less likely to drink it, but that is not the case. Even serious recreational runners drink more than their sedentary counterparts do.

If you are determined to drink alcohol as a part of your recovery diet, keep in mind the following facts:

  • Alcohol is a depressant. It slows your reaction time; impairs eye-hand coordination, accuracy, and balance; and, apart from killing pain, offers no edge for athletes. You can't be sharp, quick, and drunk.
  • Late-night drinking that contributes to getting too little sleep can wreck the next day's training session. Drinks that contain congeners—red wine, cognac, whiskey—are more likely to cause hangovers than other alcoholic beverages. The best hangover remedy is to avoid drinking excessively in the first place.
  • Alcohol is a poor source of carbohydrate. A 12-ounce can of beer has only 14 grams of carbohydrate, as compared with 40 grams in a can of soft drink. You can get loaded with beer, but it will not load your muscles with carbohydrate—unless you consume pretzels, thick-crust pizza, or other carbohydrate-rich foods along with the beer.
  • Alcohol is absorbed directly from the stomach into the bloodstream, appearing within five minutes after you drink it. After a hard workout, alcohol on an empty stomach can quickly contribute to a drunken stupor. You'd be better off enjoying the natural high from exercise than being brought down by a few postexercise beers.
  • Beer is often a significant source of postexercise fluids; athletes commonly consume larger volumes of beer than they might of water or soft drinks. But the alcohol in beer has a diuretic effect—the more you drink, the more fluids you lose. This process is unhealthy for recovery and often unhealthy for the next exercise bout. One study showed that athletes who drank beer eliminated about 16 ounces (480 ml) more urine over the course of four hours than those who drank low-alcohol (2 percent) beer or alcohol-free beer (Sherriffs and Maughan 1997).
  • Your liver breaks down alcohol at a fixed rate—about four ounces (120 ml) of wine or one can of beer (360 ml) per hour. Exercise does not hasten that process, nor does coffee.
  • Hot tubs, alcohol, and athletes are a bad combination. The hotter your body, the drunker you may feel. Alcohol impairs your ability to control your body temperature, and the high temperature of the hot tub heightens the response of the body to alcohol.
  • Winter sports and alcohol are a dangerous combination. Don't drink while skiing. If you choose to drink alcohol, alternate with soft drinks or juices for carbohydrate and fluids.
  • The calories in alcohol are easily fattening. People who drink moderately often consume alcohol calories on top of their regular caloric intake because alcohol stimulates the appetite. These excess calories promote body-fat accumulation, commonly in the trunk area—the well-known spare tire. If you are trying to maintain a lean machine, abstaining is preferable to imbibing.
  • If you are destined to drink, drink moderately. The definition of moderate drinking is two drinks per day for men and one for women. And have at least one glass of water for every alcoholic drink you consume.
  • Don't start drinking if you can't easily stop. Be conscious of your ability to keep alcohol consumption within socially and medically acceptable bounds.
  • If you believe you need to drink in order to "fit in" and "be popular," think again. A college alcohol survey of 117 student-athletes in Texas found that 22 percent abstained from drinking alcohol, 68 percent described themselves as light to moderate drinkers, and 59 percent did not binge drink (Wagner, Keathley, and Bass 2007).

If you think before you drink, you can talk yourself into moderation. That is preferable to dealing with a hangover. Or if you know you will be drinking, at least eat a hearty meal and drink extra water to buffer the impending flood of alcohol. Drink slowly, don't mix liquors, and please have a designated driver.

If you failed to heed this advice, you are likely dealing with the symptoms of a hangover: headache, light-headedness, irritability, anxiety, sensitivity to light and noise, trouble sleeping, difficulty concentrating, nausea, and vomiting. These symptoms generally dissipate over 12 (or more) hours, but you may be looking for a way to hasten the process.

Anecdotal remedies for a hangover include drinking sodium-containing (nonalcoholic) fluids. The sodium helps retain the fluid in your body. Try chicken soup, Gatorade (with or without added Alka-Seltzer), Pedialyte, or more water or sports drink every time you wake up to urinate during the night. Do not take acetaminophen (Tylenol); this combination can be damaging to the liver.


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