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December 20, 2012

Will Drinking Alcohol Affect My Running?

Written by Dena Evans

imgres-1Will Drinking Alcohol Affect My Running? Yes, We’re Going There

 

Even if your regular schedule doesn’t include significant regular alcohol consumption, around the holidays the chances that you will imbibe definitely rise.  Whether it is the office party, home with the family, or New Year’s Eve, you might want to run well the next day despite having one or more drinks the night before.  Does it matter?

 

Natural ingredients…all good, right?

Alcohol (ethanol), in the form of beer, wine, or spirits, is ultimately a beverage fermented / distilled from natural base ingredients such as grains and grapes.  So, it’s carbo-loading from nature’s bounty!  Not so fast.  The calories (7 per gram, compared to 9 per gram of fat or 4 per gram of carbohydrate or protein) may come in with each drink, but the loss of sodium and potassium via the diuretic impact of alcohol (see below) causes a greater impact.  According to the American College of Sports Medicine, orange juice has four times the potassium as beer, for example – so the electrolyte gain to begin with is minimal.  Further, since there is no essential need for alcohol in the body (unlike carbohydrates, protein, and fat), it is metabolized first, which leads to a quick release into the bloodstream.

 

Alcohol is also an appetite stimulant. Combine the chemical impulse to eat more with the slower and poorer judgment in play due to the quick release of the chemicals into the bloodstream and the resulting actions might not mirror desirable, sane, and temperate eating patterns during the period of time when drinking occurs.  If the alcohol effects don’t have a big impact, the food consumption impact is also wise to be aware of.

 

Alcohol, the anti-hydration beverage

In their oft-cited article Alcohol Hangover:  Mechanisms and Mediators, Drs. Robert Swift and Dena Davidson write that alcohol causes the body to increase urinary output (i.e., it is a diuretic). The consumption of 50 g of alcohol in 250 milliliters (mL) of water (i.e. approximately 4 drinks) causes the elimination of 600 to 1,000 mL (or up to 1 quart) of water over several hours.  Losing 1 quart of water before any serious physical endurance activity is a recipe for major challenges, and obviously at cross purposes with the intent for a successful run, workout, or race.   Electrolytes are often drained with that water loss, and the initial sedative effects of the alcohol can often give way to restless sleep.  The next morning, drained of water, electrolytes, and quality rest, a cup of coffee or two adds another diuretic to the mix, and a hopeful ibuprofen puts further pressure on the liver.  Very quickly, one can anticipate that quality athletic endurance performance is in jeopardy.

 

Alcohol, between the ears

Dr. Conor P. O’Brien of the Blackrock Clinic in Dublin, Ireland, related to the UC San Diego Athletic Performance Nutrition Bulletin that “many studies have shown that alcohol is actually a depressant that takes its toll on several parts of the body, including the brain. It slows reaction times, delays the thinking process, suppresses the immune system, and affects recovery time from injury.”

 

So, a night of a few drinks can leave you dehydrated, depleted of electrolytes, underslept, with slower reaction times, a suppressed immune system, and longer recovery time.  Is there any good news?

 

The good news

Over the past several years, a few studies at Harvard and UC Berkeley among others have indicated a relationship between components of alcoholic beverages and good health. Resveratrol (an antioxident found in red wine) has been shown in some studies to have a health impact on par with general calorie reduction over the long term.  A glass of red wine per day is said to have an impact on heart health through other anti-oxidents called flavanoids. Plant products called saponins also can block the body’s production of bad cholesterol.   Many other green shoots are on the horizon, indicating potential benefits from moderate alcohol consumption.  However, not many of these benefits appear to have immediate benefits – on the other hand, Dr. O’Brien states that consumption of several drinks can leave cellular effects in the body up to three days afterwards, and two nights straight of drinking can leave its mark for five.

 

How to be proactive

Whether drinking is a desired or unavoidable component of the night before running, or part of an unwinding process post-race or run, consider some measures you can take to limit the negative effects alcohol can have on your body and its performance.  Make sure you have eaten before you take the first drink, to slow down the digestive process to a manageable rate for your liver and your brain.  Drink a glass of water before and between every drink to lessen the diuretic effects of the beer, wine, or spirits.  Choose club soda over juice and make sure to include ice in your drink to moderate caloric intake.  Alcohol can inhibit your body’s ability to regulate its temperature.  Anticipate feeling colder or warmer than normal and dress with that in mind.  Practice moderation, stretch out each drink over several sips, and drink at a time of night when you still have a fighting chance for a decent night’s sleep.

 

As yet one more variable to consider at this busy time of year, the effects of alcohol likely will vary from one runner to another.   Remind yourself of your goals before you raise your glass and stay motivated to keep your consumption moderate.

 

 

 

 

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