Alcohol and Your Fitness
To drink, or not to drink?
If you're a follower of our content, you know we're all about moderation. But what exactly are all those tasty beverages doing to your ability to achieve your fitness goals?
Below I lay out what alcohol does to your ability to lose weight, get stronger, run farther, and recover faster, and how a little moderation can make a huge difference in your fitness.
Before we jump into things, I want to define a couple of terms here so we can be on the same page. See, there are some important differences between non-drinkers, moderate drinkers, and heavy drinkers. There’s also acute drinking and chronic drinking,
So let’s start with acute heavy alcohol use: This would also be called binge drinking and means more than 5 drinks for men and 4 drinks for women in a 2-hour span.
When I say, Chronic Heavy Alcohol Use, this means:
More than 4 drinks in a day for men, 3 for women
More than 15 drinks a week for men, 8 for women
Drinking on 5 or more days a week, weekly
Compare that to moderate alcohol consumption which is:
2 or fewer drinks for men, 1 or fewer drinks for women per day
And finally, non-drinkers are people who either don’t drink or who have a drink a couple of times a month socially where it’s statistically irrelevant.
When researching for today’s topic, I found an excellent article from the Harvard Health Letter on moderate alcohol consumption. It reads:
Moderation in all things — maybe that is the key to health and happiness. The proverb certainly seems true for alcohol consumption.
Study after study has shown that moderate alcohol consumption is associated with good health. The evidence is strongest for protection against heart attack and stroke: there's an abundance of epidemiological data, as well as results showing that alcohol increases "good" HDL cholesterol and reduces factors in the blood, such as fibrinogen, that cause clotting and therefore make heart attacks and strokes more likely. Researchers have reported correlations with a lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes, having gallstones, and experiencing steep cognitive decline in old age.
The news isn't all good: moderate drinking seems to increase the risk of colon and breast cancer, although women may be able to reduce the breast cancer risk some by increasing their intake of folate.
But watch out if alcohol consumption is immoderate. Benefits quickly vanish, and there's a long list of possible harms that take their place: serious liver disease (cancer and cirrhosis), high blood pressure, certain cancers, traffic accidents, violence.
You can read the full article here: https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/moderate-drinking-and-how-to-keep-it-that-way
So I’ll let that set the tone for this blog as we get into this so no one stops reading here...I’m not saying NOT to drink, I’m just going to present to you a few ways that alcohol affects various aspects of your fitness; particularly HEAVY use of alcohol. We talk about moderation ALL the time and this is no exception.
Alright, so let’s get into what that 3rd Old Fashioned is doing to your fitness…
So for starters, you’ve heard me talk about macronutrients on the Straight Shot Radio podcast a lot before. We’ve got carbs, fats, proteins, and technically water (even though it doesn’t contain any calories, you still need a lot of it, thus it’s a macronutrient). Carbs and protein both contain 4 calories per gram, while fat contains 9 calories per gram. Well, Alcohol actually contains 7 calories per gram. Carbs and fat are the body’s preferred fuel sources, with protein being used for maintaining structures of the body.
The calories from alcohol are NOT something our body likes to use as fuel, since alcohol is technically a toxin that the body works hard to eliminate. When you eat a meal and have a couple of drinks with it, your body works to take care of the alcohol first, this means the normal metabolism of carbs, fats, and protein is inhibited, resulting in those macronutrients being temporarily stored away rather than being utilized sooner for fuel. If you are eating and drinking more calories than you are burning on a weekly basis, those stores of calories are what become stored body fat on your body.
Now, this doesn’t mean you can’t be lean and enjoy a couple of drinks, but if you’re trying to lose weight or maintain lower levels of body fat, you really need to limit excess calories from alcohol. There are no nutrients you NEED in alcohol, so those empty calories are a great place to start cutting when you are looking to reduce your caloric intake.
The other issue with alcohol and weight gain is that your judgment is impaired while drinking, resulting in you making food choices you usually would have more self-control over. Some studies have shown that alcohol has a negative effect on the hormones that control hunger and the feeling of fullness. Meaning you THINK you’re hungrier than you are when you’re drunk.
Back in Episode 103 of the podcast called “Sleep Deprivation and Your Fitness,” I talked about how important sleep is to your weight loss and exercise recovery, well...here’s some more bad news about heavy drinking: The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism did a sleep study involving alcohol and found that Alcohol has extensive effects on sleep and daytime sleepiness.
In healthy people, acute high alcohol doses disturb sleep. And I know you might be thinking to yourself, “but alcohol makes me sleepy!” YES. You’re right, it DOES make you drowsy but it reduces the depth and quality of your sleep, and you need that deep, restful sleep in order to effectively manage your weight, perform well in your workouts, and recover correctly to keep your training on track.
So that’s alcohol and weight loss, what about alcohol and gaining muscle? Or alcohol and your workout performance?
It’s well documented that chronic alcohol consumption leads to muscle weakness and atrophy in part by suppressing protein synthesis
But, good news for you moderate drinkers, in a Penn State Medicine study, they found that moderate alcohol consumption does not impair overload-induced muscle hypertrophy and protein synthesis.
Alcohol’s effects on muscle recovery are different depending on the TYPE of muscle fibers you have, and the activity you did. Fast-twitch muscle fibers are the ones you use in explosive movements or high resistance, low repetition movements like a set of heavy squats. Meanwhile, slow-twitch muscle fibers are used for endurance activities like moving your legs while you’re out for a run.
According to alcohol scientist Dr. Jakob Vingren, drinking alcohol the night before working out or being hungover during a workout seems to affect the slow-twitch muscles more, meaning your muscular endurance will be reduced. Being hungover does NOT seem to affect the performance of the fast-twitch fibers on strength tests.
But to all my heavy lifting friends who just cracked open Dos Equis in excitement, there’s bad news for you all too...heavy drinking the night after a heavy workout greatly reduces your ability to recover by inhibiting protein synthesis and hormone regulation. So it’s entirely possible to literally WASTE a workout by getting WASTED.
And remember, alcohol has an effect on your sleep as well so you won’t be sleeping deep enough for your body to repair damaged muscle tissue or sleep well enough for you to recharge physically and mentally put forth your best efforts in your next training day. Gaining muscle or getting stronger isn’t just about getting 8 or more hours of sleep a night, you also need high-quality sleep, and alcohol is the enemy of quality sleep.
Now, the trouble with presenting the studies I did above is that each study wasn’t performed on YOUR body and YOUR metabolism of alcohol and it isn’t YOUR workout program being looked at. Alcohol’s effect on your recovery may be VERY different than someone else’s. You handle alcohol differently than someone else, and people have very different training methods and training goals. However it’s a lot like what I said back in the weight loss portion, if you’re looking to maximize your muscle mass and recovery AND improve your performance, there is nothing in alcohol that’s going to HELP you. Honestly, if you’re going to have more than a drink or two, I’d suggest spacing it 16 or more hours after your workout. Basically, don’t drink heavily on days when you worked out, or the day before you workout...which loosely translated means...if you want to get stronger, leaner, and healthier, don’t drink heavily or do it as infrequently as possible.
So when I was talking to my clients about this episode and blog, the same question kept coming up, they wanted to know…”Well, what kind of alcohol is better for me?” More bad news. These studies on alcohol and exercise were done with vodka or similar alcohol that was the closest thing the scientists could get to pure alcohol so NO other factors present in things like wine, beer, or dark liquors could have an effect on the athletes.
Dr. Jakob Vingren, the alcohol scientist from before says that those other factors are more likely to give you a hangover, but you’d have to do a specific study on beer or wine or whiskey in order to be able to see if those other chemicals present in those drinks have more of an effect than others. Plus, it’s so individual, right? If I say the word Tequila right now, I know some of you just started to gag remember a bad experience you had, while other people are thinking “Oh yeah that reminds me, I need to pick up another bottle of the Rock’s tequila today.” It also depends on the quality of the alcohol. Cheap bourbon is VERY different than top-shelf bourbon.
When it comes to what kind of alcohol you want to have, all contain calories, and honestly, the difference between gin, vodka, tequila, and whiskey is so marginal. We’re talking a 30 calorie difference between vodka (64 cal per oz) and whiskey (97 cal per oz). If you’re only having one or two, it doesn’t really matter the type. The problem is when you’re having 4 or more, AND you’re mixing your rum with coke or your vodka with a red bull, all of those calories from alcohol and sugar stack up, and before long you’ve taken in an 800-1000 calories JUST FROM MIXED DRINKS.
So my advice is, like always. Practice some moderation, and if you’re trying to lose weight, I’d cut it back to a couple of drinks a WEEK. Think of it like a soda. You wouldn’t drink a soda every night (or at least you shouldn’t drink a soda every night) if you’re trying to lose weight. So don’t drink alcohol every night if you’re trying to drop weight.
As for recovering from your workouts, remember how hard you pushed in that workout when you think about pouring yourself a 2nd or 3rd or 4th drink later that night. Don’t undo all that hard work by stopping your body’s pivotal recovery processes with alcohol. And if you’re going to go out for a run the next day, have just 1 drink or don’t drink at all for an easy way to improve your performance.