If you haven’t noticed it already, running and drinking are becoming an universally accepted pairing. Recent research indicates that there could be a direct correlation between physical activity and consumption of alcohol, as was revealed by a 2011 study that exercising could motivate people to drink. Your drinking habit as a runner could be because you think you deserve a pint or two after logging miles or your running group dynamics are such that a celebratory post-run drinking session is mandatory. Whatever the reason, it seems that running and drinking go hand-in-hand. 

But what about alcohol consumption being injurious to health? Obviously no one can be immune to the health consequences inflicted by regular alcohol consumption. Whether you’re looking at beating your own PR or hoping to qualify for your dream marathon, is it OK to drink and run or do you need to wean yourself off the bottle to improve your performance? Here’s the low down on the good, the bad, and the ugly on boozing.

Christopher Baker, a three-time Ironman finisher, distance runner, and certified running coach, says he sticks to light beer the night before the race as it helps him relax and sleep. (Image Courtesy: runningfrommyproblems.com)

Matthew Barnes, PhD., who studies the effects of alcohol and exercise at New Zealand’s Massey University, highlighted the link between exercise and drinking in an interview with The Greatist. Many top marathon runners have the habit of drinking a pint of beer before a big marathon as it helps soothe the nerves. To this Barnes says, “It’s highly unlikely that a single drink the night before a race will have any impact on performance, particularly if you’re used to drinking alcohol.”

But don’t go chugging down the alcohol just yet! Backed by a lot of studies and research, Barnes says that alcohol does infact affect long-term training. His own research has also shown evidence that drinking alcohol directly after an exercise is likely to inhibit recovery and impair performance, especially for endurance athletes. It impacts the immune, hormonal, musculoskeletal, and nervous system, and in no way is going to help you crush your 10K. Here are the many reasons why alcohol is deemed toxic:

  • Alters blood sugar levels: Greg Whyte, professor in applied sport and exercise science at Liverpool John Moores University, says that a bight of heavy drinking can very well lead to hypoglycemia or low blood sugar levels. This is precisely why you grave for sugary, high-carb snacks when hungover. This alternating in glucose can lead to a drop in energy levels and can affect your training for a long marathon.
  • Affects your heart: Whyte says that there is a strong possibility of inducing arrhythmia or irregular heart rhythms by drinking before an intense run or workout. And this will not only affect your training and performance, but can be detrimental to your health.
  • Irregular sleep patterns: Drinking has been shown to disrupt sleep patterns, decreasing the quality and total hours of sleep. Getting enough shut-eye is a crucial factor of overall health. Sleep becomes even more important when it comes to improving athletic performance and giving your body enough rest for muscle recovery. Sleep deprivation due to alcohol can lead to poor performance in training and competition for athletes, resulting in a a below par performance on race day.
  • Besides this don’t forget the nasty hangovers and the boozy calories you can pile on. Alcohol dehydrates your body, which causes headaches, stomach cramps and overall fatigue. You definitely don’t need that on race day.
When consumed in moderation, alcohol can put you in a happier mood and  provide a much needed psychosocial boost.

Here’s what the experts have to say

Though on the bright side, drinking alcohol has been shown to up people’s spirits and provide them with a psychosocial boost, “Moderation is the key,” says Whyte. A bunch of boozy friends is a nice reward after a long-hard race. He’s recommendation while training is one drink per day for women, and two for the guys.

Whyte and Barnes both agree that cutting off alcohol consumption a week out from race day, to ensure that your performance won’t be affected by it. But Whyte says, that the only way to banish alcohol from interfering with your performance is to completely cut it off during the entire training period.

But for those of whom you want to enjoy a couple of drinks while training, do so in moderation. Whyte says,”Beer and wine tend to be full of calories, so choosing hard liquor (without high-calorie mixers) in small amounts could be better for performance.” Baker on the other hand, advice to steer clear of any hard alcohol and recommends a few light beers.

The Final Verdict

When consumed in moderation, alcohol can actually be beneficial to an athlete. But one should definitely avoid excessive consumption and steer clear of drinking the night before a marathon. When it comes to the post-run celebratory booze session, Whyte says ” Rehydrate first, then go ahead and celebrate. Just limit yourself to one or two drinks,otherwise you’ll interfere with your recovery.”

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