An athlete’s guide to alcohol and performance

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In this article, you will learn:  

  • How alcohol affects your body and performance 
  • Athlete guidelines for alcohol consumption 
  • Best options when consuming 

We recently spoke to D2 student athletes at a school in the Midwest. We were impressed by both their engagement and their desire to fit integrative nutrition into their busy schedules to better their performance outcomes. During the Q&A section of the event, one student asked about if there are particular types of alcohol that have less of an impact on performance as compared to others.  

 

This is not a new question. Athletes and non-athletes alike are constantly seeking solutions that allow them to engage in culturally normal practices (like drinking) while balancing lifestyle and nutrition practices that enable them to reach their athletic goals to play their very best.  

 

Alcohol is often used as a tool for stress relief, an aid to help unwind and relax. But given its negative effects on the body, this short-term release could actually be adding excess stress to the body, inhibiting peak performance and impeding long-term health. So our answer is this—it’s important that you take the time to really understand the effects of drinking on performance so that you can have a plan around how, when, and what you want to consume. 

Effects of drinking on performance

Generally speaking, the liver can metabolize about one standard drink of alcohol (12 oz of beer, 5 oz of wine, or 1.5 oz of distilled spirits) an hour. Alcohol’s effect on the body is dependent on several factors, including your genetics, age, gender, body mass, amount consumed, etc.

  

Although in small quantities, consumption can be beneficial and upregulate detoxification pathways. Alcohol generally slows you down by interfering with your body’s communication pathways.  

 

Consistent alcohol use, drinking more than one beverage per hour, and binge drinking, can lead to intoxication and negative effects on performance. This type of acute alcohol consumption negatively affects your mood, balance and coordination, reaction time, fine and complex motor skills, and information processing abilities. 

Where is the line?

Here are some helpful definitions:

Moderate consumption —drink in moderation by limiting intake to 2 drinks or less in a day for men and 1 drink or less in a day for women 

Heavy alcohol use (chronic consumption) — research demonstrates that someone drinking above the moderate guidelines significantly increases their risk of injury and long-term chronic health consequences. Heavy alcohol use, or chronic consumption, poses risks to health and performance and can be associated with disordered use of alcohol. 

  • binge drinking on 5 or more days in the past month 
  • consuming more than 4 drinks on any day or more than 14 drinks per week (males) 
  • consuming more than 3 drinks on any day or more than 7 drinks per week (females)

Overconsumption 

  • consuming 15 drinks or more per week (male) 
  • consuming 8 drinks or more per week (women) 
  • Binge drinking: pattern of alcohol consumption that brings the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level to 0.08% or more. This pattern of drinking usually corresponds to 5 or more drinks on a single occasion for men or 4 or more drinks on a single occasion for women, generally within about 2 hours. 

 

*As defined by the NIAAA (National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism) and CDC. Individual’s experience will be dependent on their genetics, age, gender, body mass, etc. 

Within 24 hours of drinking

If you drink the night before training or competition, you will likely experience these same negative results as they can inhibit performance for up to 24 hours after consumption.

Overconsumption can cause you to feel hungover and result in headaches, nausea, diarrhea, fatigue, dehydration and body aches that diminish athletic performance.

 

Some athletes may feel this way after having just one or two drinks on a single occasion, whereas others may be able to have the standard 4 or 5 drinks on a single occasion and feel fine. It’s important to know that binge drinking can cause significant metabolic disruption and stress on the liver such that it can take up to a week to come back from.

 

If you’re bingeing every weekend, your body might have just recovered in time for you to start the inflammatory process all over again. Pay attention to your body and what feels right to you. Either way, drinking close to or around training or a game/match (acute consumption) can set you up for poor performance and puts you at risk of injury.  

Alcohol’s impact on recovery

Regular alcohol consumption can negatively impact recovery and your immune system function. There are a few ways chronic alcohol consumption can affect recovery.

Alcohol depresses the central nervous system

First, alcohol depresses the central nervous system by acting as a sedative, which can make you feel drowsy and fall asleep. Some people use alcohol to help them fall asleep, but while alcohol might help you lose consciousness more quickly, it doesn’t actually help you get quality sleep.

 

In fact, alcohol consumption reduces your overnight growth hormone (needed for muscle repair and synthesis) by up to 50%. It causes the body to produce more acidic ketone bodies (not those of benefit produced from a ketogenic diet). Acidic ketone bodies are detrimental when found in high levels throughout the blood stream. Alcohol consumption also causes more restless sleep (even if you feel as though you sleep throughout the night), and it disrupts REM sleep.

 

All of the above can impact your cognition, decision making, reaction time, emotional balance, mood, learning, and memory. Even 1 alcoholic beverage can have this impact on sleep, and in turn, recovery. If you’re an athlete who is drinking regularly, you may want to reconsider. You don’t want alcohol consumption to bring down your whole season as well as your long-term health.  

Alcohol directly impacts the integrity of the gut lining

Second, alcohol consumption directly impacts the integrity of your gut lining, which is in charge of your overall health and immunity. The gut lining is also negatively impacted during high intensity and high-volume sports, so if you’re struggling with feeling under the weather or catching colds and flus more often, drinking alcohol certainly isn’t helping.

Alcohol impairs the liver’s ability to detoxify

Alcohol consumption also impairs the liver’s ability to detoxify bacterial products, and the brain’s ability to regulate peripheral inflammation. This, taken together with the impact on gut lining, leads alcohol consumption to contribute to systemic inflammation.

 

This ends up impacting the immune system, as well as your ability to perform, focus, and feel emotionally balanced. It affects your body’s recovery, delivery processes involving oxygen and nutrients, and even your digestion and hormonal availability and balance. The impact even increases the rate of tissue breakdown (aka ability to have a long athletic career). Basically, it puts the whole body in a heightened state of stress.  

Alcohol inhibits athletes’ ability to heal injury

Finally, if an athlete sustained a soft tissue injury, alcohol consumption can increase blood flow to the injured site, prolonging its ability to heal. Not to mention, with immunosuppression, alcohol can also increase risk for infection of the site.

SportFuel’s Recommendations

Generally speaking, for those athletes looking to perform at the professional or elite level, abstaining from alcohol consumption in-season or during intense bouts of training is the best way to optimize performance and recovery. Try to avoid alcohol when working to heal your gut, reach a certain body composition goal, or train and compete in the heat.

 

That being said, athletes who are happy with how they are feeling, performing, are at their best playing weight and body composition, and/or are happy with their digestion may be more lenient in their decision to consume alcohol at a level that is healthy for themselves. If you fall under that category, you want to consider an amount of alcohol that doesn’t feel disruptive to your health and performance goals and which types of alcohol are best to consume.

 

The key is always moderation, which would be no more than 2 alcoholic drinks per day for males or 1 drink per day for females, but always remember that personal genetics and generally how your body responds should dictate what moderate consumption means to you.  

Best types of alcohol

Better types of alcohol include clear alcohols like tequila, vodka, or gin as these are often lower in sugar and calories and are easier for the body to digest. Other alcohols like red wine and champagne contain antioxidants, which help protect your cells against free radicals that can play a role in cancer, heart disease, and other conditions. Overall, you would want to stay away from alcoholic drinks like beer and sugary mixed drinks as these are often higher in sugar and are calorically dense.

Takeaways

At the end of the day, it’s up to you to make a decision about alcohol when it comes to your performance. Having a set goal around alcohol can help you to stick to your performance plan, even when obstacles such as celebrations and time spent with friends or family arise. Many athletes will have to make different choices based on how they are feeling that season.

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