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Should I Have That Post-Workout Beer? Four Potential Effects of Alcohol on Endurance Athletes

Let’s be clear: many runners and cyclists enjoy their post-race beer and other alcohol. 

Having a drink is unlikely to have a significant negative impact on endurance athletes' performance, especially if it's consumed in moderation and as part of a well-balanced diet. 

However, drinking alcohol can have a negative effect on endurance athletes' performance. 

I’m not here to tell anyone not to drink; I’m here only to let endurance athletes know there are some potential effects on cardiovascular function, muscle recovery, nutrition and weight gain, and sleep quality.

Explore the nuanced effects of alcohol on endurance athletes. Learn how it impacts performance, sleep, muscle recovery, and cardiovascular health.

Alcohol can disrupt your sleep

While alcohol may have sedative effects initially, it can disrupt the normal sleep cycle and impair sleep quality, leading to less restorative and refreshing sleep.

Experts generally recommend avoiding consuming alcohol close to bedtime and limiting overall alcohol intake to promote better sleep quality and overall health.

Alcohol can affect sleep quality in several ways:

  • Disruption of sleep architecture: Alcohol disrupts the normal sleep cycle, leading to changes in sleep architecture. While it may initially make you feel drowsy and help you fall asleep faster, it can disrupt the later stages of sleep, including REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, which is important for cognitive function and memory consolidation.
  • Fragmented sleep: Alcohol can cause frequent awakenings throughout the night, leading to fragmented sleep. Even if you do manage to fall asleep quickly after drinking, you may find yourself waking up multiple times during the night, which can impair overall sleep quality. 
  • Increased sleep disturbances: Alcohol can exacerbate sleep disturbances such as snoring and sleep apnea. It relaxes the muscles in the throat and airway, making them more likely to collapse during sleep, leading to breathing interruptions and disruptions in breathing patterns.
  • Decreased sleep latency: While alcohol may help you fall asleep faster, it can also lead to rebound insomnia later in the night. As the alcohol wears off, you may experience more frequent awakenings and difficulty staying asleep.
  • Reduced REM sleep: REM sleep is essential for cognitive function, memory consolidation, and emotional regulation. Alcohol consumption can reduce the amount of time spent in REM sleep, which can impair these functions and leave you feeling groggy and less rested in the morning.

Muscle recovery can be impaired 

While moderate alcohol consumption may not have a significant impact on muscle recovery for casual exercisers, excessive or frequent drinking can impair various physiological processes essential for optimal muscle repair and growth in athletes. 

Alcohol can impair muscle recovery through several mechanisms:

  • Inhibition of protein synthesis: Alcohol consumption can inhibit the body's ability to synthesize proteins, which are essential for repairing and rebuilding muscle tissue after exercise. Protein synthesis is a key process in muscle recovery, and any impairment in this process can delay the repair of muscle damage caused by intense exercise.
  • Increased muscle protein breakdown: Alcohol consumption has been associated with increased levels of cortisol, a stress hormone that can promote muscle protein breakdown. High cortisol levels can lead to muscle wasting and hinder the recovery process after exercise.
  • Decreased growth hormone production: Alcohol can suppress the production of growth hormone, which is essential for muscle repair and growth. Reduced levels of growth hormone can impair the body's ability to recover from exercise-induced muscle damage and build new muscle tissue.
  • Impaired sleep quality: As mentioned earlier, alcohol consumption can disrupt sleep patterns and impair sleep quality. Adequate rest and quality sleep are essential for muscle recovery and repair, so any sleep disruption can hinder the body's ability to recover from exercise-induced muscle damage.

Alcohol can contribute to weight gain

While moderate alcohol consumption may not significantly impact weight gain in isolation, excessive or frequent drinking can contribute to excess calorie intake, nutrient displacement, metabolic disturbances, and disrupted sleep patterns—all of which can contribute to weight gain and negatively impact overall nutrition and health. 

Therefore, you might want to consume alcohol in moderation and be mindful of its potential effects on nutrition and weight management.

Alcohol consumption can affect nutrition and weight gain in several ways:

  • Empty calories: Alcohol is relatively high in calories but provides little to no nutritional value. Alcoholic beverages add extra calories to your diet without providing essential nutrients like protein, vitamins, or minerals. These "empty calories" can contribute to weight gain if not offset by adjustments in overall calorie intake or increased physical activity.
  • Increased appetite: Some studies suggest that alcohol consumption may stimulate appetite and lead to overeating. This can result in consuming additional calories from food, further contributing to weight gain. Additionally, alcohol can lower inhibitions and impair judgment, leading to less mindful eating choices.
  • Nutrient displacement: Drinking alcohol can displace more nutrient-dense foods in your diet. People may opt for alcoholic beverages instead of healthier options like water or nutrient-rich foods like fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains. Over time, this can lead to nutrient deficiencies and negatively impact overall health and weight management.
  • Liver metabolism: When you consume alcohol, your body prioritizes metabolizing it over other nutrients. As a result, the metabolism of fats, proteins, and carbohydrates may be affected. Excessive alcohol consumption can strain the liver and interfere with its ability to regulate blood sugar levels and metabolize fats effectively, potentially leading to weight gain and metabolic disturbances.
  • Changes in metabolism: Alcohol can influence metabolic processes in the body, including how it burns and stores energy. Excessive alcohol consumption has been associated with alterations in metabolism, which can lead to increased fat storage and weight gain, particularly around the abdomen (central obesity).
  • Disrupted sleep: Alcohol consumption can disrupt sleep patterns and impair sleep quality, which can indirectly impact weight gain. Poor sleep has been linked to alterations in hunger hormones, increased appetite, and cravings for high-calorie, carbohydrate-rich foods, all of which can contribute to weight gain over time.

Cardiovascular function can be affected as well

Alcohol consumption can harm cardiovascular function, which can in turn impair endurance training and performance. 

Alcohol can affect cardiovascular function in several ways, which can ultimately impact endurance training and performance:

  • Decreased cardiac output: Alcohol consumption can reduce the heart's ability to pump blood efficiently, leading to a decrease in cardiac output. This means less oxygen-rich blood is delivered to the muscles during exercise, impairing endurance performance.
  • Changes in blood pressure: Alcohol can cause fluctuations in blood pressure, including increases and decreases. High blood pressure (hypertension) can strain the heart and impair cardiovascular function, while low blood pressure (hypotension) can lead to reduced blood flow to the muscles during exercise, limiting performance.
  • Impaired oxygen delivery: Alcohol consumption can impair the body's ability to deliver oxygen to working muscles during exercise. This is because alcohol affects the function of red blood cells, which are responsible for transporting oxygen from the lungs to the muscles. Reduced oxygen delivery can lead to decreased endurance capacity and increased fatigue during exercise.
  • Increased risk of arrhythmias: Alcohol can disrupt the normal electrical signals in the heart, leading to irregular heartbeats or arrhythmias. Arrhythmias can impair cardiovascular function and increase the risk of cardiovascular events during exercise, particularly in individuals with preexisting heart conditions.
  • Interference with vascular function: Alcohol consumption can affect the function of blood vessels, including causing them to constrict or dilate abnormally. These changes in vascular function can impair blood flow to the muscles during exercise, reducing endurance capacity and increasing the risk of fatigue.

Make your own decisions

Your decision to drink alcohol as an endurance athlete should be based on individual factors, including personal preferences, tolerance levels, and overall health and fitness goals.

Know that as you age, your capacity to digest alcohol decreases and its negative effects on your systems increase. 

Life is too short to give up entirely on something that you may enjoy in moderation. 

And for goodness sake, if you’re going to limit your alcohol consumption, drink something of quality! 

Three things to know about consuming alcohol

  1. Generally, one beer after an event isn’t going to have long-term effects
  2. Regular drinking can impair your endurance training and performance
  3. Disrupted sleep is one of the most noticeable effects of alcohol consumption

Need more? 

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Paul Warloski is a:

  • USA Cycling Level 2 Coach
  • RRCA Running Coach
  • Training Peaks Level 2 Coach
  • RYT-200 Yoga Instructor
  • Certified Personal Trainer
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