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How does alcohol affect athletic performance?

Even though as athletes’ we aim to consistently work hard and get our bodies into optimal condition, it’s also important to take time out to relax. Relaxing for some, may include drinking some alcohol, either during a social event with friends or just a casual drink from time to time. But, how does alcohol affect athletic performance? Can it have a detrimental effect on an athlete’s performance? Continue reading to find out.

Does alcohol affect athletic performance?

In short, the answer is yes! The first thing to understand if you’re wondering how alcohol affects athletic performance is that alcohol affects everyone differently. Small amounts of certain kinds of alcohol, such as red wine, might have a protective effect on the cardiovascular system but a few drinks can nullify any hard work by erasing the effects of workouts, reducing endurance and compromising mental fortitude.

So, how does alcohol affect athletic performance? Alcohol will impact athletic performance in a few different ways, by effecting our energy and hydration, whilst also compromising our recovery from training and/or competition.

The effect of alcohol on energy:

It seems to be unclear if alcohol impairs energy storage in the muscles, but when you drink a large quantity of alcohol, often this will lead to poorer nutritional choices both during the time drinking and the following day. This in turn will indirectly inhibit the restoration of our energy stores in muscle.

Alcohol can also increase insulin secretion which in turn, causes blood sugar to fall (hypoglycemia). During exercise we need to maintain our blood sugar levels so having them drop due to alcohol consumption isn’t a great start!

Dehydrates the body:

In order to reach optimal performance during a sporting event or a workout, you must ensure your body is properly hydrated. Alcohol is a diuretic that promotes fluid loss therefore contributing to dehydration and electrolyte imbalances. When dehydrated, an athlete is at a greater risk of cramps and muscle strains.

It’s very important to ensure that you remain hydrated when exercising. As little as 2% dehydration can impact almost every measurement of performance. When dehydrated, our blood volume will decrease causing a decrease in blood flow to your muscles. This can then result in higher body temperature, a reduced sweat rate, increased energy use and overall, exercise will feel harder! Hydration supplements such as GO hydro or our GO Electrolyte powder can help to boost your performance and ensure that you stay optimally hydrated. To read more about the importance of hydration and electrolytes for performance see this article.

Impairs muscle growth:

Not only does alcohol increase your likelihood of injury during workout, it can also impair muscle growth.  This is because alcohol consumption impairs muscle protein synthesis (MPS), and we need protein synthesis to occur to build muscle and repair muscle after exercise. If you want to limit the negative effects of alcohol consumption on MPS, leave as much time as possible in between workouts and drinking alcohol as you can.

Impairs optimal recovery:

Getting plenty of rest is essential for muscle recovery. A big part of resting is of course, sleep! Alcohol does allow people to fall asleep quicker, but it reduces rapid eye movement (REM) sleep which is when we’re dreaming. This is thought to be the most restorative phase of sleep and a lack of this can lead to drowsiness and poor concentration which would highly impact training and/or competition. Impaired sleep will also lead to increased levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. Cortisol has been shown to reduce human growth hormone which is an essential hormone for building and repairing muscle.

For athletes who may have picked up a small injury in training, alcohol can delay muscle recovery even more as alcohol can open up the blood vessels encouraging swelling at the injury site. If you’ve recently drunk alcohol prior to a workout, your body could benefit from muscle recovery supplements to aid your recovery.

Overall, with impaired muscle repair, poor sleep, dehydration, and energy restoration, it is fair to say choosing when to drink alcohol around training and/or competition is very important.

Take home messages:

  1. Alcohol can significantly impact muscle growth/recovery due to impaired muscle protein synthesis and poor sleep quality.
  2. Alcohol can also lead to dehydration and poorer choices in diet which will impact energy restoration.
  3. It’s ok to wind down and relax with an alcoholic drink but it is important to consider the timing around training and/or competition.

To find out more about the energy supplements and energy powders we supply at SiS, contact us today.

Written By

Dr Emily Jevons - PhD in Exercise Physiology & Nutrition, Clean Sport Advisor

Emily has worked with Science in Sport since 2021. With a PhD in Exercise Physiology & Nutrition, she currently provides nutritional advice for endurance athletes. Emily not only understands the science behind performance nutrition solutions, but also the physiological and psychological demands of sport after competing competitively in swimming and triathlon for a number of years.