Winter is here. It’s cold
outside—often cold and snowy and/or rainy enough to dissuade most
people from extensive outdoor activities—and extremely warm
indoors. Families are getting together, companies are throwing
holiday parties, we’re eating, drinking and merry-making. Alcohol
is everywhere, and many of us will be drinking more than we usually
do. In fact, this time of year presides over a sharp spike in
What’s it mean for your workout?
After looking at the research, at first glance, I’m going to
be honest with you: It doesn’t sound good.
But it’s also not the end of the world.
The Bad News: Alcohol’s Impact On Exercise Alcohol Dehydrates You
Alcohol is one of the worst diuretics, impairing the body’s
ability to reabsorb water and increasing the amount we urinate.
Going into a workout with suboptimal hydration levels is a
It increases your cortisol:testosterone ratio after a session,
reducing your gains and making the workout more stressful than it
should be. A big part of the “workout afterglow” is the rush of
testosterone; with that effect blunted and stress heightened,
you’ll miss out on the sense of well-being a good workout
performance during a cycling time trial, making the workout
feel harder and increasing the amount of glycogen you burn.
The same thing happens when you lift;
dehydration reduces performance, impairs heart rate recovery,
decreases the number of reps, and makes the lifts feel harder than
Dehydration also increases injury risk. Your tendons, ligaments,
and other bits of connective tissue require optimal hydration to
stay supple and strong. Demand too much from a dehydrated
Achilles’ tendon and you may regret it.
These things are likely to happen if you fail to rehydrate after
drinking and before you train. They are avoidable, provided you
rehydrate with some water, salt and lime.
Alcohol Can Impair Your Body Control
Postural control degrades rapidly
under the influence of alcohol. Even low-dose alcohol has an
immediately negative effect on your ability to control your body
through space and time. This has major ramifications for training,
particularly full-body, compound lifts like squats, deadlifts, or
complex skill-based training. Just as driving after drinking is
dangerous, so is lifting (even the day after in many cases).
Alcohol Can Be Bad For Sleep
Alcohol might “knock you out” at the end of the night, but
it does not give a restful, restorative sleep.
Alcohol starts by inhibiting melatonin secretion. Yes, when you
fall asleep after alcohol, it’s not because of your usual
melatonin release. It’s because alcohol is a good old fashioned
muscle relaxant and sedative. With alcohol, you’re “forcing the
issue,” rather than allowing your circadian clock to gently lull
you off to peaceful slumber. This inhibits the growth hormone
release that normally follows melatonin-induced sleep onset, so you
miss out on the muscle-building, fat-burning effects of a good GH
Then, once your body clears the alcohol, you get the “rebound
effect”—which throws your sleep cycle into immediate disarray,
waking you up, leaving you scrambled and confused, and further
disrupting the muscle recovery process.
To top things off, the next day you’ll often feel trashed,
hungover, and exhausted. If you were planning on getting in another
workout, you’ll have a more difficult time convincing yourself
after a night of drinking (and, given the previous point, a more
difficult time performing certain workouts as safely).
Alcohol Can Potentiate Fat Storage
If you’re exercising as part of a larger strategy to lose body
fat and improve body composition, alcohol can “affect your
workout” by impairing fat oxidation. When you drink alcohol, it
gets precedent over the other macronutrients. Fat, carb, and
protein metabolism all take a back seat to alcohol metabolism. Too
many carbs and fatty acids floating around your blood might cause
problems in the long term, but ethanol is truly toxic—its removal
gets top priority.
This is good for your acute health, but it also means that fat
and carb oxidation are suppressed, and any food you consume
alongside the alcohol is more likely to be stored as body fat.
The Big Picture: Choosing Wisely
So, never drink? No.
But be smart about it.
Don’t Drink and Then Train
Almost no one is doing this, except rats in studies and guys
doing pushup competitions in the alley outside the bar at 2:15 A.M.
All the studies indicate that you’ll lose power, strength,
endurance, and performance while increasing your risk of injury and
getting subpar training effects.
Don’t Drink Every Day
Especially don’t drink to excess every day. Chronic intakes of
alcohol mean you’re never quite off the sauce, and studies in
alcoholics indicate that chronic drinking does impair hormonal
health and reduce muscle protein synthesis.
Keep It Moderate
When you binge on alcohol (1.5 g alcohol per kg of bodyweight or
more, about 9 drinks), muscle protein synthesis and the hormonal
cascade related to it are blunted for
several days. When you drink smaller amounts of alcohol (under
1.5 grams per kg), testosterone actually goes up.
If You’re Going To Drink, Make Sure You’ve Already Worked Out
A hard workout before you drink alcohol improves your
ability to metabolize that alcohol, reduces its negative
effects, and gives a psychological boost (“I earned this glass of
wine”) that improves the subjective experience of drinking.
However, your strength may take longer to
recover if you decide to drink after a workout, especially if
you’re a man. Post-workout alcohol consumption doesn’t seem to
affect women’s muscle performance recovery.
If Alcohol Ruins Your Sleep, Know It Will Limit Your Training
Either avoid drinking—that’s what I did when I found
had terrible effects on my sleep—or take a few steps to
improve your alcohol clearance. Start and finish drinking earlier
to give your body more time to clear it out before bed. Try some or
all of the
hangover prevention methods I outlined here. At the very least,
drink water alongside alcohol and (before bed) take some
supplemental melatonin and drink salty sparkling mineral water with
the juice from a couple limes.
Alcohol has the potential to destroy your gains, impair your
sleep, increase your risk of injury, and dehydrate you—but only
if you overdo it. Figure out what “overdo it” means for you,
and avoid stepping over that line.
How do you handle exercise and alcohol? Does alcohol hurt your
training? Have you changed your drinking habits for the sake of
Thanks for reading, everyone. Take care.
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