Athletes are human too. They dedicate a crazy amount of time and resources to their sport that many people can’t even fathom. So, they too deserve to have treats, cheat days, and yes, even alcohol. Whatever their reason, be it to calm their nerves or dampen the sensation of physical post-event pain. But consider the fact that consuming five or more alcoholic beverages in just one night can affect your brain and physical activities for up to three days.
So, should athletes really drink? What is the middle ground for the athletes to drink? And most importantly, how does alcohol affect an athlete's performance?
Effects of Alcohol on Athlete's Performance
Performance and Recovery
Post-workout, it becomes essential to replenish the body's glycogen stores and stimulate muscle protein synthesis. Which is why consuming a combination of carbohydrates and protein is recommended. However, if you consume alcohol after a workout, alcohol tends to diminish muscle protein synthesis by over 37% and interferes with glycogen replenishment, resulting in a delay in the recovery process. This makes it extremely difficult to boost athletic performance and muscle growth over time.
Several studies show that alcohol, even when consumed with a protein source post-workout, could still diminish muscle protein synthesis by over 24%, impairing muscle growth and repair. Alcohol also impairs hydration status, affecting the quality and duration of upcoming workouts. If you're recovering from an injury, consuming alcohol could also prolong your recovery time.
Slows Reaction Time
Being a sedative, even small amounts of alcohol can result in slow reaction time and decreased hand-eye coordination. It can affect your sports performance for up to 72 hours after drinking. This impairs performance, slows your reaction time and increases the risk for of injury.
It Inhibits Nutrient Absorption
Alcohol itself is devoid of vitamins and minerals. Therefore, it is extremely limited in its nutritional value. Beyond that, it also keeps the body from absorbing these nutrients from other sources like Thiamine (Vitamin B1), which is involved in metabolizing the food we eat into fuel and forming haemoglobin. As this nutrient metabolizes carbohydrates, it plays an essential role in optimal performance. In addition, alcohol also depletes the body's zinc resources, affecting an athlete's endurance level drastically.
Injuries and Complications
Alcohol prolongs the recovery period. It causes more bleeding and swelling in the area of a soft tissue injury.
- Muscle injuries
Alcohol also masks pain which could lead to delay in the treatment process. If an athlete can't feel the pain of an injury, they are less likely to pay attention to it. This could lead to worsening the injury and slowing down the recovery process.
Sleep and Muscle Growth
Studies show alcohol helps us fall asleep faster, but we should be concerned about the quality of sleep. Alcohol disrupts our restorative sleep cycles, reducing rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Lack of sleep is associated with an increased risk of sports injuries.
Cortisol and testosterone are two of the hormones that influence muscle growth. Cortisol promotes protein breakdown, whereas testosterone stimulates protein synthesis. Alcohol (2-3 drinks per day) leads to lower testosterone levels by decreasing testosterone secretion, impairing protein synthesis and negatively affecting resistance training results over time.
The Bottom Line
Overall, the effects of alcohol vary considerably from person to person, with multiple contributing factors.
The effects of alcohol on athletic performance differ depending on the amount consumed, demographics, and form of training.
As a result, specific recommendations are difficult to make. Athletes should follow the same safe and responsible drinking guidelines as the general public. Binge drinking is never recommended because it impacts an athlete's performance and prevent him/her from performing at the expected or desired level. Also, athletes should be encouraged to follow recommended nutrition and hydration guidelines for recovery before consuming alcohol post an athletic event.
Alcohol metabolism: An update. Alcohol alert. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. 2007. Retrieved 2016 from http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/AA72/AA72.htm.
Burke, L, Collier, G, Broad, E, Davis, P, Martin, D, Sanigorski, A, and Hargreaves, M. Effect of alcohol intake on muscle glycogen storage after prolonged exercise. Journal of Applied Physiology 95(3): 983-990, 2003.
Ebrahim, I, Shapiro, C, Williams, A, and Fenwick, P. Alcohol and sleep I: Effects on normal sleep. Alcoholism, Clinical & Experimental Research 37(4): 539-549, 2013.