Mixing Alcohol and Exercise: The Surprising Results!

Some Background

Anyone looking to get into better shape, whether by building muscle, losing fat, or partaking in more exercise in general, needs to understand how alcohol impacts that process. A better understanding leads to better results.

After all, you don’t want to apply discipline and willpower just to be pegged back by drinking. Especially since alcohol can have a trifecta like effect, messing you up before, during, and after a workout!

Considering how much you lose control after having one too many, and how debilitating you feel the morning after, it’s a fair assumption that a boozy workout should be avoided.

Surprisingly, the research isn’t that clear.t Let me emphasize, it is, of course, detrimental to workout after drinking. You’re risking injury through impaired motor skills. However, it’s not as outright “bad” as assumed.

For example, amongst other factors, fewer drinks and the type of exercise, combine to affect your workout to varying degrees. Hence, while this may seem obvious, drinking won’t outright ruin your workout. What matters most is how much drinking.  

Low Intensity Exercise

As mentioned above, the type of exercise plays a large role in how much ethanol affects your workout. When considering lower intensity, non-weightlifting exercise, the research points to a relatively low effect.

The findings are especially relevant when considered with more intense exercise.

For example, two earlier studies 1 2 have found “no significant consequence of alcohol on  sub-maximal endurance performance or a 5-mile treadmill time trial respectively.”

However, when considering longer endurance based exercise, there is ample research reflecting alcohol’s detrimental effects.

Two further studies 3 4 measured ethanol’s effect on “five sprinters and five middle distance athletes as they completed 100m, 200m, 400m, 800m, and 1500m events,” and ‘the metabolic effects of ethanol on treadmill performance were in four trained runners.”

The results? The former study determined that “alcohol affected all but the 100m event participants to varying degrees.”

Meanwhile, researchers in the latter study determined that “three of the four subjects could not complete the treadmill run after the administration of ethanol. Administration of ethanol resulted in significant increases in the heart rate responses to treadmill running above those for the placebo grapefruit treatment.”

The takeaway? Alcohol’s effect depends largely on the endurance required, and the amount consumed. Unless you’re running longer endurance based events, alcohol has an almost non-existent effect.

Higher Intensity Exercise

Are shorter and more intense exercises as affected as endurance based events? It seems obvious since sprints require motor skills which alcohol – as we all know too well – impact dramatically.

Surprisingly, there is a dearth of research in the area. The most illuminating findings come from a 1986 study 3 which “examined five sprinters using sprint time as a measure of performance and established a detrimental, albeit inconsistent, association between alcohol dosage and sprint performance.”

Oddly enough, recent research has been unable to replicate the findings.

Alcohol and Gains

With running considered, let’s shift to lifting.

A lot of components go into effective muscle building. The two most crucial are of course your diet, and the actual weight lifting.

Expanding on the former, the right diet effectuates your weight lifting efforts by providing a conducive growth environment. Proper nutrition ensures supportive surroundings for the gains!

One way your diet ensures an auspicious environment is by regulating your testosterone levels. Specifically, testosterone enables better muscle growth. Interestingly enough, there is parameter setting research indicating how – and at which amounts – alcohol affects those levels.

A Helsinki National Public Health Institute study 5 found that a slight “increase in testosterone levels” was observed, “as a result of the alcohol-induced change in the redox state in the liver.” The increase was slight, however, and the alcohol amounted to roughly two beers.

That’s right, drinking – two beers – increased testosterone and all the glory that comes with it.

There is also research evincing the amount of alcohol needed to suppress testosterone levels. Namely, a 2004 study 6 found that as a result of four beers, “testosterone level decreased in men by 6.8%.”

Is a slight decrease in your testosterone levels worth worrying about? Personally, I wouldn’t. Unless your body is your career – model, bodybuilder, personal trainer – it’s not worth concerning yourself over the minuscule difference a fourth beer will make at the gym.

Hungover Workouts

The natural progression of any booze-fueled night, the morning after! Waking up hungover, there are two starkly contrasting options. Indulge and continue last night’s festivities or feel guilty and head to the gym. Is dragging yourself to the gym even worth it?

As the reek of vodka on your breath suggests, alcohol doesn’t evaporate from your system overnight. Whatever your body is hanging on to may affect next day’s workout in a substantial way.

Mainly, electrolyte imbalance, hypoglycemia, gastric irritation, vasodilation, and sleep disturbance, all affect your body. Further, there is evidence “an approximate 11% decrease in aerobic capacity in those exercising with a hangover.” 7

Post Workout Booze

Recovering after a strenuous workout is just as important as the exercise itself. So how does alcohol affect post-exercise recovery?

A seminal study 8 from the Australian Institute of Sport examined professional cyclists by observing “samples from vastus lateralis being collected immediately after glycogen-depleting cycling and after a set recovery period.”

The researchers concluded that alcohol’s effect on recovery was “indirect.” Specifically, the study noted that if proper post-workout carbohydrate meal is replaced with simpler alcohol sourced carbohydrates, “glycogen storage is decreased” as a result.

Hence, alcohol impaired recovery by impeding glycogen resynthesis in the absence of proper carbohydrates.

Another potential side effect pertains not to what kind of nutrients are omitted when alcohol is preferred, but by how they’re absorbed. For example, alcohol – especially detrimental when consumed in large quantities – has a diuretic effect. So stored nutrients, like potassium, maybe flushing right through you due to the increased urine output.

A Little Reward

So does the aforementioned study apply to some post exercise beers loaded with carbohydrates and electrolytes?

Is there any correlation between recovery rates of well trained cyclists consuming lots of alcohol, and you enjoying a post workout beer? It depends.

There are two relevant factors; how much alcohol you’re drinking, and whether it’s the only thing you’ve consuming. In the aforementioned study, cyclists suffered as a result of post-workout consumption instead of a nutritious meal.

So one thing to keep in mind, if you’re going to drink after a workout, make sure it’s not the only thing you’re feeding your body.

How Much Though!?

With that squared away, the only other thing to consider is how much you’re drinking.

With most research examining it as the beverage of choice, beer is a worthy subject of consideration.

A University of Perugia study 9  examined protein synthesis in two sets of people; the first consumed 750 milliliters of wine (71 grams of alcohol), while the second drank 300 milliliters (28 grams of alcohol), the latter equivalent to approximately two drinks.

The researchers concluded that the amount consumed played a role in the rate of protein synthesis. Noting that the former group had “profoundly impaired hepatic protein metabolism, decreasing the fractional secretory rates of albumin and fibrinogen below the postabsorptive values.”

Further, the researchers found that the second group, which consumed only two drinks, experienced no interference with protein synthesis.

How Many are too Many?

A further 2014 study 10 placed a more definite upper limit on exactly how much alcohol it took to impact post exercise protein synthesis. Specifically, the researchers noted that “alcohol consumption reduces rates of myofibrillar protein synthesis following a bout of concurrent exercise, even with co-ingested with protein.”

Further, the researchers concluded that “alcohol ingestion suppresses the anabolic response in skeletal muscle and may, therefore, impair recovery and adaptation to training and/or subsequent performance.”

The study found that even when consumed alongside a post-workout meal with carbohydrates and 25 grams of protein, a 150-pound individual consuming seven beers will experience suppressed MPS.

Takeaway? Limit your post exercise drinking and make sure that your post-workout meal isn’t exclusively alcohol.

Conclusion

As I wrote the article, I noticed a pattern. Before I began researching, I was expecting an avalanche of research painting alcohol as the ultimate impediment to exercise. But the findings are inconclusive. 

In the simplest terms, alcohol does, of course, inhibit exercise. If not in an exaggerated way, then at least through affecting motor skills.

However, considering the minimal effect on lower intensity exercise, and the incremental difference ethanol makes to body measurements like testosterone, it’s effects are surprisingly minimal for purposes of workout and recovery.

Second, and more importantly, this article isn’t a how-to guide. It’s not written to enable your alcohol fueled workouts. Instead, it’s meant for those that are curious about alcohol’s effect on their health related efforts.

As a result of reading the article though, I hope you’ve realized how meticulous and insignificant – to the average person – these findings and numbers are.

Specifically, if your fitness level isn’t directly tied to your career, you should use these findings not as specific guidelines, but as interesting reference points.

As the studies note, six beers, as opposed to two, do make a difference after a workout. But don’t handicap your life based on the minuscule difference that will make little difference in the long run.

Instead, the best thing you can do – unless you’re thriving for top level fitness – is use common sense and find a balance.

You shouldn’t mix alcohol with exercise not because you’re concerned over the miniscule loss of gains, but because you just shouldn’t consume a debilitating substance that (impeding motor skills and coordination) right as you’re about to exercise.

Alcohol and exercise play two different roles. There’s a separate time and place for both.

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