December 19 2018

How Does Alcohol Affect a Workout?

By Mark Sisson
21 Comments

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 alcohol consumption.

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 serious handicap.

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 provides.

It reduces 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 normal.

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 session.

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 Adaptation

Either avoid drinking—that’s what I did when I found alcohol 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 training?

Thanks for reading, everyone. Take care.

References:

Judelson DA, Maresh CM, Yamamoto LM, et al. Effect of hydration state on resistance exercise-induced endocrine markers of anabolism, catabolism, and metabolism. J Appl Physiol. 2008;105(3):816-24.

Logan-sprenger HM, Heigenhauser GJ, Jones GL, Spriet LL. The effect of dehydration on muscle metabolism and time trial performance during prolonged cycling in males. Physiol Rep. 2015;3(8)

Logan-sprenger HM, Heigenhauser GJ, Jones GL, Spriet LL. Increase in skeletal-muscle glycogenolysis and perceived exertion with progressive dehydration during cycling in hydrated men. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2013;23(3):220-9.

Kraft JA, Green JM, Bishop PA, Richardson MT, Neggers YH, Leeper JD. Impact of dehydration on a full body resistance exercise protocol. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2010;109(2):259-67.

Modig F, Patel M, Magnusson M, Fransson PA. Study I: effects of 0.06% and 0.10% blood alcohol concentration on human postural control. Gait Posture. 2012;35(3):410-8.

Kakarla P, Kesireddy S, Christiaan L. Exercise training with ageing protects against ethanol induced myocardial glutathione homeostasis. Free Radic Res. 2008;42(5):428-34.

Barnes MJ, Mündel T, Stannard SR. Acute alcohol consumption aggravates the decline in muscle performance following strenuous eccentric exercise. J Sci Med Sport. 2010;13(1):189-93.

Preedy VR, Paice A, Mantle D, Dhillon AS, Palmer TN, Peters TJ. Alcoholic myopathy: biochemical mechanisms. Drug Alcohol Depend. 2001;63(3):199-205.

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21 thoughts on “How Does Alcohol Affect a Workout?”

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  1. I’ve shared “How I Drink Alcohol (w/ Zero Hangover)” on here before. As mentioned, one of the keys is getting an early start (say 2PM) and an early finish (say 5PM) to minimize, possibly nullify, sleep disturbance; which affects everything! To be certain, the party roars on for hours after the last drink but in a space and time where I leverage my biochemistry, let my liver breathe, and still have fun and feel great — today… and tomorrow too. Anyone interested in the mechanisms, and the non-so-secret protocol should go to https://ancestralsupplements.com/about-us > scroll to the very bottom to find out: “How I Drink Alcohol (w/ Zero Hangover).” Yes, shameless plug.

    1. Good stuff Liver King. I’ve read the protocol before. If I have a drink it’s always between lunch and dinner (about 3pm). After dinner I never even knew I had a drink. Then I sleep like a baby.

    2. Good stuff LK. I find good success if I drink at least one (ideally 2 or 3) big glass of water BEFORE I go to sleep. Before bed is a crucial distinction. It could totally be bro-science and admittedly it’s anecdotal, but I’m usually functioning at around 90% of what I would be sans alcohol

  2. Questions here:
    Ref:
    “When you binge on alcohol (1.5 g alcohol per kg of bodyweight or more, about 9 drinks)”

    * Is this for one day?
    * Also: is one vodka/whiskey standard shot considered one drink?
    * My weight in kg hovers at 81kg
    If I halve the binge value to half it would be approx 120g of alcohol a day
    Would that be considered “ok ”
    (please please somebody say YES )

  3. Questions here (fixing error in math):
    Ref:
    “When you binge on alcohol (1.5 g alcohol per kg of bodyweight or more, about 9 drinks)”

    * Is this for one day?
    * Also: is one vodka/whiskey standard shot considered one drink?
    * My weight in kg hovers at 81 kg
    If I halve the binge value to half it would be approx 60 g of alcohol a day
    Would that be considered okay?
    (please please somebody say YES )

    1. Did some research:
      First: my answer to my question is YES
      How to implement:
      In my kitchen scale 3 shots weigh approx 120 g
      So 1/2 of that is 60 g
      So instead of doing two shots a day I am changing to either one full shot plus one half shot or two 3/4 shots, and I will be in the 60 g range
      Case closed

      1. 10 grams of alcohol in a standard drink (eg. 30ml shot of Vodka).
        I’d calculate your binge level as 121.5g divide by 10 to get 6 standard drinks so that would give you 6 shots to stay at a 60g limit.

  4. It’s funny, I’ve hit a few lifting PRs in my time directly after a night out with the lads (not massively heavy drinking though – maybe 6 to 8 drinks maximum). I am very much a nighttime person though, so that may have affected my results.

  5. I don’t drink anymore, just makes me tired and is not worth a temporary buzz. My wife likes her wine though (being married to me no doubt) and drinks red organic wine. Would like her to cut back a tad BUT … last month she did decide to adopt a primal diet, so one step at a time! She went to the cupboards and put all of her rice, pasta, crackers, pizza and cookies into a garbage bag and threw them out! She has been doing great since tehn and has lost some weight and we now meal plan together. My daughter did the same thing (they made a pact with each other) and has lost weight also. I had given up trying to evangelize a primal lifestyle a while back, so was really surprised, I guess people need to have an epiphany and make their own decisions when the time is right for them. She is now using me as a resource, and I’m trying to be laid back about it, don’t want to be “that guy” LOL. But yeah … anytime alcohol is involved you definitely want to follow up with lots of purified water and some extra antioxidants is probably not a bad idea either.

  6. Why the limes with the water? Strictly for flavor or something else? Only limes and not other citrus?

    1. I believe limes – or any such citrus – was mentioned to add antioxidants (full of vitamin C); which in turn will help with recovery of your immune system. I use the juice of both lemon and limes with the vodka I have on weekends …. never experience a hangover. I also supplement with milk thistle and dandelion before and after any alcohol, and make sure I drink a glass of purified water before bed. I also keep a glass next to my bed during the night. My only issue with alcohol is exactly what Mark said about the “rebound effect”. I’m a light sleeper anyway, so the majority of the time I have to deal with getting back to sleep ….. not always easy.

  7. Alcohol research with human subjects comprises some of the worst junk science you can find anywhere. That tiny little ethanol molecule finds its way to so many different receptor sites, and its effects on human beings is so highly dose dependent, that what alcohol actually does to human beings is really quite complex.

    Over a period of many decades I have discovered that a classic gin martini made with 3.5 oz. of gin (35-40 gm of pure ethanol) taken with food at the evening meal feels absolutely life enhancing, so I do it pretty much every night. This dose with dinner as part of a relax-refresh-restore ritual makes me feel like it is stimulating my good old parasympathetic nervous system in an almost divinely beneficent way.

    But, if this hypothesis has ever been tested in any kind of controlled study, I have been unable to come across it. I have even considered strapping on my Polar FT7 and using an HRV app to see what happens, but screwing up a perfectly good cocktail hour by doing my own junk science is just not worth it.

    I ride a mountain bike on intermediate (or worse) trails and do 15-20 intervals using trekking poles up in the soft sand at the beach. Since I will be 80 next month, I figure the martinis can’t be messin’ me up too bad.

    But somebody really ought to do some serious research on the long-term effects of light to moderate drinking as a lifestyle element using drinks that aren’t contaminated with sugar, citric acid, or cogeners. People have been pounding them back for thousands of years, but, except for the gross effects of overconsumption, there is still nobody who understands exactly what goes on when you start ingesting a little ethanol.

    1. hey dan – i love gin too. which brand do you use and what’s your ‘recipe’ for your classic gin tonic.

    2. Nice post, it’s been some time since I had gin
      Bombay Sapphire, here I come!
      – unless I see the cheaper ones available in SamsClub 🙂

  8. Problematically, many drinkers can’t perceive the impairment before it reaches dramatic levels. Repeat DUI offenders often are quite certain that THEIR driving isn’t impaired.

    Its amazing when you consider it had to be bad enough for the police to notice…

  9. Thanks for this article….it reminds me why I quit drinking a few years ago. However, having said that, I have recently, (since a trip to France) started drinking very small amounts of organic French red wine mixed with purified water (about 3 Oz wine to 1oz water). I find it most enjoyable with my evening meal! And I only have it maybe once or twice a week. The benefit is that a bottle lasts a month!!!

    1. Here’s an alternative: ingest cannabis (one way or the other) and the desire for alcohol declines.

  10. I wish you guys made some sort of high quality fridge magnet of this. For those of us that hate meal planning, but sometimes need to get back on the wagon with some inspiration.

    1. And I totally meant to put this on the low carb sample menu link but was curious about this blog post.