Alcohol Consumption: How this Affects Sleep, Recovery, Training Gains and Performance

February 12, 2024

As endurance athletes, we place a high value on how our bodies perform. From investing in coaches, being mindful of the foods we eat and when we eat them, purchasing the right tools for race day and recovery and the list goes on. When it comes to alcohol consumption, would you say you are as mindful or meticulous on if, when and how frequently you will have a drink?

Endurance athletes should be mindful of certain aspects related to alcohol consumption. While it's clear that consuming alcohol before or during training or a race can harm endurance performance, this article concentrates on the broader effects of alcohol intake outside of exercise and how it affects overall performance, adaptations, and recovery.

Alcohol consumption impacts your sleep cycle. While alcohol may have a sedating effect at first, it diminishes after a few hours, causing disturbed and fragmented sleep later in the night1. Persistent alcohol use is associated with considerable sleep disturbances due to long-term consumption1.

Additionally, when drinking we tend to go to bed later than normal and develop poor sleep habits with consistent alcohol use. These lost hours of missed sleep, combined with the negative impacts of alcohol on sleep, can play a detrimental role in recovery. Good quality, long duration and consistent sleep is essential for the endurance athlete. This enhances recovery, maximizes gains in training, enhances performance and reduces risk for illness and injury. Read HERE for a refresher on the importance of sleep for the endurance athlete.

Alcohol does not fall under the categories of carbohydrates, proteins, or fats, and essentially, offers minimal to no nutritional value. Additionally, regular consumption of alcohol can have adverse effects on weight management. On average, a five ounce glass of wine, light beer or shot of alcohol is anywhere from 80-150 calories, not to mention any extra calories from the ingredients in mixed drinks.

To put this in perspective, an extra 100 calories per day, whether this comes from an apple or an alcohol drink, will cause a weight gain of 10 pounds per year. Weight aside, the benefits of the apple clearly outweigh the alcoholic drink. As endurance athletes it is in our benefit from a performance perspective to have a lower amount of body fat while also ensuring we are eating enough and eating well to sustain the loads of training and racing and not fall down the path of RED-S, risking illness, injury and decreased longevity within the sport.

There's sufficient evidence the day after heavy drinking might make you rethink your choices. While this seems like an obvious statement, one study shows a decrease in aerobic performance the day after a night of drinking, even after drinking only 10ml of pure alcohol which is the equivalent to slightly less than one beer, one shot or one glass of wine2. Thinking this through more thoughtfully, not only will you achieve a decrement in aerobic performance, but taking this one step further you also limit the potential gains you could have made from that exercise session.

Lastly, studies show ingestion of alcohol following a training session may impair recovery and adaptation to training3. The last thing we want as endurance athletes after putting in the effort to do the work and raise our level of fitness and performance is to limit the adaptations we could gain. Depending on your goals and levels of performance you are working to reach, you may want to reconsider that weekend afternoon drink following the heavy morning training session or post-race beer.

With all this said, enjoying moderate amounts of alcohol can actually have positive effects, showing that drinking alcohol is not entirely negative. Low to moderate amounts of alcohol consumption have a positive effect on psychological well-being, stress, happiness, tension, depression and even cognitive performance4.

In the grand scheme of things, choose wisely when it comes to consuming alcohol. If you're aiming to reach the highest levels of performance, consider waving goodbye to that pre-dinner cocktail or weekend drink more often than not. Making this decision will help you maintain peak recoveries, not compromise your sleep quality, support high training gains, and ensure peak performance.

1Colrain IM, Nicholas CL, Baker FC. Alcohol and the sleeping brain. Handb Clin Neurol. 2014;125:415-31. doi: 10.1016/B978-0-444-62619-6.00024-0. PMID: 25307588; PMCID: PMC5821259.

2O'Brien CP. Alcohol and sport. Impact of social drinking on recreational and competitive sports performance. Sports Med. 1993 Feb;15(2):71-7. doi: 10.2165/00007256-199315020-00001. PMID: 8446825.

3Parr EB, Camera DM, Areta JL, Burke LM, Phillips SM, Hawley JA, Coffey VG. Alcohol ingestion impairs maximal post-exercise rates of myofibrillar protein synthesis following a single bout of concurrent training. PLoS One. 2014 Feb 12;9(2):e88384. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0088384. PMID: 24533082; PMCID: PMC3922864.

4Baum-Baicker C. The psychological benefits of moderate alcohol consumption: a review of the literature. Drug Alcohol Depend. 1985 Aug;15(4):305-22. doi: 10.1016/0376-8716(85)90008-0. PMID: 4053968.

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