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Does Dry January Work?

Experts and seasoned runners on the benefits of planned breaks from booze.

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On January 1, 2017, New York City–based writer and runner Hilary Sheinbaum ushered in the New Year with a resolution: to not drink alcohol for 31 days. She is one of an estimated 6.5 million people who participate in an annual movement dubbed “Dry January,” which was started by U.K. runner Emily Robinson. Robinson took a month off from drinking to train for her first half marathon in 2011; two years later, she launched a worldwide campaign to encourage others to do the same.

For Sheinbaum, a dizzying social calendar that included happy hours, networking events, and red carpet functions made it nearly impossible to avoid drinking during the holidays. She decided to participate in Dry January after placing a bet with a friend. Throughout the alcohol-free month, she noticed a dramatic change in her energy, sleep, and mood. “I was the happiest person even on the most gloomy days of January in New York City,” she says. “But I was also running faster and had better hand-eye coordination when it came to lifting weights.” The experience was so transformative she wrote a book about her experience, The Dry Challenge: How to Lose the Booze for Dry January, Sober October, and Any Other Alcohol-Free Month.

And while not designed as a recovery method for those who struggle with alcohol addiction, sober months like Dry January can be a great way for runners to boost performance; reap health benefits that range from better sleep to improved energy; and, perhaps most important, cultivate a more mindful approach to imbibing (both while training and not).

Photo: Hannah DeWitt

The Benefits of Taking a Break from Drinking

Recent studies show that women are closing the gender gap when it comes to alcohol consumption and binge drinking. It’s a troubling trend, as women have been developing alcohol-related complications, including liver and heart disease and cancer, at faster rates than men, even from lower levels of consumption.

According to Angela Phillips, a mental health expert and clinical researcher with Advanced Recovery Systems, “lots of women have shifted toward drinking a little more in the past 18 months,” likely due to the isolation and stress of an ongoing global pandemic.

Jordan Zimmerman, a marathoner and whiskey marketing professional in Louisville, Kentucky, is one of those women. “When the pandemic hit, I found myself at home with a lot of extra ‘me time,’ and while others found hobbies like learning a language or a musical instrument, I really leaned into exploring spirits more deeply,” Zimmerman says. “I bought crazy bottles, rare bottles, expensive bottles—and had lots of fun tasting them on my own.”

But she noticed her training was taking a hit, running became less enjoyable, and the symptoms of her clinical depression worsened. “Alcohol is a depressant drug, which slows down how the nervous system functions,” says Phillips. Not only does drinking regularly impact coordination and mood, but it “deprives the body of nutritionally dense calories needed for peak performance,” she says.

Zimmerman decided to take a “Sober September” leading up to the 2021 London Marathon and noticed her sleep improved dramatically, and her commitment to stretching, strength training, and other pre-hab improved. “Perhaps [that was] because of how much more time per day I spent not under the influence of alcohol,” she says.

For Sheinbaum, better sleep was the first side effect she noticed during her Dry January experiment. “I went from sleeping maybe five hours of sleep a night to seven or eight hours, and I shot out of bed every morning at 7 a.m. with much more energy,” she says. Alcohol is notorious for interrupting sleep because it “reduces the length of REM and deep sleep,” says Phillips. Both cycles are critical for repairing muscles after a long run and sharpening speed and accuracy for that next hard workout.

Sheinbaum also found that by drinking less, her diet improved. “When you are drinking, you are more likely to eat things you wouldn’t eat when sober, like quesadillas, pizza, and french fries,” she says. “No one is drunk or tipsy and craving a kale salad.”

Like Sheinbaum, fitness instructor Subha Lembach of Columbus, Ohio, decided to give up drinking alcohol as a New Year’s resolution. At the time, she was training for her first 5K and says, “the more I read about how the body digests alcohol, the more I realized it was not providing me with any usable fuel, and that it really hindered my recovery.”

Cutting out her normal two drinks a week helped her sleep better and more soundly—critical for waking up with her 3 a.m. alarm to sneak in training runs before teaching early morning barre classes.

“Living in the Midwest, when you run early in the morning and it is dark and miserably cold, you want to remove any potential excuse that could get in the way of your morning run,” she says. With no headaches, sour stomach, or fatigue from drinking, she says her running became more consistent, and she now races several times a year, in distances ranging from 5K to the half marathon.

Giving up drinking also led to other lifestyle changes, like eating a primarily vegan diet, starting a daily meditation practice, carefully tracking her sleep and recovery with a Whoop band, and pursuing certifications in yoga and Pilates.

“When you are drinking, you are more likely to eat things you wouldn’t eat when sober, like quesadillas, pizza, and french fries. No one is drunk or tipsy and craving a kale salad.”

Cultivating More Mindful Drinking Habits

While 13 percent of Dry January participants like Lembach decide to stay completely sober, most people do return to drinking, but at much lower rates. Research conducted by the University of Sussex shows that even six months later, 70 percent of people who participated in Dry January reported drinking less than they did previously.

And according to a 2018 study published in the British Medical Journal, just a monthlong break from alcohol can lower blood pressure and cholesterol, as well as reduce risk for diabetes and cancer-related proteins in the blood.

“Even for heavy habitual drinkers, 30 to 90 days without alcohol is essential to breaking the habit, cutting the associations, and rewiring the brain,” says Dr. Richard Piper, chief executive of Alcohol Change UK, an independent charity with the aim of changing society’s relationship to alcohol. Phillips says 30 days is also the average amount of time it takes to restore liver function after periods of regular or heavy drinking.

Take Sheinbaum, who estimates she has had less than a dozen drinks total in the past year, a radical change from her pre–Dry January consumption. “That first year, I went back to drinking on February 1 and had two glasses of red wine, and the next morning I felt like death,” she says. “As the months and years have gone on, I am aware of how much I’m consuming, both how quickly I’m drinking and the amount.”

Alexandra Ricca, a triathlete from Atlanta who took monthlong breaks from drinking prior to goal races like Ironman, says that while she no longer competes regularly, she still drinks substantially less than she did before experimenting with temporary sobriety.

“I tend to only have one to two glasses of wine per week and very rarely drink on a weeknight,” she says. “Even after just one drink at night, I lose focus at work [the next day] and feel sluggish for my morning workouts.”

Photo: Hannah DeWitt

“As I continued on my sober journey, I started to realize that no one really cared if I drank—any feelings I had that I was being judged for not drinking were in my own head."

Phillips says the voluntary nature of Dry January—combined with social support from other participants via apps and online communities—helps explain why its participants are less likely to rebound or return to previous levels of drinking, even those who were heavier drinkers before their self-imposed break.

And while a 31-day break really makes a difference in resetting habits, optimizing health benefits, and enhancing athletic performance, “even those who only take a week or two off report reduced alcohol consumption months after that initial period of abstinence, especially with the right support,” Phillips says.

Finding a Support Network

For those who find the idea of a monthlong break from alcohol overwhelming, Phillips recommends combining the challenge with a personal goal, such as an improved race time or training for a new distance, and recruiting the support of a partner or peer to keep you on track.

When Ricca decided to forgo drinking for a month before competing in her first half Ironman, she was supported by several Atlanta Tri Club teammates who were committed to doing the same.

“I also had a coach who fully supported my desire to take a step back from alcohol during hard training blocks and before a big race,” she says. Lembach says her husband—a self-described “beer-loving German”—also decided to give up alcohol when he saw how much energy and focus she had during her Dry January.

For Sheinbaum, having a friend who was also participating in the challenge helped her keep her commitment, especially when attending parties or events where alcohol was free-flowing. And just because you’re giving up drinking doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a night out with friends at a restaurant or bar. Sheinbaum suggests exploring nonalcoholic beers, wines, and canned drinks that “give you the same celebratory significance and great taste, without the alcohol.”

While Ricca often pours a can of Spindrift sparkling water into a fancy wine glass while making dinner at home, she has also sampled booze-free drinks while dining out.“Recently when we were traveling, it seemed every restaurant in Paris had nonalcoholic options that were really tasty,” she says.

If you don’t want even the temptation of alcohol, Sheinbaum suggests taking the lead in making social plans with friends, whether that’s scheduling a run or hike or coffee date—anything that doesn’t involve drinking. Her book includes a checklist to record daily sleep, mood, and money saved as well as a calendar of 31 booze-free activities and recipes for nonalcoholic drinks.

Lembach also recommends being up-front about your goals and realizing that most people will support your commitment to better health. “As I continued on my sober journey, I started to realize that no one really cared if I drank—any feelings I had that I was being judged for not drinking were in my own head,” she says.

For those wanting additional community support and accountability, Alcohol Change UK offers a free Try Dry app, where participants can track calories and money saved, earn badges, and set year-round drinking goals, while other apps like Cutback Coach include journals to track drinking and sober days, which can help with identifying triggers, as well as ways to connect with other mindful drinkers.

While Phillips says 60–70 percent of Dry January participants make it through the entire month, she recommends “giving yourself space and grace” if you slip up. “Maybe you would have normally had three drinks at that party and only had one—even that is one step forward toward your health goals and a healthier relationship with alcohol,” she says. She also suggests formulating a solid plan for reintroducing alcohol into your life, whether that’s a weekly drink limit, continuing to experiment with nonalcoholic drinks, or reminding yourself of the goals that led you to take a break in the first place.

For Zimmerman, “taking a break pre–London Marathon shook me out of a pandemic habit that was likely becoming unhealthy, which was a gift in itself,” she says. “But it’s also given me the courage to begin exploring what alcohol-free days, weeks, or months could do for my performance moving forward. An added benefit is that the post-race beer or glass of Champagne truly feels special.”