Running and alcohol seem to make quite a team—when was the last time your race bib came without a free beer ticket attached? It’s an odd coupling, and one that’s raised some eyebrows as the wellness space grows, but it’s not likely to go away anytime soon. Is there a chance that post-race beer is doing more harm than good?
There have been some fairy-tale claims from sports medicine research that beer is actually a good recovery beverage, which definitely seems too good to be true. We all know that six beers isn’t going to help you hit a PR the next day, and one beer shouldn’t hurt, but how exactly do those delicious brews affect the recovery process?
Muscle and tissue recovery
According to Dr. Matthew Barnes, a top researcher of alcohol and its effects on exercise recovery at Massey University in New Zealand, alcohol negatively affects your body’s ability to absorb glycogen from carbohydrates and its ability to synthesize protein in your muscles, which helps heal and grow muscle tissue.
A study published in February 2014 in a medical research journal concluded that when an alcohol and protein or alcohol and carbohydrate mixture was ingested after a workout, muscle growth was impaired compared to ingesting protein or carbohydrates alone.
Beyond recovery, if you want to optimize performance, it would pay to eliminate the consumption of large amounts of what is basically a toxic substance from your diet. Certainly in the days before a race, consider cutting out alcohol, especially in relatively large amounts (four or more standard drinks in a day, for example), as it may upset normal hormonal balance, immunity and metabolism.
Quantity matters… as does food and water
Dr. Barnes suggests that about 0.5 grams of alcohol for every kilogram (2.2 lbs.) of a person’s body weight is fine to drink over the course of an evening and will have little effect on dehydration. This equates to about 2.5 drinks for a climber weighing 154 pounds. According to the CDC, a drink is defined as 1.5 ounces of liquor at 40% alcohol content, 12 ounces of beer at 5% alcohol content, 5 ounces of wine at 12% alcohol content, and 8 ounces of malt liquor at 7% alcohol content. Each drink contains about 14 grams of alcohol.
Barnes’ research also shows that consuming a healthy amount of protein and carbohydrates before consuming alcohol gives your body time to absorb the nutrients and begin its healing process before being stunted by alcohol. Small amounts of alcohol won’t impair the body’s ability to convert glucose to glycogen as long as we supply the body with carbohydrates. If a runner replaces the carbs burned during exercise with alcohol, which does happen in some circumstances, then they simply aren’t giving their body what it needs for glycogen to be replenished. Instead, they end up delaying that aspect of recovery.
When dehydrated, as one might be after a race, alcohol doesn’t actually make you more dehydrated. It’s a different story if you are well hydrated, because large amounts of alcohol can lead to dehydration. Even so, it is a good idea to rehydrate after exercise as soon as possible. Compared with spirits, beer tends to be relatively low in alcohol content, so while it can’t be considered a rehydration beverage, it probably isn’t too bad in small amounts.
A post-race beer won’t help you recover, but it shouldn’t hurt much either. Mitigate harm by eating a carb- and protein-rich dinner and consuming food before a second beer. Keep in mind that it may negatively affect your recovery compared to forgoing alcohol altogether, and beers with higher alcohol content will have more impact. Drink at least eight ounces of water after each beer to prevent dehydration, and limit yourself to a reasonable amount for your body weight using the guideline above.