Alcohol and Running – is it a good idea?
Most people enjoy a social drink and runners are no exception. During the summer months there are lots of socialising opportunities and holidays, when we may drink more alcohol than usual which may affect running performance.
Today we are going to talk about:
1. Health and Performance effects of chronic consumption of alcohol on an endurance runner
2. Management of alcohol around race day – a question we get asked often
3. Lifestyle tips, advice and alternatives to alcohol
The long-term effects of chronic alcohol consumption and understanding what is a unit of alcohol
The long-term effects of chronic alcohol consumption include various cancer, stroke, heart disease, liver disease, and damage to the brain and nervous system. Chronic consumption usually means continuing or occurring again and again for a long time.
Heavy drinking even on a small number of days per week increases risks to health. Consequently, it is recommended that people who drink as much as 14 units a week regularly should spread their drinking evenly over 3 or more days per week.
A unit is quite a small amount of alcohol and the number of units you drink depends on the size of your glass and the strength of the alcohol.
For example, a 250ml glass of 11% alcohol equates to 2.8 units whilst a 250ml glass of 14% alcohol equates to 3.5 units – 14 units across a week would equate to 5 x 250ml 11% glasses or 4 glass of 14% alcohol. It pays to check labels and know your glass measurements.
What is considered as moderate alcohol consumption?
Moderate intake is defined as up to one drink a day for women and up to two drinks a day for men, according to the Mayo Clinic (one drink is defined as a 12-ounce beer, a 5-ounce glass of wine, or 1.5-ounce serving of 80-proof distilled spirits.)
In the UK guidance is based on units of alcohol with guidance being to drink no more that 14 units in a week.
The Chief Medical Officers’ guideline for both men and women is that (UK government 2016)
· To keep health risks from alcohol to a low level it is safest not to drink more than 14 units a week on a regular basis.
· If you regularly drink as much as 14 units per week, it is best to spread your drinking evenly over 3 or more days.
· If you have one or two heavy drinking episodes a week, you increase your risks of death from long term illness and from accidents and injuries.
· The risk of developing a range of health problems (including cancers of the mouth, throat and breast) increases the more you drink on a regular basis.
· If you wish to cut down the amount you drink, a good way to help achieve this is to have several drink-free days each week.
What is binge drinking?
Binge drinking usually refers to drinking lots of alcohol in a short space of time or drinking to get drunk.
According to UK NHS - binge drinking would be considered as a single-episode drinking of:
· 8 units of alcohol in a single session for men
· 6 units of alcohol in a single session for women
Examples: 6 units is 2 pints of 5% strength beer or 2 large (250ml) glasses of 12% wine - that doesn’t feel like a lot especially if you are someone who has lots of alcohol- free days – the key would be to sip over a few hours
To reduce short term health risks from single occasion drinking episodes to a low level is to reduce them by:
1. limiting the total amount of alcohol you drink on any single occasion
2. drinking more slowly, drinking with food, and alternating with water
Drinking alcohol the Mediterranean way
Research around the Mediterranean Diet indicates low-to-moderate consumption of wine, mainly red, during meals may be beneficial to health – low to moderate ranging from 50ml – 150 – 300ml per day depending on what study you read. Key being to be following Mediterranean food plan and drinking with your meals and not outside of meals. It’s thought that the polyphenol contents of wine that is the protective nutritional element.
The short-term health impacts of chronic alcohol consumption and how do they affect a runner?
· Dehydration - alcohol is a diuretic, alcohol intake can lead to dehydration (anyone who has ever suffered from a hangover knows this). Studies have shown alcohol may also decrease uptake of glucose and amino acids by the skeletal muscles, adversely affects the body’s energy supply, and impairs metabolic processes during exercise.
· Disturbed sleep – drinking alcohol before bedtime often leads to sleep disturbances – as alcohol is a diuretic you may have to go to the toilet more during the night, alcohol may also dysregulate your blood sugar balance overnight. Often your sleep cycle may also be disrupted so you don’t get the rest you require which may impact on your training and energy levels the following day
· Hangover – may slow down your reactions so you may be more at risk of injury – it goes without saying hangovers and running do not mix! Potentially, if you are dehydrated before you run, your brain may be slow in function, you may have a slower reaction time, your co-ordination may not be optimal, your technique may not be as it should be, all of which may lead to a risk of injury.
Longer-term health and performance impact of chronic alcohol consumption on endurance runners.
The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) is fairly clear on its view on alcohol and its effects. Their guidelines state the following; “Acute alcohol ingestion is not associated with improvement in exercise capacity and may decrease performance levels; the consumption of alcohol may perturb the body’s temperature regulation mechanisms during exercises particularly in a cold environment.”
Some areas that we’d be particularly concerned about are:
· Body composition changes – alcohol mostly is full of empty calories i.e. not really adding any nutritional value, and excess calories will get stored as fat particularly around the stomach area. Most runners are aiming for a lean body composition. Also drinking alcohol may lead to blood sugar dysregulation which drives cravings and overeating.
· Muscle building and repair – alcohol impairs muscle protein synthesis
· Negative impact on immune system – alcohol consumption suppresses the immune system meaning that you are at a higher risk of infection and if you sustained an injury you may not heal quickly and optimally.
Pregnancy - Drinking in pregnancy can lead to long-term harm to the baby, with the more you drink the greater the risk. These include a range of lifelong conditions, known under the umbrella term of ‘foetal alcohol spectrum disorders’ (FASD). The severity and nature of this are linked to the amount drunk and the developmental stage of the foetus at the time. If you are pregnant or think you could become pregnant, the safest approach is not to drink alcohol at all, to keep risks to your baby to a minimum.
Men vs Women - drinking within the low-risk guidelines, overall levels of risk are broadly similar for men and women; although the risks of immediate harms such as deaths from accidents are greater for men; longer term harms from illness are greater for women.
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism say research shows that alcohol use and misuse among women are increasing:
· Studies show that women start to have alcohol-related problems sooner at lower drinking levels than men. On average, women weigh less than men. Alcohol resides predominantly in body water, and pound for pound, women have less water in their bodies than men. This means that if woman and a man of the same weight drink the same amount of alcohol, the woman’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC, the amount of alcohol in the blood) will tend to be higher, putting her at greater risk for harm.
· Women of all ages have less lean muscle mass than men, making them more susceptible to the effects of alcohol. There is an age–related decrease in lean body mass and the resultant decrease in total body mass increases the total distribution of alcohol in the body.
· Women have less lean muscle mass than men throughout adulthood and, therefore, are less able to metabolise alcohol throughout their lives, more so as we get older.
· Liver enzymes that metabolise alcohol become less efficient with age. Compared with younger adults, and with older men, older women have an increased sensitivity to alcohol.
How long before a race should you stop drinking alcohol?
There is no specific guidance, alcohol affects different people in different ways, however we’d say remember you have put a lot of thought and effort into preparing for a race and being in your best health before a race is going to help you get your best performance. You want to have good quality sleep, feel energised, have a robust immune system, have an optimal hydration status and be fully alert. We’d say only to ever drink moderately and ideally stop 1-2 weeks before an important race event if you want optimal performance.
If you choose not to stop alcohol in the run up to a race then obviously drinking alcohol the evening before a race is NOT RECOMMENDED!! Sometimes pre-race get togethers can lead to having an alcoholic drink and if you fall into that then YOU MUST ensure you are adequately hydrated – before bedtime and the next morning before your race.
Having a celebratory drink after a race or a training session
Drinking alcohol post-race or post exercise may affect your muscle glycogen recovery levels. Post exercise, your body will be looking to rapidly replace the glycogen that was used up during your run. Normally eating healthy carbohydrates would replenish glycogen. However, if you drink alcohol at the expense of eating healthy carbs your muscle glycogen stores may fail to replenish which means recovery is going to be impaired.
Remember we said alcohol is a diuretic, it should be limited immediately after exercise when rehydration is important for recovery.
Ideally, it's best to wait for a couple of hours or more after a race or training run before you indulge in alcohol. So best to rehydrate and ensure you have replenished lost body water and electrolytes before hitting the bar or opening a bottle!
Be careful not to overdo it especially following a race … if you’ve cut down on alcohol during training, you may find that your tolerance to alcohol is lower than it was when you started your race training. If you're taking alcohol close to the finish line, the dehydration can make you feel the effects of alcohol more quickly. Also, eat some food at the same time so you aren't drinking on an empty stomach.
Lifestyle tips to help manage alcohol consumption
Choose your alcoholic drinks carefully:
- Choose good quality, more naturally produced wines and spirits.
- Opt for dry wines which have a relatively low sugar content.
- Avoid regularly drinking beer, cocktails, soft drink mixers and alcopops - too much sugar results in blood sugar fluctuations which can lead to energy dips, cravings and lack of concentration, all of which will be bad for your race prep and performance
- Consider the alcohol content of your drink – check the label
- Choose smaller glasses
- Drink alcohol with food
- Have a large glass of water alongside every alcoholic drink.
- When socialising choose a cut-off time during the evening when you’ll stop drinking alcohol
- Have some alcohol-free days every week
- Don’t bow to peer pressure if you feel it’ll affect your health or performance. Don’t feel pressurised to drink alcohol or to drink more than you wish too just because you are in a group
- Use Drink Aware APP to assess your alcohol consumption
Know your units! Very roughly ….
Wine – small 125ml is 1.5 units, 175 ml is 2.1 units, 250ml is 3.0 units
Beer – will vary on strength so on average – bottle 330ml at 5% is 1.7 units and a can 500ml is 2 units and a pint is 2 units.
Spirits – 1 shot 35ml is 2 units – remember you’ll be adding a sugary soft mixer drink too!
Alcopop - will vary but roughly 275ml is 1.5 units
Our Favourite Non Alcoholic Drinks when socialising
· Kombucha with a splash of fruit juice and sparkling water
· Seedlip (non alcoholic botanical gin like) and Tonic
KEY TAKE AWAYS
- The health risks associated with chronic alcohol consumption (over years) include various cancers, strokes, heart disease, liver disease, and damage to the brain and nervous system
- Binge drinking usually refers to drinking lots of alcohol in a short space of time or drinking to get drunk. According to UK NHS - binge drinking would be considered as a single-episode drinking for women this equates to 6 units of alcohol in a single session
- To keep health risks from alcohol to a low level it is safest not to drink more than 14 units a week on a regular basis
- If you regularly drink as much as 14 units per week, it is best to spread your drinking evenly over 3 or more days.
- The potential impact of chronic alcohol consumption on a runners performance includes dehydration, disturbed sleep, potential risk of injury, changes to negative body composition, impaired muscle protein synthesis, and negative impact on the immune system.
- Cease drinking alcohol if you are planning a pregnancy and also during pregnancy to prevent ‘foetal alcohol spectrum disorders’ (FASD).
- When drinking within the low-risk guidelines, overall levels of risk are broadly similar for men and women; although the risks of longer term harms from illness are greater for women.
- Preparing for races – consider your race goal and stop drinking alcohol 1-2 weeks ahead of your race – optimise energy and minimise risk of injury and being unwell.
- Be cautious regarding drinking alcohol immediately following training or races – rehydrate and replenish glycogen stores with healthy carbohydrates before drinking alcohol
- Lifestyle TIPS – include choosing alcoholic drinks with low sugar content, choose lower alcoholic % drinks, control measure of alcohol, drink a glass of water alongside any alcoholic drink and choose to have several alcoholic free days every week.
The suggestions we make during this episode are for guidance and
advice only, and are not a substitute for medical advice or treatment.
If you have any concerns regarding your health, please contact
your healthcare professional for advice as soon as possible.
Aileen Smith and Karen Campbell met at as nutrition students (Institute for Optimum Nutrition, London) and became lifelong friends and nutritional buddies! Both have a love of running and a passion for nutrition, delicious food and healthy living.
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