As we prepared to go into lockdown in the UK, a study in the British Medical Journal stated that alcohol sales increased by 67%. With the closure of bars and restaurants in Glasgow and the rest of the country, it was expected that some of us would consumer a few more glasses of wine or beers at home, but how does this affect our fitness?
Whilst 2020 has drastically changed our perspective and goals, many of us still have the same desire to lose stubborn body fat, gain lean muscle or maintain our athletic performance ahead of competitions resuming in 2021. If you fall into one of these three categories, then the answer is yes, drinking alcohol will impair your ability to achieve your fitness goals but there is a scale.
The Professional Athlete -
If you are an athlete training for competition, alcohol is usually off the menu for around 6 weeks leading up to the main event. Dehydration has a severe effect on sporting performance. Even a 1-5% level of dehydration can result in up to 30% reduction in physical performance and put you at risk of injury.
Drinking too much alcohol results in the kidneys producing more urine which is why once you have had a few pints and "broke the seal" you can’t stop. Being properly hydrated is also important for your ability to maintain optimum temperature, thermoregulation. If you are competing with a hangover and are dehydrated you will easily overheat leading to a further loss in performance.
When you're metabolising (breaking down) the alcohol, the liver can’t produce as much glucose, which results in low blood sugar levels. Glucose is the primary fuel for the brain resulting in impaired reaction times and decision-making ability. These effects can be moderate to severe depending on just how much was consumed.
Trying to lose stubborn body fat?
Alcohol is high in sugar which also means it's high in calories, 7 calories a gram to be precise. If your aim is to drop body fat, then a night in on the booze could see you double your daily calorie intake. One of the main problems with alcohol is its nutritionally void and actually gets in the way of your body’s ability to absorb nutrients in food and fat burning. Coupled with the bad food choices that, for most of us, comes with being drunk before you know it you have consumed an extra day of eating all in one night.
Trying to increase muscle mass?
If you think you can use those extra calories as part of a mass gain plan I'm afraid your body has other ideas. The body doesn't store alcohol so once it's in the system our body is metabolising it to get it out. All other non-vital processes are put on hold, including adding inches to your biceps.
Drinking alcohol also increases the levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, in our body. Even though we fall asleep fast and with relative ease the quality of sleep we have after a night of drinking is poor. REM sleep, where the body heals and in this case grows is greatly affected. This results in a rise in cortisol and this can reduce levels of our natural growth hormone by up to 70%!
The liver also releases another toxin as a by-product from the breakdown of alcohol which attacks testosterone, another essential hormone for growth and repair. I recently read that 1 drink (40 grams of alcohol) has no real effect on testosterone production but 3 drinks can impair production by 25% and takes 36 hours to return to normal levels. That's a further 1 and a half days with low protein synthesis and poor gains.
What does this mean for me?
If you are a competitive athlete wanting to achieve your best then alcohol is a no go zone. It will affect your performance and recovery.
For those of us who value fitness and even body composition, it should be regulated. You cant go hard often and expect to see the results you desire. If you are drinking, choose wisely and try to alternate your drinking with water or even soda water to keep you feeling more full (might help you avoid the extra eating) and keep you hydrated.
Drink plenty of water before you go to sleep and by hopefully having less of a hangover the next day you might still make your gym session. Going hard in the gym after drinking excess levels of alcohol can result in muscle strains, pulls and tears due to dehydration. So, if you do go to the gym the following day keep the session at light to moderate intensity and be sure to drink plenty of fluids, perhaps even mix half a sports drink to your water.
However, we should point out, it's not all bad. Drinking some types of alcohol in moderation can be potentially beneficial. Red wine contains antioxidants and a chemical known as resveratrol that reduces your blood pressure and consequently protects your cardiovascular system so the odd glass here or there can be enjoyed guilt-free. But before you enjoy the whole bottle for these benefits they can also be achieved from eating vegetables so the broccoli still wins I'm afraid.
Regardless of what stage you are at on your fitness journey, we can help. Our expert coaching team has guided athletes to professional success and helped empowered beginners to incorporate healthy habits that will last a lifetime. If you want to come and train with us you can find out more about what’s available at Everyday Athlete Gym here, or you can join our virtual training community here.