After a hard training week or a really good race experience, you may be inclined to reward yourself with a drink or two, but does running and drinking mix? In moderation, yes. A couple of drinks is fine and yes, there may be a few health benefits associated with moderate consumption of particular kinds of alcohol, but as a runner there are other factors you need to consider the next time you reach for a glass.
Alcohol is a very concentrated source of energy, with a caloric value of seven calories per gram – higher than carbohydrates and proteins (four calories per gram). If you’ve been watching your food intake during training, calories from alcohol can quickly add up. Alcohol is also metabolised in the body as fat – which isn’t great if you’re trying to trim down. Just two large glasses of red wine contain around 300 calories; to burn this off a 57kg (nine stone) woman would have to jog for at least 35 minutes.
Women are more susceptible than men to the effects of alcohol because of hormonal and body-fat differences. Women also tend to have less dehydrogenase, a liver enzyme that breaks down alcohol. Regular drinkers can process alcohol more easily than non-drinkers, but you need to know how alcohol affects you and your performance – preferably well before race day.
A drink before the race
If you like to have a drink to settle your nerves the night before a race you may wish to rethink this aspect of your pre-race ritual. While some athletes find a glass of wine may help them to relax, others find it can disturb sleep, causing blood sugar dips and nighttime waking. Alcohol is also a diuretic so you may find you have to take more trips to the bathroom.
Alcohol is known to inhibit the metabolism of key vitamins and minerals, including B vitamins and magnesium, which are involved in energy production. Low levels of magnesium can also affect sleep and result in muscle cramps, joint aches and low energy. If you are not accustomed to drinking then avoidance is your best approach, but if you do decide to drink, limit yourself to one glass and have it with dinner. To combat alcohol’s diuretic effect, drink 240ml of water for every alcoholic beverage you drink.
Alcohol affects the body in a wide variety of ways, many of which can have an impact on your running performance. It stimulates the heart to beat faster and widens blood vessels (giving you a flushed complexion) but it depresses the nervous system, which can reduce exercise performance by impairing balance, coordination, visual perception and reaction time. It has also been shown to have a negative effect on strength, power and endurance.
Despite its high caloric level alcohol is not a useful fuel source for exercise. In fact, it interferes with glucose metabolism, which can lead to an increased risk of low blood sugar, meaning fatigue will set in quicker and exercise intensity falls. If you are training hard for an endurance event, drinking alcohol on a regular basis is not going to do anything for your performance but the odd glass is unlikely to be a concern.
If you’re doing an intensive training programme, bear in mind that alcohol can increase your risk of injuries: it can damage muscle cells, exacerbate inflammation and add to you recovery time.
Everyone metabolises alcohol differently, so always take into account the way your own body handles alcohol. You may be wise to skip it for up to 48 hours before a long race, such as a half-marathon or a marathon, to ensure enough time for proper rehydration. If you are running a shorter race and are used to the occasional glass, drink it with food and always ensure you stay hydrated.
The post-race drink
Consuming alcohol too soon after a hard training session or race can actually impede your recovery. Because it’s a diuretic, alcohol increases your risk of dehydration, interferes with refuelling and impairs healing. This can leave you feeling tired, sick, and sore the next day. Drinking too soon after a race reduces your uptake of other carbohydrates needed to replenish your glycogen stores. It can also cause your blood sugar to rise too quickly, which may make you feel lightheaded or sick. And because alcohol dilates blood vessels it may increase inflammation, adding to the amount of time an injury takes to heal.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a drink or two with friends. Before lifting a glass at a post-race party, have a snack high in carbs and with a little protein (a bagel with peanut butter or protein fruit smoothie) and rehydrate with 500-70ml of water or sports drink for every half a kilogramme of body weight you lost while you were running.