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home  |  health information  |  health living  |  lifestyle  |  exercise

Alcohol and the athlete

Athletes - just like anybody else - can experience the adverse effects of alcohol. Being fit is no protection from the risks of drinking too much!

But what effect does alcohol have on athletic performance if you drink just moderately?

Drinking alcohol will:

  • increase your risk of dehydration as alcohol has a diuretic effect, in other words it increases urine output
  • give you problems with body heat regulation - particularly important for endurance athletes
  • reduce your blood sugar levels so your energy levels are lowered; this can be a problem with longer periods of exercise
  • impair your reaction times, co-ordination and balance
  • reduce your endurance, strength and speed
  • increase your risk of injury

It seems clear that drinking alcohol or being under the influence of alcohol while training or competing is going to reduce your performance. What's more, these effects start occurring even when just small amounts of alcohol are drunk.

Alcohol and your weight

Alcohol is very high in calories. In fact, it is second only to fat in terms of calorific content per gram (see below). As a result, drinking excess alcohol is often associated with weight gain.

Calorie values of energy producing nutrients

All types fat

9 calories (kcals) per gram

Alcohol

7 calories (kcals) per gram

Carbohydrates (starch and sugar)

4 calories (kcals) per gram

Protein

4 calories (kcals) per gram

Paradoxically, although alcohol is high in calories, it is not a good source of energy for an athlete. This is because the body can only metabolise alcohol at a fixed rate. Broadly speaking, this is about one unit (8 grams) per hour. So, when there is a sharp increase in energy demand (for example when exercising) alcohol metabolism is unable to meet it, making alcohol useless as an energy source to the athlete.

Furthermore, alcohol itself is not a good nutrient because it does not supply any vitamins or minerals. It is true that the liquid in which the alcohol is floating (namely the whole drink) may contain some nutrients. However, one would have to have quite a few drinks in order to match the nutrient content of food. In fact, in the long term, a high alcohol intake can impair the body's absorption of nutrients from food and bring about vitamin deficiencies - particularly the B group of vitamins.

So, from a body weight and nutritional view point, alcohol will not help your athletic performance and may well have a negative effect.

I enjoy a drink - so when can I drink?

The American College of Sports Medicine recommendations are:

Training and pre-event

Avoid alcohol (other than small amounts) for about 48 hours

Post exercise

Rehydrate first with non-alcoholic drinks then consume food with the alcohol to slow down its absorption

What are the safe limits for alcohol consumption?

 

Maximum units per week

Maximum units per day

Men

21-28 units

3-4 units

Women

14-21 units

2-3 units

These are the current guidelines1 recommended for sensible drinking and are aimed at the population generally. If you stay within these limits, alcohol will not do you any physical harm. However, alcohol intakes above these levels are linked to increasing health risks.

What is one unit?

A unit is:

  • one quarter of one pint of strong beer, lager or cider
  • one half of one pint of ordinary beer, lager or cider
  • one single pub measure of spirits
  • one small glass of wine or sherry

Remember, home measures can be misleading and are generally larger than pub measures!

Key points

  • Even moderate intakes of alcohol can negatively affect athletic performance
  • Alcohol is high in calories and may result in weight gain
  • Alcohol is not a good nutrient and may impair vitamin and mineral absorption from food
  • Before exercise/training avoid alcohol for 48 hours
  • After exercise/training, drink non alcoholic drinks to rehydrate
  • High alcohol intakes can damage health and nearly all the body's organs/systems can be affected
  • Drinking within safe limits is not linked to any significant health risks

References

  1. Sensible Drinking: The Report of an Inter-Departmental Working Group, Department of Health, December 1995:10.20

 
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