This article is evidence-based, verified by Dr Adil Maqbool
Alcohol is consumed pretty much everywhere. It may be used for special occasions or used to take the edge off. However, if you are someone that participates in sports how does this affect you? It is known that alcohol dampens the senses, decreases judgment, and slows your motor control. All of which are qualities that may or may not be important to certain sports.
Does alcohol affect sports performance?
Absolutely. Alcohol consumption can negatively impact an athlete’s performance. There are many factors that we will go into detail about, but it does matter. What it comes down to is the decrease in recovery that it causes. Alcohol can limit an athlete’s recovery whether it be from workouts or practice (Source). Recovery is one of the key components to be a successful athlete and alcohol can be the anti-thesis to just that. The timing of the alcohol does matter as well. Performance would be decreased if an athlete were to consume alcohol during practice or a competition, but the lack of recovery comes from having alcohol within a close window to activity. For example, if an athlete were to binge drink after workouts, they would have a tough time recovering properly from that session. This leads to the answer that yes; alcohol does affect sport’s performance in athletes.
Let’s look into some more specific ways that alcohol can limit one’s performance.
As an athlete, you will more than likely be losing a lot of water and electrolytes from sweating (related article). This is going to happen at a more rapid rate than the average person as well, so your hydration status is going to be important. When you are dehydrated, your body won’t function at its best. Your movements will be less efficient, neurons won’t fire as fast, and you may feel almost sick.
Alcohol does a good job of dehydrating you. It is a diuretic substance, meaning that it causes you to empty your bladder more frequently (drinkaware.co.uk). If you have ever had any drinks in excess, then you have more than likely noticed going to the restroom more often. Dehydration is what causes some of the symptoms of a hangover. That pounding headache is more than likely from not having enough fluids or electrolytes in your system.
This can have a direct impact on your performance in sports. Alcohol is a diuretic regardless of your daily habits. However, if you leave practice dehydrated and immediately head to the bar, then you are putting yourself into a deeper hydration deficit. This can flow over into the next day, which can lead you to perform poorly in workouts or maybe even a game.
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Every athlete has heard how important sleep is. Well, alcohol decreases the quality of your sleep. You may think that you are getting good sleep after a long night of binge drinking, but in reality, you are just passed out. The amount of sleep may seem proper, but the quality is lacking. Alcohol prevents you from getting into those deep phases of sleep such as REM (rapid eye movement) (Source). Without reaching these stages, sleep isn’t able to do its job. This can lead to a very strong lack of recovery (related article).
The majority of our recovery comes from sleep. This is when the body has time to repair everything. If at any time we aren’t allowing the body to do what it needs, then we are going to be leaving a lot of recovery on the table. When we don’t properly recover and still show up to put stress on the body, we increase the risk of overtraining.
This will directly impact how we progress as an athlete. These little losses in recovery will add up over time and slow your progression.
The effects on sleep can, however, be dose-dependent. Moderate to high levels of consumption or binge drinking seems to have the strongest effect on your sleep. Whereas one drink doesn’t show to have a strong correlation with poor sleep (Source).
As an athlete, you will need to build muscle. This is what will allow you to be stronger and faster at whatever given sport. However, if you are compromising the body’s ability to synthesize protein for muscle growth then there will be a decrease in muscle mass.
Alcohol seems to harm the body’s ability to synthesize protein. There are certain compounds in the body called mTOR. mTOR is what helps to signal the start of protein synthesis, but alcohol tends to stop this process. It directly will affect the signaling of the mTOR and decrease the rate of protein synthesis (Source).
This seems to depend on the dose of alcohol that you are consuming. If you are having one drink, the effect doesn’t seem to be so substantial. If you are consuming moderate to high amounts of alcohol, it has a strong dampening effect.
The lack of protein synthesis over time can even lead to muscle wasting (Source). If you have ever observed a long-time alcoholic, they often do not have much muscle mass. This is due to a certain level of muscle wasting or degradation. The muscle waiting is still attributed to the interruption of mTOR pathways as previously stated, this, however, is what may happen over an extended period.
This comes with age, so it may not be as apparent in younger populations, however, it can still play a role in decreasing sport’s performance. Many athletes want longevity in their sport, but if you are constantly losing muscle due to alcohol consumption that will be a hard task. Other, more youthful athletes will be able to show up and outperform you.
Alcohol and Natural Anabolic Hormones
In males and some in females, testosterone and human growth hormone (HGH) are important hormones in regards to building muscle and strength. Testosterone is considered an anabolic hormone, meaning it is used to “build up” structures in the body. The same can be said about HGH, they play huge roles in recovery by initiating important cascades of events. If testosterone levels are lower or inhibited, then there will be an apparent decrease in recovery. If HGH is not released in response to stress, then there will be a lot of damage that isn’t getting repaired.
Chronic alcohol consumption can harm sex hormones, which includes testosterone (Source). This is especially important for post-workout or post-practice times. This is when the body is looking for repairs to start happening. Testosterone and HGH are two of the components that have control over this. When alcohol is consumed immediately after a session, there is a dampening or inhibition of the release of anabolic hormones.
By lowering your recovery rates, you are directly affecting your sport’s performance. Some athletes leave a lot on the table regarding the level of performance by not fully recovering. When observing high-level athletes, what is often not shown is the level of attention that is put on recovery. When looking to optimize your sport’s performance, avoiding chronic alcohol consumption can help.
Alcohol May Extend Injury Times
When looking to perform well in sports, staying healthy and injury-free are very important. If an injury does happen, it is encouraged that the recovery is fast. This will allow the player to get back on the field and not lose time and or progress. Recovery from injuries often takes time, but there are ways to expedite the process. Most of it comes down to doing the small things right.
One way to do things wrong and extend injury periods is to consume alcohol regularly. One drink may not create any issues for you, but chronic consumption can have adverse effects on recovery periods. Alcohol inhibits many things as we have discussed previously, but one other important aspect is blood flow (Source). Alcohol in excess can raise your heart rate, but also constrict blood flow.
This increases your blood pressure without any benefits. For tissues to recover faster, they need more blood flow to them. This can be shown in recovery times for muscles versus tendons. Tendons do not have as many blood vessels, which leads them to take longer for recovery. Muscles, however, are full of veins and blood vessels so they take much fewer times to recover. Regardless, if the tissue is being restricted from adequate blood flow, then a slower recovery period will follow.
As an injured athlete, it may be an emotional time and you may seek out the help of alcohol. However, try to avoid this behavior due to the lack of recovery that it will cause. If you are looking to get back to your sport as quickly as possible then take your recovery seriously. This will, in turn, improve your return to the sport, which equates to better sport’s performance.
Alcohol, Fitness, and Weight
Some sports require that you fit within a weight class. This can include MMA, wrestling, and powerlifting. Most of these athletes spend time gaining muscle in an attempt to maximize sport’s performance, but then have to cut down to a certain weight. Weight-loss methods such as a reduction in calories can be utilized to reach the desired weight for weigh-in day.
Alcohol is a liquid beverage that contains 7 calories/gram. This is not included any other added mixers, additives, or flavorings. This puts alcohol 2 calories behind fats in regards to the most calorically dense food. If an athlete is trying to be a certain weight or be lighter, then chronically drinking alcohol could be detrimental. Athletes may not consider the extra calories and how much it can add up over time. Even just consuming one pint of beer can attribute to an extra 200 calories. If you’re unsure, you can try the official calculator on drinkaware.co.uk.
When fitness is a priority the extra calories from alcohol can cause issues. Some of these issues may include an increase in excess body fat or a lack of “being in shape”. An individual attempting to stay fit or perform at a certain level will not always need the extra body weight in the form of adipose tissue or fat.
When looking to stay in shape for a sport or lose weight, avoiding chronic alcohol consumption will prove helpful. It is not uncommon for someone who stops drinking every day to lose weight rapidly.
Putting It All Together
To close this article out, let’s recap alcohol’s effect on sport’s performance. Alcohol harms how well you can perform in sports. This comes largely in part from the lack of recovery that alcohol can lead to. There are multiple ways in which alcohol slows recovery. Some examples include dehydration, lack of quality sleep, restriction of blood flow, reduction in hormone responses, protein synthesis inhibition, and unwanted weight gain.
For the athlete who is looking to perform at the highest level possible, avoiding alcohol will help them to do just that.
Again, the amount of alcohol consumed does play a role in its effect on an athlete. If an individual is only having a couple of drinks in a month, this should cause no problems. However, binge drinking or chronically drinking in excess may lead to issues in all of the aforementioned domains.
The timing of alcohol consumption also matters. The worst time to consume alcohol is immediately after a workout or practice session. This will, in turn, have the biggest effect on sport’s performance and recovery from training.
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