What Effect Does Alcohol Have On A Runner’s Performance?

Just like most of the population, a runner likes to enjoy some alcohol every now and then. An ice cold beer after crossing a finish line might not make for a textbook recovery, but some of the pleasures in life are worth enjoying.

What about before the race though? What effect does alcohol have on a runner’s performance?

It is common knowledge that alcohol and sports do not make a good mix, yet you can frequently see headlines such as “Camille Herron drinks beer while shattering 100-mile run world record.” This kind of contradictory information can be extremely confusing, so how can we separate the fact from fiction when it comes to booze and running? 

What does alcohol do to your body while running? Does it actually impact running performance? Should you shotgun a beer or two the night before you cross the starting tape? Or leave the alcohol on the sideline?

Let’s take a closer look…

How Does Alcohol Impact Running Performance?

What effect does alcohol have on a runner's performance?

Many runners have a fine appreciation of alcohol. It can be a fun way to wind down after a day of logging miles and a celebratory symbol of internal excitement when you cross that final finish line with your buddies. However, everyone knows that it is not exactly a high-performance fuel. 

Overconsumption, obviously, is not healthy for anyone. Especially someone that is already marginally dehydrated after a long stretch of strenuous exercise or a runner preparing to run x many miles before dawn breaks the following morning. Drinking too much alcohol not only impacts performance but can affect post-run recovery, too. 

One of the primary issues alcohol poses, especially for runners, is that it is not a usable energy source. The calories ingested from alcohol cannot be converted into glycogen, the body’s main energy source. Instead, calories derived from alcohol are stored in fat, which makes sense why. On average, alcohol packs a caloric punch of seven calories per gram of alcohol. Alcohol is not a body-fueling beverage and typically replaces more efficient nutrition. 

For the everyday person leading a sedentary lifestyle, the CDC recommends limiting yourself to moderate drinking. This is considered up to one alcoholic drink per day for women or two servings of alcohol per day for men. 

But what about athletes? If you are at a high level of cardiovascular health and have a high metabolism, can you drink more alcohol before your body feels the negative effects? How much can you drink before your training starts to suffer? 

Registered Dietician Jana Dengel shares that moderation (according to the CDC’s abovementioned definition) for the general public is also a good parameter for athletes. A study by WHOOP, a biometrics fitness tracking organization, found that one night of heavy drinking in college athletes could impact running performance for up to five days. That’s certainly long enough to mess with your best laid training plan.

Drinking in Moderation vs Heavy Drinking

Beyond overconsumption causing hangovers and nausea, drinking outside of healthy moderation could create other issues for runners. Alcohol could disrupt natural sleep patterns, which decreases your body’s ability to optimally recover muscles after strenuous exercises like running. 

Excessive alcohol consumption raises your body’s epinephrine level, which tears your muscles down instead of building them up. Drinking too much alcohol can also lead to injuries because of increased swelling and decreased immune function, which contributes to delayed healing of overuse injuries.

Imbalanced alcohol consumption will also affect your waistline, and not in the right way. Because of how calorie-dense alcohol is, overconsumption may leave you kissing your ideal race weight goodbye. Also, bar food typically excludes lean proteins and grilled veggies that help you maintain a tight figure. Beer is much better with greasy nachos and wings – everybody knows that!

A study found that even after alcohol has left your system, overconsumption can contribute to electrolyte imbalances and hypoglycemia. Alcohol in your system reduces your body’s ability to regulate necessary bodily functions for running, like lactic acid fermentation, injury prevention, and electrolyte restoration.

Even worse – runs tackled when hungover can demonstrate up to an 11% lower running performance than runs at your basal function. Alcohol makes you slower

Needless to say, it’s probably not the smartest idea to get hammered the night before your big day. You won’t enjoy logging the miles on race day nor feel motivated to crawl out of bed and lace up your running shoes before sunrise. 

To mitigate sub-par performance, the CDC suggests placing a 72-hour window between going out on the town and going for a big run. This will help prevent your body from working in detox mode and will aid in fortifying your body with its optimal liver function. 

The question is, then — can your training routine afford a 72 hour gap where your performance is likely to suffer?

Mental Health

Currently, studies defining the relationships between moderate alcohol consumption and mental health are inconclusive. Long-term alcohol misuse, however, is a different story. Drinking too much for too long impacts the parts of the brain that regulate stress responses, emotional health, and the ability to rationalize reward consequences. This could cause more serious disorders like anxiety, addiction, and depression.  

What About Post-Run Celebratory Drinks?

So, as seen above, drinking excessively before a race is a no-go. But what about a celebratory beer with your fellow athletes after crossing that long-awaited finish line? 

Drinking too much too soon after a race can prolong your recovery and hinder your body’s ability to re-acclimate. After a race, all runners are dehydrated to some degree. Because alcohol is a diuretic, too much will make a dehydrated athlete even more dehydrated, which can also negatively affect muscle repair and glycogen replenishment that needs to happen after intense exercise. 

In 2014, a study from Sports Medicine suggested that considering some variance in weight, tolerance, and genetics, a dose of fewer than 0.5 grams per kilogram of body weight will not hinder recovery. For a small 140-pound runner, this would equate to less than 2 ABV beers post-run as an optimal limit. 

It’s All About Balance 

At the end of the day, we are all human, and runners should have an outlet to celebrate their triumphant finish line crossing. This does not mean overindulgence is okay in any sense of the word. 

But cracking open a celebratory beer and making memories that go beyond shin splints and blisters will not ruin you as a runner, either. Make informed decisions about what drinking does to your body and how it could impact your performance. 

How to Offset The Effect of Booze on Running

How can runners practice health and optimize their performance while also avoiding horrid hangovers? Aside from the obvious nugget of wisdom: drink less or not at all, there are other things runners can proactively do to support their performance and post-run recovery. 

Hydrate Thyself

As mentioned earlier, alcohol is a diuretic. This causes dehydration when not properly paired with efforts to hydrate. Drink ample water before and after drinking alcohol to hamper the impact of the diuretic response. Throwing an electrolyte-rich drink like coconut water in is even better.

Choose Drinks Wisely

When available, go with healthier alcoholic beverages. High-sugar drinks can cause blood sugar dips, cravings, energy fluctuation, and a lack of concentration. Opt for dry wines instead of cocktails and beer when possible. 

Supplement Recovery

Herbal supplements high in antioxidants can help protect and support liver function during those periods when you may be drinking more than usual. 

Say “Yes” to Electrolytes

Water, of course, is vital in hydrating your body and preventing dehydration – but by only drinking water, you’ll end up flushing out key nutrients that your body needs to regulate itself. Electrolytes are one of the hydration components that helps balance your internal fluids. 

If you’re planning on going out to drink, finish off a cup of water mixed with an electrolyte tablet and set one on your nightstand to drink before bed. Coconut water is also naturally high in electrolytes and is a pro-metabolic mineral-rich drink. 

Soften the Blow

Putting food in your stomach before you start sipping on a cocktail (or two) is one way to slow the absorption of alcohol into your bloodstream. When possible, choose nutrient-dense foods instead of greasy fast food options. Avoid drinking on an empty stomach at all costs – your body will thank you later!

Non-Alcoholic Fun

There are actually some companies, running companies even, that have created non-alcoholic beers specifically for athletes. The idea behind this is that they want to support runners in their achievements and celebrations properly without putting their athletic performance and recovery at risk.

Is The Booze Worth It?

Ultimately, every runner has to decide what lifestyle trade-offs are acceptable to his/her training plan.

Is booze going to help you on your run? The answer is almost certainly not.

Is it a good idea to get hammered the night before a marathon? Nope.

Have we heard people do this anyway and still manage to cross the finish line? Yep.

If you are training rigorously to produce marginal gains in your performance and shave seconds off a personal best, drinking alcohol in the run-up to the race is a terrible idea. But if you are running for charity or for the social connection, it’s not going to prevent you from putting one foot in front of the other.

Author Profile

Thalia Oosthuizen

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Thalia started running during the the pandemic as a way of getting out of the house. The running bug bit, and now much of her life revolves around everything to do with running - videos, podcasts, studies, books, articles, and interviews. She's also done several courses on running nutrition and mechanics to aid in her training and advising others.
Thalia Oosthuizen

Revel SPorts Contributor

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