[Vincent Ragland is in his last semester as a student-athlete at East Carolina University, pursuing a Health Fitness Specialist Degree. He is currently an Athletic Development Intern at the Athletic Lab]
Does drinking really affect an athlete’s performance the way that you may think? Should athletes avoid drinking altogether, drink in moderation, or does it even really matter? Alcohol is the most commonly used substance in the world by college students and all athletes, ranging from high school to professional level. Studies even show that in the last 12 months, nearly 80 percent of athletes reported using alcohol (Wadler). In some years, this number has been as high as 88 percent. In actuality, this number could even be higher because of the inaccuracy associated with self-reported data. In some team settings, the intake of alcohol is even encouraged, as part of a team bonding experience. When teams win championships, it is not uncommon to see videos of nearly the entire team drinking and partying. When teams lose, it is also not uncommon for them to drink, as some athletes see it as a stress reliever and a way to get the mind off of the sorrows associated with losing a major competition. Of course, in extremely excessive amounts, alcohol can be very dangerous to anyone, sometimes fatal. When related to sports performance, there are several factors that have to be taken into account when trying to gauge the dangers associated with it, such as the age and gender of the individual, how much an athlete drinks in a particular setting, how often an athlete drinks over the course of time, how quickly they consume their drinks, the individual’s body size and composition, and their tolerance to alcohol.
Acute Effects of Alcohol on the body
While many of these athletes who consume alcohol are well aware of some of the more common acute effects, most of them still engage in drinking, typically on a regular basis. The acute effects include detriments in balance, reaction time, hydration status, information processing, and fine and gross motor skills (Morgan, 2015). Alcohol also has effects on the musculature of the body; muscle growth is inhibited by alcohol consumption, and alcohol also can lead to increased weight gains due to its caloric density (Forness). The calories in alcohol are pretty much just empty calories, so the body treats them as a fat and converts the sugars in alcohol to fatty acids in the body (Braun, 2013). Some of the negative acute effects may even continue the following day. The headaches, fatigue, nausea, and body aches associated with too much drinking and hangovers can make anyone’s drinking experience extremely regrettable, especially an athlete who has a practice or competition the next day. All of these acute factors can lead to a decrease in athletic performance, but the true athletic detriments come with the deeper and more physiological chronic effects of alcohol on athletic performance and recovery.
Research has proven that drinking smaller amounts of alcohol in moderation may prove to have some health benefits. Moderate amounts of alcohol can lower the risk of cardiovascular disease, lower the risk of type II diabetes, and lower the risk of blood clots (Bachai, 2013). On the contrary, drinking large amounts of alcohol has proven to have some serious chronic effects. Some of the toxins contained in alcohol can inhibit the body’s ability to produce ATP, which is the primary energy source for muscles. One of the major catalysts for ATP production is water, and when alcohol is absorbed into the body’s cells, it disrupts the body’s water’s balance. For any athlete, this may mean going to practice or into a competition with a relatively less amount of energy compared to an athlete that doesn’t drink. In an aerobic athlete especially, it is important that an athlete’s ATP levels are not compromised in any avoidable way. In addition to inhibiting ATP production, alcohol consumption impairs muscle growth. In every sport and athletic event, muscle growth and function are vital. Long term alcohol consumption decreases protein synthesis, which is necessary for muscle growth (Eitel, 2015). Protein synthesis occurs when an individual trains, specifically resistance training, and the muscles experience small micro tears. The micro tears are repaired through protein synthesis, which results in a stronger and more improved muscle fiber. When an individual drinks alcohol, that alcohol impedes the synthesis of proteins and causes the muscles not to grow. Essentially, drinking alcohol results in a wasted workout, instead of an effective workout. With an inhibition in muscle development, an athlete may struggle with their strength and power development and never be able to maximize their true potential. In nearly every sport, strength and power development is related to improved performance, so it is also important to not compromise this development in any modifiable way. The dehydration caused by the consumption of alcohol can also prove to be unfavorable to the cells and the bodily functions of athletes. Athletes are encouraged to hydrate themselves to help the body function properly and replace some of the bodily fluids that are lost during exercise because of sweat. In this instance, alcohol becomes a hindrance to that fluid – replacement process, as it causes the body to lose more fluids. One of the short term side effects of alcohol consumption is excessive urination. According to Dr. Karl Kruszelnicki, just because you drink 200 mL of alcohol does not mean that you will urinate 200 mL. If you drink 200 mL of alcohol, you will actually urinate about 320 mL; resulting in dehydration (Kruszelnicki, 2017).
So, How much can Athletes drink?
How much is too much alcohol? At what point does alcohol prove to have negative effects on athletics? Depending on the sport that the athlete is in, there are different thresholds as to how much alcohol they can consume before their performance drops off. As a general rule, athletes can typically follow the USDA recommended amounts of alcohol consumption (up to one drink for women and two drinks for men per day) without any negative lasting effects. In the chart listed below, the alcoholic drink equivalents are given.
The important thing to note is that there are some variances in the amount of alcohol that different people can consume, depending on their body size and composition. Most athletes will be able to consume a little bit more, but they should still avoid straying too far from these recommendations.
Whether it be an anaerobic or aerobic based sport, large amounts of alcohol have proven to be detrimental to athletic performance and recovery. If an athlete wants to optimize their performance and get the most out of every workout, alcohol should either be consumed in extremely moderate amounts (or avoided altogether). There is a threshold in which too much alcohol will inhibit anaerobic performance, and there is also a threshold in which too much alcohol inhibits aerobic performance. Though the results aren’t exactly consistent, and there isn’t an exact science as to how much alcohol is too much, athletes should stick to the USDA recommended amounts for consumption. Studies have not shown many chronic effects of alcohol on sports performance and recovery, but there have been well documented acute effects. Jane Griffin, a world renowned sports dietician says that “It’s not possible to perform at your best if you’re feeling any of the effects normally associated with a hangover such as dehydration, a headache, and hypersensitivity to outside stimuli, such as light and sound.” Ultimately, athletes should be highly cautious of alcohol ingestion pre or post exercise, especially high-intensity exercise.
Vella, Luke D., and David Cameron-Smith. “Alcohol, Athletic Performance and Recovery.” NCBI. MDPI, Aug. 2010. Web. 01 July 2017. <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3257708/>.
Kruszelnicki, Karl S. “Why does drinking alcohol cause dehydration?” ABC – Australian Broadcasting Corporation. N.p., 28 Feb. 2012. Web. 01 July 2017. <https://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2012/02/28/3441707.htm>
Siekaniec , Claire. “The Effects of Alcohol on Athletic Performance.” NSCA. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 July 2017. <https://www.nsca.com/education/articles/nsca-coach/the-effects-of-alcohol-on-athletic-performance/>.
Bachai, Sabrina. “7 Health Benefits Of Drinking Alcohol.” Medical Daily. N.p., 10 July 2013. Web. 06 July 2017. https://www.medicaldaily.com/7-health-benefits-drinking-alcohol-247552\
“Federal Dietary Guidelines on Alcohol Consumption.” Drink In Moderation. N.p., 06 Apr. 2016. Web. 30 June 2017. <https://www.drinkinmoderation.org/federal-dietary-guidelines-on-alcohol-consumption/>.
“Appendix 9. Alcohol.” Appendix 9. Alcohol – 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 July 2017. <https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/appendix-9/>.
Eitel, J. (2015, July 27). Alcohol’s Effect on Protein Synthesis. Retrieved July 07, 2017, from https://www.livestrong.com/article/539982-alcohols-effect-on-protein-synthesis/