The more we work out and strive to be healthy, the more awesome stuff we have to cut out of our lives, like alcohol, right?
I mean, isn't it tough to get the body of your dreams while you drink? Like most people, I've always heard that drinking destroys workouts. But is this true?
To find out, I dug around a little. I found some scientific studies that can give us some answers.
I've split this article into three different categories: what happens if you drink before you work out, what happens if you drink while you work out and what happens if you work out while you're hungover.
Drinking and then working out seems like a terrible idea. Luckily, scientists found a group of people willing to accept the challenge. Some researchers decided to make their subjects drink a moderate amount – a couple of drinks or the equivalent of half the legal limit for driving – and then ride a bike for an hour.
They found that the cyclists had 4 percent less leg power after drinking than when they were sober. While this may be critical for a Tour de France rider, it's really not a big deal to the average person. Other than that, there was really no difference between the sober and drunk groups.
It's worth noting that some studies show that alcohol impairs performance, and some show that it doesn't. These studies also show that alcohol doesn't affect sprint time or strength. So, it might have an impact on endurance exercises, but it probably won't have much of an effect on strength or short-burst exercises.
Keep in mind that these studies were not on subjects who were blackout drunk; they simply had a few drinks.
Many people consider alcohol a carbohydrate. This is partially true, but not exactly. Your muscles can't use alcohol for fuel, whereas they can use the carbohydrates from food. Alcohol may also stop your liver from creating glucose.
This makes it difficult for you to keep your energy levels up for a period of time, which is why alcohol would affect endurance performance, but not short burst activities. It also explains why you might crave carbs after a night of drinking, or why carbs might help cure your hangover.
Since your muscles can't use alcohol for energy, working out won't help process alcohol or help you recover. Sorry.
Alcohol also causes some other problems that might affect performance. We all know you have a decreased ability to balance, react and think clearly when you are drunk. This means alcohol probably isn't the best thing to consume before a quick-moving athletic competition. It also affects your ability to regulate body temperature.
Since alcohol dilates your blood vessels, it will push blood out to your limbs and away from your core. This results in a drop in core temperature, which actually decreases performance. However, not all of the effects of alcohol are bad.
When you drink, you have less fear and anxiety, which makes you better during a competition because fear can't cloud your mind or waste your energy. Alcohol also makes it seem like an exercise is easier than it actually is (also called "beer muscles").
This explains why that drunk guy at the bar can crank out way more push ups than you can: It doesn't feel as difficult to him. All in all, drinking a little before a workout shouldn't affect it very much. The positives and the negatives should balance each other out, as long as your lack of balance doesn't cause you to fall flat on your face.
“Don't drink after a workout, bro. You'll lose all your gains.”
Is this “bro” correct? Actually, he's spot on.
First of all, alcohol blunts your muscle's ability to synthesize protein, which will definitely cause you to lose some of your “gains.” Additionally, alcohol can inhibit your ability to store glucose after a workout.
Storing sugars after your workout allows you to both recover and have energy for the next workout. So, it's definitely not good for recovery.
The only thing that's a little fuzzy is rehydration. Someone actually tested the theory that you can't rehydrate with beer. A group of runners drank either mineral water or three cups of beer plus a little water after a run. There were no differences in rehydration between the groups.
The theory that you can't rehydrate with a cool alcoholic beverage after a workout doesn't hold much ground. All in all, you should avoid drinking after a workout if at all possible. But once in a while, it won't kill you, especially if you're just exercising for fun.
If you had to test a group of athletes on the effects of drinking the night before a workout, what's the first group you would ask? That's right: rugby players.
Since this particular group loves to drink after a game, a group of researchers simply had these athletes come in for a workout the night after a binge.
These guys put in a serious night of drinking after a game. They only slept an average of two hours that night. Then, they came into the lab to perform some tests.
Their lower body power decreased significantly, but their lower body strength, sprint performance and hydration levels were all fairly the same. What does this tell us? Well, alcohol will definitely affect the quality of your sleep.
We already know it will affect your ability to recover by inhibiting glucose storage in muscles. However, it doesn't seem to affect strength or sprint performance. Your best bet is to have some carbs in the morning and get your workout over and done with.
As long as you can get enough glycogen back in your muscles, your workout probably won't suffer too much. But it's also important to note that this was a one-time thing. You shouldn't attempt to do this more than once in a while.
So, do exercise and alcohol mix? Well, they can. You can probably drink a little before your workout, and if you're not chasing serious results, you should be able to drink after as well. While it may not feel great, you can probably get in a pretty good workout even when you're hungover.
My favorite quote came from some of the researchers: “The notion that alcohol consumption affects performance has not received enough consistent validation to advance beyond being anecdotal.” In other words, it's not a big deal.
Note: Alcohol consumption is probably not very healthy, and I'm not trying to argue that it is. I'm just saying it probably doesn't affect performance as much as we might think.
A version of this post was previously published on the author's personal blog.