There is no getting around it. In today's society, alcohol is everywhere. It is freely available and cheap to buy. You find it at nearly every social gathering, you probably live within 10 minutes of a pub or a bottle shop, and these days you can buy a box of beer and a $6 bottle of wine with your grocery shopping. With all this alcohol around, many athletes drink it. It is something that we, as adults, do. It is an able lubricant for a good night out, or a celebration after a win, and what's the harm, right?
Actually, there may be more harm than you think. Unless you're an idiot, you most likely know that drinking alcohol can lead to intoxication, or at least give you a warm fuzzy glow inside. It's half the attraction, and it keeps us going back for more. But what does alcohol really do to the athlete's body?
The effects of alcohol on the athlete are very pronounced. There are claims that alcohol is the most commonly used drug by serious athletes, and it also has a causative effect on sports-related injury. The hangover effect following large consumption of alcohol can reduce sports performance by up to 11.4%, reducing athlete's coordination and concentration, and increasing the likelihood of injury. The fact that alcohol consumption leads to poor physiological performance is one of the main reasons why it is generally recommended that alcohol is avoided by serious athletes.1
Now, if you're sitting there thinking that you only drink at night and you'll be fine for training the next day, I've got some news for you. Alcohol is metabolised much slower than it is usually consumed, which leads to you becoming intoxicated. While there are a number of factors in how quickly your body absorbs and metabolises alcohol, the effects are going to last much longer than you probably think. For example, if a fasting adult male drinks 4 standard alcoholic drinks, the alcohol will not actually leave his system completely for 7 hours2. On an average night out, many people drink more than 4 standard drinks, and over a longer time period. The build up of alcohol in the body is going to take time to break down, leaving your body to deal with the excess alcohol in the meantime. Binge drinking is quite common and even more dangerous for the athlete. So let's break it down ourselves, and take a look at the main problems that alcohol can cause for the athlete.
Alcohol impairs performance through delayed reaction times, decreased perception and impairs judgement for as long as several days after consumption. It increases the risk of the athlete causing injury to themselves while training or competing, because the brain is not responding as quickly and accurately as it should be. Alcohol also leaves a hangover effect, which can leave the athlete with a headache, nausea, dizziness and fatigue. It also impairs the body's natural functions, and not only causes the body to produce more lactic acid, it also reduces the body's ability to break down lactic acid, making those muscles ache far more after a training session.
Alcohol is a diuretic that can cause the body to become quickly dehydrated. The effects of dehydration on the athlete range from headaches to fatigue to increased heart rate and muscle cramps. Severe dehydration can take weeks to recover from, and in extreme cases cause death. If you try to train or compete while dehydrated, you are at more risk of injuring yourself.
The body treats alcohol very much like fat. Alcohol has 7 calories per gram, compared to carbohydrate which has 4.5 calories and fat which has 9 calories per gram. Alcohol can increase your body fat percentage, because not only does alcohol destroy amino acids and store them as fat, the alcohol itself is also stored much like fat in the body. Since alcohol is usually consumed on top of your normal food, it also adds many unneeded calories to your diet and quickly causes weight gain.
When an athlete binge drinks, the alcohol can decrease testosterone levels. Decreased testosterone means the athlete's overall performance drops. They are less aggressive, have decreased lean muscle mass and it takes longer for muscle recovery.
Alcohol has a negative effect on nutrition. It over stimulates cells in the lining of the stomach and leads to an increase in stomach acid. This can cause heartburn and ulcer development. It also reduces the absorption of micro-nutrients, which can cause electrolyte imbalances and vitamin deficiencies. Drinking alcohol can also lead to hypoglycemia, because alcohol can interfere with the body's ability to control glucose absorption. Hypoglycemia in the athlete is dangerous, although it doesn't usually last long – it causes the brain and body tissues to be deprived of glucose which is needed for normal function, and subsequently can lead to serious injury.
Long term, alcohol can lead to a very long list of serious issues within the body. Alcohol has been a banned substance for most Olympic sports since 1967, who ironically classed it as a performance-enhancing drug.3 These days, we know better. As athletes, the onus is on you whether or not you drink alcohol, and in what quantity. If you choose to drink, do so sensibly. Never drink alcohol during training and give your body sufficient time to recover after alcohol consumption before your next training session. And if in doubt, try being safe rather than sorry.
written by Kristy Clarkson
1 O'Brien C.P & Lyons F (2000) Sports Medicine, Volume 29, Number 5, 1 May 2000 , pp. 295-300(6) cited http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/adis/smd/2000/00000029/00000005/art00001