Most athletes have wondered at some point what the relationship is between alcohol and triathlon. Should they drink at all? How much is too much? Why is alcohol free beer such a big thing in our sport? In this article I hope to sort fact from fiction, and help you make informed choices. The first half will be science focused, in the second half we’ll look at a few strategies you can employ, and my personal feelings on the subject. If you’re looking for a quick wrap up, scroll on down to the conclusion at the bottom.
I’m not going to try to talk you out of drinking, rather help you decide whether one more pint really is a good idea, help you understand the effects it has on your performance, and make more informed choices. We’re all individuals with our own set of values, and I’m not going to try to impose mine on you.
The Metabolism of Ethanol
Ethanol is known by some as the fourth macronutrient. We already have carbohydrate, fats and protein, with ethanol sneaking in as a fourth. So what role does ethanol play? Well, it doesn’t play a role at all in a healthy diet, it’s completely optional and of no benefit to an athlete. Carbohydrate and protein both contain 4 calories per gram (so 100g of sugar would contain 400 calories), while fats contain 9. Ethanol contains 7 calories per gram, so is calorifically dense. This can add quickly over the course of a night out.
The body has no way to store ethanol, so it is perceived as a toxin. The quickest way to remove ethanol from the body is to metabolise (burn) it, so the body prioritises burning ethanol over carbohydrates, in the same way the body prioritises carbohydrates over fats when training. This means that the food we were already digesting prior to alcohol consumption or following it becomes excess calories. When you consider that some of the food decisions we make during and after alcohol consumption can be… interesting… combined with the fact the body is getting all the energy it needs from ethanol, this has the potential to leave us with a lot of excess calories
What does the body do with excess calories? It stores them as body fat. When you consider that dietary fats can take up to seven hours to digest, any fats you had for lunch or dinner before you start drinking may be translated directly into body weight. Ethanol metabolism also creates acetates in our body, which reduces our body’s need to utilise its fat stores. When you consider this alongside the fact that a small glass of wine contains 100 calories and a pint of real ale can easily hit 200, you can start to appreciate how counter productive alcohol consumption is for an athlete trying to watch their weight. One night of heavy drinking can undo a week’s worth of healthy eating and training.
The Effects of Alcohol on Health
I’ve yet to meet a doctor which recommends the consumption of alcohol. There are a few studies you can find which will talk about the benefits of certain types of alcohol (normally on the front page of a tabloid newspaper) due to the presence of antioxidants, but these effects aren’t always repeatable in other studies, or may only be limited to specific population groups. If there are any health benefits from certain drinks, they’re outweighed by the effect that regular alcohol consumption itself has on the body, as the diagram below shows.
I probably don’t need to talk you through the above, but it doesn’t paint a pretty picture. Alcohol is a class 1 carcinogenic, which means it has a very significant risk of causing cancer at some point compared to other substances.
Alcohol consumption also increases heart rate, which in turn increases blood pressure. It affects our testosterone and/or oestrogen levels, which are critically important for sexual function as well as athletic performance.
You may believe that alcohol helps you get a good night’s sleep, but it disrupts our sleep patterns by restricting the amount of REM (rapid eye movement) and deep sleep we can access. I can’t think of many individuals who feel refreshed and well rested after a big drinking session. No matter how late they sleep in the next day.
The Effect of Alcohol on Triathlon
Now we’re done with the theory, let’s put it into practice. How will alcohol affect your triathlon performance and training?
The biggest issue is with regards to recovery. As mentioned above, alcohol has a huge effect on sleep quality (not quantity). Swimming, cycling, running and lifting don’t make us fitter, they just create a training stimulus. Without sufficient recovery we won’t actually get any fitter, we’ll just run ourselves into the ground. If you sink a few pints to “recover” from your ride, you will undo some, if not all of your hard work. While the exact effects alcohol has on adaptation to endurance training haven’t been researched extensively at the time of writing, it has been proven to have a notable effect on muscle protein synthesis (Duplanty et al., 2017; Parr et al., 2014). This is the process of your body using proteins to create new muscle fibres, giving us bigger, stronger muscles. This is more of a concern for bodybuilders than triathletes, but may make an endurance athlete’s DOMS last for longer than they’d like.
Chemistry aside, what are the real world implications of heavy drinking? Alcohol affects your proprioception, which is your awareness of the world around you and how to react to it. This can result in entirely avoidable injuries such as a sprained ankle or fracture from missing a step on your way to/from the toilets. More than once an athlete of mine has been coming into good form after a hard winter of base training, but come back to the UK with their foot in a medical boot and their season in tatters after a heavy drinking session combined with ice on a ski holiday.
If you drink so much that you vomit, you lose a lot of the nutrient stores in your body, and are unlikely to feel up to high quality training the next day. If you wake up hungover, you may well miss a day’s training, or have a very poor session as you try to push through a thumping headache and nausea. Considering the weekend is both the time you’re most likely to drink heavily, and have your important training sessions, this can cause significant long term disruption to your training schedule.
The Social Aspect of Alcohol
There are a lot of uncomfortable truths in relation to triathlon and alcohol, but the more information we have, the better informed we are to make our own decisions. What follows is less backed up by science, and based more on my opinions/experiences.
At this point you probably think I’m a tee totaller. The truth is that I do mix alcohol and triathlon, enjoying a drink or two with friends once every couple of months, for the reasons that it’s social and helps us relax. If an alien species observing us saw the pros and cons of combining triathlon and alcohol they would find it hard to justify, but it’s ingrained in our society. Any major life event from a new arrival to a new job or leaving drinks to a funeral will be marked with alcohol in most circles. Alcohol helps us let go of our inhibitions, tell some tall tales and switch off that background noise in our head. It leaves most people feeling more relaxed and friendly, which as a sociable species is important.
The key in my opinion is moderation. If you have a couple of drinks once a month when catching up with old friends, get to bed at a reasonable time and still hit your workout the next day, I would be a very unreasonable coach to tell someone this wasn’t acceptable. If however your average Friday night looks like consuming 10+ drinks, falling face first into a kebab shop on the way home, then spending the next day with your head down a toilet as you bring it all up when you could be getting a long run in, this becomes more of a problem.
However, peer pressure is massive for some. They simply can’t turn down a drink, and the only social activity they can enjoy with any regularity in their friendship circle is heading to the local bar for a few drinks. In their eyes, they’re not making a choice between alcohol and triathlon, they’re making a choice between a social life and triathlon. As a social support circle is a huge part of training, it would be very short sighted to expect your average triathlete to choose between the two. It may actually do more harm to their performance to ask them to walk away from their friendship groups than is caused by the alcohol intake itself.
This is where non alcoholic beers come in. Many athletes enjoy the taste of alcohol and don’t want to miss out on a summer evening in a pub garden with old friends. You can you stick to non alcoholic beer all night or simply switch to them when you feel you’ve had enough and are worried how it may affect your training tomorrow. They are now widely available to enjoy in most drinking establishments, and come without the connotations associated with sitting in front a glass of cranberry juice.
As well as avoiding the metabolic effects of ethanol and the negative effects on our central nervous system, non alcoholic beers also contain less calories than their full strength counterparts. Most brands non alcoholic offering contains between 20-30% of the calories of their alcoholic counterparts.
However, some people might still take issue here. They’ll berate you for “not keeping up” or suggest you’re weak for avoiding having a “real” drink. At this point, I would be reviewing my relationship with these people and looking to surround myself with more like minded individuals who share my current values. Your local triathlon, cycling or running club is a good place to start if you want to mix training with socialising.
So, we’ve ascertained that alcohol is inherently bad for you, but it can be important for social and relaxation purposes. So how as triathletes should we apply this knowledge?
Firstly, it all depends on your goals. Are you trying to go under 10 hours in an Ironman, or are you hoping to complete your first super sprint? How much have you already invested in your performance? Would the happiness and sense of accomplishment you get from achieving your goals offset some potential social isolation?
If you’ve spent thousands on a high end bike, invested in high quality coaching, optimised your nutrition, and are looking for that extra 5% to help you excel, then cutting out or reducing alcohol intake is an easy win. If however you are just doing a short race for fun with some friends and training 2-3 times a week, it would be disproportionate to go tee total if moderate alcohol consumption is an important part of your social life.
When trying to make decisions, I always ask myself what I’m more likely to regret. If I fail to make the bike cutoff at an Ironman and reducing alcohol intake may have made the difference between me getting round or not, how would I feel? Equally, if I abstain completely for the sake of a race where I have a mediocre performance, will I regret taking such a hardline approach? In the same way athletes periodise their training, you may want to consider periodising your alcohol consumption. Being a bit more relaxed when the training is easier, then cutting back as you approach race day.
Finally on a more sombre note, athletes can be more susceptible to excessive alcohol consumption than non athletes. This often takes the form of having a single drink in the evening after a training session, which can tip your weekly drink consumption into the double digits if you’re not careful. If you feel the need to use alcohol to moderate your mood or others comment on the amount of alcohol you are consuming, I recommend you seek support from your local health provider. I can’t recall anyone telling me they regret going sober. For athletes in the UK, here are some NHS approved resources and support services where you will be able to receive non judgemental support and advice: https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/alcohol-advice/alcohol-support/
The author Simon Olney is a British Triathlon High Performing Coach and Certified Nutrition Coach