Does alcohol affect fitness?

Useful things to know when balancing alcohol into your fitness lifestyle


In this article, we will be examining the effects of alcohol consumption on muscle protein synthesis (the process of muscle recovery).

How truly detrimental is alcohol to your gains?


Alcohol negatively affects the muscle repairing process, but it can be consumed without being too detrimental*

The asterisk has been inserted to clarify that this statement does not mean one can consistently drink without suffering detrimental effects on muscle growth.

The purpose of this article is to highlight the extent in which alcohol can set back your fitness progress.

Since there exists a dominant and socially accepted celebratory culture of drinking, it will be looking at realistic methods of harm reduction rather than to conclude that you should quit drinking completely.

As with cheat days, drinking; or even binge drinking in moderation can be overrode with enough training and the right nutrition when we consider the bigger picture.

If 90% of the time you are eating right and working hard, then getting hammered on a weekend is a small compromise when compared to the good memories you would share with your friends, assuming you remember anything.

Even top athletes celebrate their victories by popping bottles.

Alcohol in sports

Source: ABC news (2015) Evolution of traditional champagne celebrations in baseball

Would’t you agree that a significant part of life is all about a good balance?

I am in full support if you decide to take on the near impossible task of total abstinence, but I am willing to bet that 99% of the people reading this would rather find a way to fit alcohol in to their lifestyles.


Research

Muscle protein synthesis (MPS) is a key component for any increase in skeletal muscle size and increased glycogen storage capacity – this process is also known as hypertrophy.

A current body of research seems to indicate that consumption of alcohol post-exercise results in an impairment of MPS, even when the alcohol is ingested in combination with protein (1)

How exactly alcohol interferes with the conversion of glucose in to glycogen (gylcogenesis) is however unclear. An article written in the American Physiological Society – Journal of Applied Physiology, suggests that alcohol has an indirect effect on how high G.I. carbohydrates (the fast-acting type) are optimally stored after exercise (2)

The negative effect of alcohol was more pronounced when there was an inadequate amount of carbohydrates consumed post-exercise.

Another important thing to note in this study is that the subjects in both groups were required to take at least 11 ‘standard alcoholic’ drinks, which is far beyond the typical amount recommended by health and safety organizations.

Three subjects in this study had to be withdrawn due to excessive vomiting. All subjects were healthy and had given prior written consent.


Implications

Since noticeable negative effects of alcohol had been observed, it’s safer to assume the answer to this question is: yes, it can be harmful to your fitness goals.

But, getting drunk is no excuse to forget about post-exercise nutrition because MPS is still higher than if you didn’t train that day at all.

One of the implications of this is: your trip to a fast food haven after a heavy session is the lesser of two evils when compared to eating nothing or an inadequate amount of carbohydrates.

Yes, you read it right.

Conclusion

To recap:

Current research seems to lean towards an indication that alcohol does have a detrimental effect on muscle recovery.

There does not however seem to be any evidence showing a direct negative effect which inhibits glycogen storage in skeletal muscle, but MPS does seem to become slightly less optimized within the first 8 hours post-exercise.

The most negative indirect effect observed was when blood alcohol was elevated at the highest level (8 hours), and when the alcohol was displacing an adequate amount of carbohydrates, i.e. having a much higher alcohol to carbohydrate ratio.

After 24 hours there was no difference in muscle glycogen stores.

Basically, blood alcohol level and metabolism mostly returns to normal in 24 hours after exercise.

Remember to keep the good habit of eating an adequate amount of protein and especially carbohydrates, after you train; regardless of how much alcohol you will be drinking.

Do not skip a workout just because you know you will probably get smashed that night. That is no excuse.

Something is always better than nothing.

Cheers!


Sources

(1) https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0088384

(2) https://www.physiology.org/doi/full/10.1152/japplphysiol.00115.2003