We are more than half way through our 80 day sober challenge and alcohol has been the hot topic of conversation in our house for weeks now! Loads of people have been really interested in the reasons for our sobriety (sober curious?) - of which there are many - but one of those reasons does happen to be fitness.
There are many reasons why a break from alcohol can do you good, but we thought we'd focus on the part we know best, the fitness bit. We've done the reading and the research and are currently testing the sober theories, but, to put it bluntly, all the evidence points in the same direction and if you have any kind of fitness goals, those cheeky little vinos may be doing you more harm than you think.
Not trying to be party poopers here, as we're all for everything in moderation, but do you know what moderation looks like when it comes to alcohol??
You can smash your favourite HIIT class/tabata/bootcamp/boxing/spinning, Kettlercise/hot yoga/gym as hard as you like, you can run/swim/cycle for miles, but if you go skedaddling off to the pub with your mates after a work out (and we've all done it), you are more than likely to wipe out weeks worth of graft in one fell swoop. Worse still, play the "work hard, party hard" card - i.e. if I spend 45 minutes on the treadmill surely all that Prosecco won't count, oh but it still does...
1. THE LIVER - Our livers have to work really hard to process alcohol. It's basically a poison (and a neurotoxin), and it's the liver's job to get rid of it. Just one sip of beer, wine, or gin will stay in your body for about two hours, and your liver has to work hard to break down alcohol (ethanol) into acetic acid. It also just happens that the energy your body uses for exercise comes primarily from glucose, which is stored in the body as glycogen. Glycogen is generated by your liver when it processes carbs. Hard workouts drain the glycogen stores, so while your body is in desperate need of repair it's too busy working on metabolizing the alcohol instead of helping you recover from your workout. Alcohol and exercise = liver overdrive - and it won't thank you for it.
2. MUSCLE RECOVERY - The presence of alcohol in your body triggers a multitude of chemical processes, including the release of a toxin from your liver that attacks the hormone testosterone, which is an essential component for allowing your muscles to grow and regenerate. Levels of the stress hormone cortisol are also increased by consumption of alcohol. Cortisol can reduce levels of growth hormone by up to 70%. Alcohol has an enormous impact on reducing muscle protein synthesis. Drinking alcohol to excess can actually poison muscle fibres which means they don’t adapt like they should do.
3. DEHYDRATION - Alcohol is also a powerful diuretic (meaning that it promotes the production of urine) and can severely dehydrate your body for up to a week after consumption (depending on how heavy the session was).
If you are exercising with a hangover, your body will not have the reserve of liquid to deal with strenuous exercise. Your internal water gauge will also still be malfunctioning so the body won't even realise there is a problem. Hydration is necessary for the flow of blood through your body, which is essential for circulating oxygen and nutrients to your muscles. Dehydration leads to reduced performance and you are also at risk of overheating. Alcohol consumption after exercise will delay recovery, partly as it delays rehydration and this means your muscles will recover more slowly.
4. WEIGHT LOSS - If you're working out to lose weight, then alcohol is completely counter productive. Alcohol is an appetite stimulant so you are likely to overeat (the kebab on the way home from the pub?) Alcohol also anaesthetises the trigger that tells you when you're full. Double whammy. On top of that, alcohol is also full of empty calories - it adds to your calorie count and gives you absolutely no nutrients whatsoever (and no you can't count that strawberry that's in your Pimms). AND (yes there's more) - your body is less likely to burn fat if you've been drinking. Why? Your body will burn the energy from alcohol before it burns anything else, so you're more likely to store the fat from any food you've eaten as the body is getting it's energy elsewhere.
5. SLEEP - While some people use alcohol to help them sleep, it actually has the opposite effect. It’s true, sleep may happen more quickly after consuming a drink or two but the alcohol will go on to affect the entire night of sleep to come. Alcohol is highly effective at suppressing Melatonin, which is a key regulator of sleep cycles and when the alcohol starts to metabolise in the body, the sedative effects wear off and the "rebound effect" occurs. Ever woken at 5am after a heavy session with massive anxiety and not been able to get back to sleep? This is that. Even if your alcohol consumption doesn't warrant a fully fledged hangover, you are likely to feel fatigued, tired and irritable the day after ("I'm not hungover, I'm just tired"). How does lack of sleep affect your fitness? Well, tiredness is likely to make you less prone to exercise but common sense also dictates that if we don't get enough or the right quality of sleep our bodies don't repair properly, and we can quickly decline, both mentally and physically. You can read more about that in our Blog "While You Weren't Sleeping".
6. INJURY - Drinking can make you far more prone to injury, in several different ways. It alters the sequence of the different phases of your sleep cycle (see point 5.), which reduces your body's ability to store glycogen, but it also increases the levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) and that slows down healing. This is still the case even if you stopped drinking six hours before you went to bed. Alcohol also dehydrates your body (see point 3) and while dehydrated, you're at greater risk of sustaining musculoskeletal injuries such as cramps, muscle pulls and strains.
7. OVERALL HEALTH - Drinking can affect your sleep, your weight and your mental health (it's known to exacerbate anxiety and depression). And lets face it, those weekends of lethargy and hangovers are not big motivation to head off for a run/to the gym and you're much more likely to skip a workout. Alcohol also causes a deficiency in certain vitamins which can have knock on effects to your overall health.
In more serious terms, if you are regularly drinking more than the "low risk" alcohol guidelines above, especially for more than 10 - 20 years, you are in danger of;
cancers of the mouth, throat and breast
liver disease (did you know fatty liver has little to no associated symptoms? - you could have fatty liver and not know it until it develops into something chronic - at which point it becomes much harder to reverse)
damage to the nervous system
How's it going for us?
In cutting out alcohol completely we have noticed (between us) higher levels of energy, faster recovery rates, improvements in performance, weight loss, clearer skin and substantial increase in motivation - in fitness and in other areas of life too.
How's it going for you?
We're not saying you should never drink again (though you might be quite pleasantly surprised at the benefits of abstaining) - a cold beer after a race won't hurt future performances. However, if weight loss and improved performance are among your fitness goals then moderation (see low risk guidelines) is key.
Less is definitely more when it comes to alcohol and exercise, but if social drinking is a must, make sure you re-hydrate properly, consider your sleep schedule and try not to make alcohol consumption a lifestyle.
*Disclaimer - we are not scientists, nutritionists or dieticians - this blog is our opinion formed by reading, research and real life.