There’s no denying the pleasure of a cold beer after a long hot hike or bike ride. One of my favourite summertime indulgences is a chilled glass of white wine on a Vancouver patio. But how does that craft lager or Pinot Gris impact your workouts?
The answer isn’t simple: factors like gender, genetics, body mass and amount consumed will vary results from person to person. In a nutshell, booze can influence coordination, hydration and balance as well as impairing recovery.
Let’s say you usually exercise after work, but you’ve been invited out for drinks with colleagues before hitting the gym. After a drink or two, your coordination, reaction time, judgement and balance will be diminished. This means poorer performance and higher risk of injury. Research shows that even small amounts of alcohol pre-exercise decreases endurance and aerobic performance. What’s more, that innocuous wine spritzer will become your body’s preferred fuel source, instead of the fat you’re trying to lose.
But you’re more likely to imbibe after a heavy workout than before, to celebrate a personal victory or to relax after exertion. Beer has even been promoted as a great way to restore carbohydrates and electrolytes after strenuous cardio sessions. But alcohol can interfere with the super-important recovery process; if you’re already dehydrated, anything over 4% alcohol will make you lose more fluids. (Light American beer might be the best choice here, but then again what’s the point?) Beer doesn’t have enough electrolytes to replenish what you’ve lost anyway. Have a small amount if you must, and chase it with plenty of water and lightly salted, protein-rich foods.
Your sleep quality, so crucial to recovery, is affected by alcohol too. A drink before bed might help you get to sleep, but it can also disrupt healthy sleep cycles. Booze can also decrease testosterone secretion, so if you’re trying to gain muscle, avoid alcohol on workout days.
Binge drinking — 4 to 5 drinks in two hours or less — is anathema to a healthy, fit lifestyle. Not surprisingly, studies show an 11% decrease in performance when you exercise with a hangover. I can’t imagine anything feeling worse than hung over burpees!
Finally, alcohol is calorically dense, with 7 calories per gram. Add a mixer like juice or pop and the calorie count skyrockets. There’s very little nutrition in those calories, and they can add up fast. One glass of red wine averages 125 calories, a bottle of beer around 150. Alcohol lowers our inhibitions too, making those mayonnaise-drenched yam fries or pulled pork sliders pretty hard to resist!
There’s lots of evidence supporting the health benefits of moderate alcohol consumption, but it’s helpful to know what that means: up to one drink per day for women, up to two for men (one drink is 12oz beer, 5oz wine or 1.5oz spirits). And no, you can’t save them all up for Friday night!
So if you want to get the most out of your exercise efforts and still have a life, it might help to skip drinks on workout days and enjoy them in moderation on your rest days.