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Why Exercise and Alcohol Don’t Mix

Those post-run beers may taste great, but watch your consumption


As thousands of bicyclists pedaled some 470 miles in blistering mid-summer heat across Iowa’s rolling prairies, they were lured by beer gardens, bars and breweries along the route to stop in and slake their thirst.

On most days of the week-long ride, Jeff Fisher, 62, a five-time veteran of the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa or RAGBRAI, says he happily takes the bait to celebrate with a few brews at or near the end of each day’s ride. But with the next day’s 70-mile trek looming and fatigue setting in, he resists the temptation to tarry at the tap.

Good idea, says Tavis Piattoly, a New Orleans sports dietician and nutrition consultant who works with recreational, college and professional athletes.

“If you’re drinking alcohol excessively, that will not only lead to reduced glycogen stores but to dehydration that will make the recovery process more challenging over the next couple of days,” he says.

Glycogen is a form of glucose and carbohydrates stored in a person’s muscles and liver that’s the prime fuel for endurance athletes. Alcohol also blunts the body’s ability to expend glucose because the liver needs to metabolize the booze before it can burn carbohydrates and fat.

The Risks of One Too Many

A couple of beers after an event or a training session is usually not a problem, says Piattoly, education manager for the Taylor Hooton Foundation, a nonprofit that counsels young athletes on the dangers of performance-enhancing substances. But binge drinking after an event — many of which have beer or wine sponsors — or drinking too much alcohol on a regular basis can cause other problems for endurance recreational athletes such as long-distance cyclists, runners, swimmers or triathletes.

“Your performance will be negatively affected because of alcohol’s impact on testosterone, growth hormone and cortisol levels,” he says. “For example, if you’re drinking too much alcohol, chances are you’re not getting enough sleep, and that will elevate cortisol levels.”

Cortisol, he explained, is a steroid hormone that helps the body respond to stress. If it’s too high, an athlete can suffer fatigue, muscle weakness, anxiety and even depression. Your alcohol-enhanced training program could be going in the wrong direction.

Piattoly says he’s all for a little celebrating. After all, he’s from the Big Easy, where the good times roll and where many of the higher-profile running and cycling events there have beer, wine or spirits sponsors.

The key, of course, is moderation or avoiding alcohol altogether in favor of a drink like cherry juice. That’s an ideal post-race recovery beverage because studies indicate it reduces inflammation and promotes muscle repair, he says.

Booze’s Potent Punch

Older recreational athletes need to be especially careful with alcohol. Aging lowers the body’s tolerance for booze as older adults can experience the effects of alcohol more quickly than when they were younger, according to a report from the National Institute on Aging. See its Facts About Aging and Alcohol.

Alcohol hits older adults harder because they metabolize it more slowly, and they have less water in their bodies. As a result, an adult who’s had a few drinks will have a higher blood-alcohol level than a younger person who’s consumed the same amount.

Fisher, partner in a Chicago-area manufacturers rep firm, says one of the charms of the annual bike ride across Iowa is the camaraderie and festival atmosphere as the cavalcade of bikes invades a new host town near the end of each day.

“It’s a huge social event with food, beer and music along the way. Some of the riders are partying the whole way,” says Fisher, who’s 40 years removed from his days as a fraternity member at Drake University.

“I’m pretty damned tired at the end of each day’s ride, so I’m careful about not having too much to drink,” he says. “I usually head to dinner.” Not everyone is as moderate. Some of the older riders, but more so the younger cyclists, he says, get overly exuberant in their post-ride or even along-the-ride celebrations.

Exercise Is Its Own Reward

Nancy Clark, a Boston-area sports nutritionist and registered dietician, says recreational athletes would do better to “enjoy the natural high of exercise rather than get clobbered by a few too many beers after a long event or training session. You’re feeling great at that point. Why bring yourself down?” Alcohol, she notes, is a depressant.

Recreational athletes of all ages, Clark says, face a lot of social pressure to drink amid a festive, post-event atmosphere. There’s also the sense that a couple of beers or glasses of wine are their just desserts for a long run, ride or swim. “Some say, ‘I deserve this because I have just ridden my bike for 50 miles,’” Clark says.

The author of Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook says the worst thing someone can do is drink on an empty stomach. “It will hit you like a ton of bricks. If you decide to go all-out in your celebrating, be sure to take care of your hydration. Each can of beer or glass of wine should be accompanied by a non-alcoholic drink.”

The Right Foods, the Right Amount

And pay attention to what you eat. “What your body needs at that point are carbohydrates to refuel, protein to build and repair muscles and sodium to replace what’s been lost through sweat,” she says.

But using the post-event as an opportunity to overeat by splurging on wings and pizza a mistake. “Then it becomes a vicious cycle of exercising to eat and drink. Eating should be done to support exercise rather than reward yourself.”

Beer and wine can be a part of a sports diet, but only in moderation, of course. “Plan in advance what you will do after an event,” she says. “If you know you will be with a group of people going out for beers to celebrate, make sure you bring along some food or even have some options for nonalcoholic drinks.”

A good option, she says, is a chocolate milk, a sweet, nutritious drink. Clark laughingly acknowledges it is a far cry from beer, however.

By Edmund O. Lawler
Edmund O. Lawler is a freelance writer and author or co-author of six business books.

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