UC San Diego Athletic Performance Nutrition Bulletin
The effects of Alcohol on Endurance Performance
During the work week, runners think longingly of Saturday and Sunday mornings and all those free hours to spend on the trails. But sometimes Friday- and Saturday-night activities don't jibe with running plans. When an evening of celebrating involves alcoholic beverages (and maybe, gasp, excess), is a trail run the next day still a good idea?
Obviously, a major hangover puts a damper on your motivation -- we've all been there. But even moderate alcohol intake can negatively impact your body on the trail. While there's no need for trail runners who are moderate drinkers to suddenly go on the wagon, keep several things in mind.
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Drinking after -- and during -- a sporting event is as American as apple pie. But, unlike the pie, mixing cold beers, shots, and other alcoholic beverages with athletic events can have serious consequences -- shortening sports careers and causing injuries and even deaths.
Conor P. O'Brien, MD, from the Blackrock Clinic in
O'Brien recently wrote a review on "Alcohol and the Athlete" that is published in the journal Sports Medicine. He says that drinking after sporting events is linked most often to field-type sports, such as rugby and soccer, which require a great deal of running, but also sports that do not, such as cricket. "It's probably tradition more than anything," says O'Brien.
While athletes largely say it helps them unwind after a tension-filled contest, O'Brien points out that many studies have shown that alcohol is actually a depressant that takes its toll on several parts of the body, including the brain. It slows reaction times, delays the thinking process, suppresses the immune system, and affects recovery time from injury.
In studies conducted in lab animals at
The Scripps Research Institute in
O'Brien says that even though a person does not feel drunk and may be able to go about his daily activities without any problems, the body is still impaired at the cellular level and the body is still struggling with the repercussions. "It's not widely known that five or more alcohol drinks consumed in one night can stay in the body and affect brain and body activities for up to three days," he says. "Two consecutive nights of consuming five or more drinks can affect the body for up to five days."
Athletes who think they're replenishing lost fluids by boozing it up are mistaken, too, says O'Brien, since alcohol actually dehydrates the body. "This is the primary reason why people suffer hangovers," he says. Athletes who have just put 100% effort into winning a game may be bruised, slightly injured, and drained of most of their fluids. That night, they drink more than five drinks and then wonder why they feel so horrible for the next few days. Their bodies simply do not have the fluids or nourishment necessary to recover. Alcohol not only dehydrates them but also depletes them of the minerals and vitamins that are essential for their health.
O'Brien's research also shows that alcohol slows healing. For tissue to heal and bones to mend, it takes vitamins, minerals, rest, fluids, rehabilitation and time. When injured athletes drink alcohol, their bodies are depleted of much-needed vitamins and minerals, they are dehydrated, and sleep patterns are affected. These factors combine to lengthen recovery time. Instead of spending its time mending the injury, the body has to fend off the effects of the alcohol.
Then there are the injuries directly
caused by drinking alcohol, says Roger Willcox, MD,
director of emergency services at
But, it's not just the physical toll alcohol takes on the body. Often after an evening of camaraderie over several bottles of suds, athletes -- both professional and recreational -- will climb behind the wheel of a car with the same devil-may-care attitude they display on the athletic field. The results too often are tragic.
The fact that many of these athletes haven't reached the legal drinking age is even more distressing -- and indicative of a larger problem happening on college campuses. Two years ago, Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala urged members of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) to sever their ties with the alcohol industry and called on colleges to move to eliminate alcohol advertising from sporting events.
Her request wasn't aimed just at college athletes but the student population as a whole, who often emulate the behavior of the athletes. At the time of Shalala's statement, statistics from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism showed that nearly 90% of college students have used alcohol, and more than 40% binge-drank at one time or another.
But just as the college-aged kids emulate
their elders, so do high schoolers. Many national
studies have reported that high school student-athletes drink alcohol at about
the same rate as other high school students, and some studies report slightly
higher use by student-athletes. A 1997 Iowa Department of Education Survey of
high school students in grades 9-12 showed that 80% of Iowa high school
students said they had had at least one drink of alcohol during their lifetime;
52% reported having at least one drink in the last 30 days, and 37% had consumed
five or more drinks in a row during the previous 30 days. The same survey
showed that 37% of
O'Brien believes that education on the negative effects of alcohol must begin at a very young age, before it becomes ingrained later in life. "Education of young athletes and coaches is a cornerstone in dealing with this problem," he writes. "Affirming the positive effect of absence from alcohol on athletic performance has a very significant impact on drinking patterns in the young athlete."
Supplied by UC San Diego Intercollegiate Athletics