esearch released at the beginning of the year by Cancer Research UK showed that of those who made a new year’s resolution, almost a fifth planned to cut back on alcohol. But despite these good intentions, the mid-January to February slump showed that will power was hard to sustain. For exercisers though, they need to think twice about reaching for an ice cold beer after a game or turning to a glass of wine after the gym. Alcohol in your system is detrimental to physical activity. Here’s how it can wreak havoc with performance and recovery.
How is alcohol processed by the body?
Alcohol rapidly enters into the bloodstream after absorption in the stomach and small intestine. Increased levels of alcohol in the blood are followed by a rise in alcohol oxidation (breakdown) and removal from the body. Approximately 90% of alcohol is oxidised in the liver. An enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase converts alcohol into acetaldehyde, which is then converted into acetic acid by aldehyde dehydrogenase. Alcohol is also excreted from the kidneys in urine (5%) or exhaled from the lungs (5%).
On average it takes the body 1 hour to remove 1 unit of alcohol from the body, however this process is highly individual and affected by many factors, such as bodyweight, gender, age, intake of medication, recent food consumption and of course the type and strength of alcoholic drink(s) consumed.
Body composition - can it lead to weight gain?
In short, yes! Alcohol is energy-dense (providing 7 calories per gram) and nutrient-poor, and accordingly has been labeled as providing ‘empty calories’. Therefore, consuming alcohol, especially when combined with sugary mixer drinks, contributes significantly to total daily energy intake. If habitual energy intakes exceed energy expenditure then weight gains will occur, predominantly in the form of adipose (fat) tissue. Alcohol cannot be stored by the body and metabolises it as a priority, its accumulation in the blood can suppress the oxidation of other dietary energy sources (fat, carbohydrate and to a lesser extent protein) and subsequently results in increased fat storage.
How does it affect exercise performance?
Drinking alcohol in the lead up to an event and immediately before an event is likely to impair both physical and psychological performance. For example, causing dehydration resulting in cognitive and physical function. Secondly, alcohol interferes with energy production, as the liver has to first process alcohol, meaning it is less efficient in producing and regulating blood sugar (glucose). This will result low blood glucose, consequently meaning the body will not be able to maintain exercise at a high intensity.
How about recovery?
Problems also arise when the consumption of alcohol takes precedence over other recovery nutritional practices, such as acute intake of carbohydrate, protein and fluid, specifically affecting glycogen storage, muscle protein synthesis and hydration status. Sleep patterns and quality are also hit, compromising the body’s ability return to homeostasis (normal operating conditions).
It is important to highlight that drinking in moderation (sticking to the governments guidelines) can still be part of an active social lifestyle. It is best to enjoy a drinks on non ‘key training’ days. Following competition, exercisers should ensure that they are hitting key recovery targets, such as consuming 1.2g/kg/bodyweight of carbohydrate + 25g high quality protein + adequate fluids, before celebrating!
So the next time you’re tempted to turn to alcohol to unwind after a hard work out, consider the negative impact excessive drinking can have of various aspects of fitness. Managing the relationship between alcohol and fitness can enable you to protect your hard earned physique and training gains, whilst still enjoying the benefits of a tipple of two.
James Collins is acknowledged as a leading expert in Sport & Exercise Nutrition. He is Head Nutritionist for Arsenal Football Club, and was also heavily involved in advising Team GB Olympic teams and individuals in the run up to the London 2012 Olympic Games, and now towards Rio 2016.
James regularly collaborates with television, such as BBC on factual documentaries and provides expert comment to CNN and Sky on topical issues. James sits on The Royal Society of Medicines ‘Food and Health’ Council, is a member of the international group PINES (Professionals in Nutrition for Exercise and Sport) and is a Registered Nutritionist.
His Harley Street clinic works with different celebrities from performance industries, focussing on Weight & Metabolism and Performance. James’ unique position allows him to maintain close industry links within Europe and the USA.