Timing and moderation are important if you don’t want to waylay your recovery. – By Selene Yeager
You don’t need decades of research to tell you that cyclists (and runners and rugby players and other hard-exercising folks) often enjoy a post-workout beer… or two… or well, more. But science does indeed show a connection between exercise and alcohol consumption, with the most active people tossing back more booze than those who exercise less. There are many theories as to why, with some animal studies showing that exercise may cause a “cross tolerance” to alcohol, so it takes more booze to feel the buzz. Or it might reflect the “work hard, play hard,” ethos athletes often share. Whatever the case, while a beer or two after a hard ride or race won’t likely wreck your recovery and subsequent gains, there are ample reasons to turn off the tap before it becomes a binge.
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As evidence, we turned to alcohol and exercise researcher Evelyn Parr, Ph.D., of the Centre for Exercise and Nutrition at Australian Catholic University to explain what happens to your body when you chase down a hard ride with one (or more) too many.
As the organ responsible for mopping up all the metabolic byproducts from a hard sweat session, your liver remains in high gear long after you’ve racked your bike and walked into the bar. Pour a bunch of ethanol in there for it to cope with on top of all the lactate? Something’s gotta give, and it’s generally your recovery, says Parr. “Alcohol consumption seems to blunt the liver’s typical post-exercise recovery process,” she says. Instead of breaking down the lactate and turning it into glucose and restocking its glycogen stores, your liver is busy firing up alcohol dehydrogenase enzymes to clean up the sudden toxic spill.
Hard training rides and races damage your muscle fibers. Good recovery, such as plenty of food, fluid, and rest helps to repair and make them stronger. Too much alcohol interferes with that process, says Parr. “When alcohol is consumed, especially in large doses, your body isn’t as efficient at making new proteins that are the building blocks of muscle, even if you’ve consumed protein at the same time.”
Heavy drinking after a hard ride will leave you with even less power in your pedals next time you saddle up. Research shows that alcohol magnifies the loss of force your muscles suffer after strenuous exercise. “This is likely due to the impaired rates of muscle protein synthesis, which causes impaired recovery,” says Parr.
Dehydration lowers your blood plasma volume, which taxes your cardiovascular system and makes it harder for your organs to function their best. Hydration is essential for full recovery. Alcohol does not help you rehydrate. Quite the opposite, says Parr. “There is evidence that a higher percentage alcohol beverage, like an IPA, may impair rehydration, potentially because of the diuretic effect of alcohol, although low percentage alcohol, like a light beer, may not be as detrimental.”
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Alcohol improves decision making, said no one ever. If the first thing you reach for after crossing the finish line is a mug of suds, the second thing you reach for may be a refill instead of a proper recovery meal or shake. “Sometimes it’s not the consumption of alcohol per se that impairs your recovery, but the inappropriate nutrition—not enough carbohydrates for glycogen resynthesis; not enough quality protein for muscle protein synthesis—that goes with it,” Parr says. Have a non-alcoholic recovery drink and snack before you hit the bar. That way, you put the nutrients your body needs on board when it needs them most before they get pushed aside by a few rounds with your buddies.
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