Can anyone remember a headline about an elite athlete drinking too much, partying too hard and ultimately getting themselves in to a spot of bother? I sure can’t! Although, I must divulge, I do suffer from severe amnesia.
Sarcasm aside, drinking and sport seem to go hand in hand. David Boon infamously inhaled 52 frothies (that’s Australian for beer) on a flight; John Daly spent the majority of his golfing career drunk; and Wade Boggs supposedly skulled 107 stouts on a mere cross country trip. Unsurprisingly, stories like these have led sporting clubs to stop their athletes from drinking, even in low amounts, in any sort of proximity to games. Now, even amateur sporting clubs are implementing similar policies, as weekend warriors attempt to emulate their less than sober superstars both on and now off the field. So, while I don’t condone excess drinking, I’m curious to find out does alcohol actually impair athletic performance? Or is it safe to have a cheeky shandy or two before, after, or even during the game? Let’s find out, sports fans!
Drinking before sport/playing with a hangover:
I fondly recall, in the days before Uber, running 10km home from a party because I couldn’t get a cab. I ran the first 400 metres like Usain Bolt, only loads quicker, but the next 9600 metres were somewhat more difficult than normal. I simply ran out of chug (hilarious beer pun). Unsurprisingly, a review of multiple studies validated my experience, finding strong evidence that consuming alcohol – even very low doses – immediately before sport decreases endurance performance (1). In contrast, the same review found that consuming alcohol – including high doses – before exercise has minimal, or no effect on strength. Explains my superhuman strength at the time. So, based on this, if you’re playing a sport that requires some amount of endurance or going for a run, hold off on that glass of wine. Conversely, you can probably get away with a shot or two before the gym, with minimal effect on your strength, unless you’re a high level athlete.
Now I hear you saying, who actually drinks before sport? Unless you’re John Daly, who also drinks during sport, these results probably mean little. Yes, a more realistic scenario is having a few the night before and then performing sport the next day. And what do you know, a recent study examined this exact topic. A group of rugby players consumed a lot of alcohol (between 11-20 standard drinks) on a night out. In the two days following drinking there was found to be no difference in repeated sprint time, lower body strength and several other measures of explosive sports performance. There was, however, a minor difference in repeated jump performance, with drinking decreasing jumping performance very slightly (2). A further study, in a group of females similarly found drinking the night before to have no effect on strength whatsoever (3). So what do we deduce from all this?
Well it appears a hangover will have only a very minor effect on strength and power. Conversely, there is no data as to whether a hangover alters endurance performance, but based on the short term effects of alcohol consumption on endurance, it appears excess drinking may be detrimental to aerobic performance. Therefore, unless you’re a professional athlete you can probably get away with a few drinks the night before the game, but certainly not too many; particularly if endurance is your game! Makes sense really.
Drinking after sport:
What about having a few well deserved brewskies after an awe inspiring victory? Surely that can’t hurt? Well a review of scientific studies to date has looked at this exact topic and it may hurt, a bit. Unfortunately, this review paper has more looked at the physiological processes effected by post-game alcohol consumption, rather than direct changes to performance and other real life outcomes. Nevertheless, the review concluded that excess alcohol consumption post-game can hasten recovery. Specifically, at high amounts, alcohol reduces testosterone production and protein synthesis. This may then negatively effect: muscular regeneration (more DOMS, greater re-injury risk), changes in body composition (you’ll get less ripped) and impair injury recovery (that sprained ankle might take a few extra days to get better). D-rat! But with every cloud there is a rainbow. None of these negative effects appear to be present when post game alcohol consumption is kept to 0.5 grams per kilograms of body weight. This essentially equates to around four standard drinks for a 75kg person. Therefore, if you drink this amount or less, then drinking after a match should not effect recovery and impair subsequent sports performance. In fact, even if you have injured yourself during a match, this level of drinking shouldn’t have any detrimental effect on your injury. Cheers to that!
Is it healthful?
Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls (not so much boys and girls), is drinking before or after sport healthful? Obviously not (it’s unhealthful), but it may not be as harmful as we think.
If you’re only having a few drinks the night before, your performance the next day should be okay and even with a hangover your performance might not be altered too much if you’re predominantly a power/strength athlete. Furthermore, having a few drinks during the week is unlikely to have any effect on your weekend performance.
Drinking after a game at a low rate (four beers or less for a 75kg person) is likely fine and will not hasten recovery, even if an injury was sustained.
Finally, a final few obvious points that I have missed along the way:
1. Having a big night out can increase the likelihood of illness or decrease motivation, which in turn can alter sports performance.
2. If you’re drinking to the point where you’re nauseous the next day it’s obviously going to alter your performance.
3. Different people respond differently to alcohol, so if you’re particularly sensitive these rules may not completely apply.
I hope this has been healthful and I’d love to hear your thoughts.