In medium to large amounts and in close proximity to training, drinking will more than likely jeopardise your training efforts! As always there is slightly more to consider. Alcohol (ethanol) is both a drug and a nutrient (providing 7 kcal per gram), however it is not an essential part of the diet.
Alcohol has effects across a wide variety of systems within the body, but for the context of this article I will focus on the effects of alcohol on training and recovery.
Alcohol effects on muscle and metabolism
From a purely physiological perspective, the negative effects alcohol has on performance is predominately exerted through its actions on the brain – altering balance, decision making, reducing reaction time and etc.
Although there is evidence that alcohol affects the muscles ability to contract through altering the ability to release and re-absorb calcium, this does not appear to translate into a diminished ability to perform exercises. Nevertheless, this evidence still points towards avoiding alcohol prior to and during exercise to avoid the detrimental neural (nerve) effects. Alcohol is metabolised predominately by the liver during which imbalances in metabolic process can occur. These imbalances decrease the ability of the liver to sustain blood glucose levels causing hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). During endurance exercise training this has the potential to significantly decrease training intensity, where the use of blood glucose is essential to maintain the training stimulus.
In addition, alcohol can have ergolytic and potentially dangerous effects if combined with high-energy caffeine containing drinks as both caffeine and alcohol are diuretics.
Alcohol on recovery
Following competition or training the body relies on a number of processes that together aid recovery and ideally result in adaptation to repeat or improve performance during the next training session or competition. These processes include, replacing energy stores, rebuilding damaged muscles and re-hydrating.
Skeletal muscle draws a considerable amount of the energy used for most sports (especially team and endurance sports) from glycogen, the largest store of carbohydrate within the body. Alcohol consumption has the ability to inhibit the replacement of muscle glycogen after exercise through its effects on the liver and hydration. Some evidence has indicated that a small amount of alcohol has no effect on the ability to replenish muscle glycogen as long as the recommended amount of carbohydrates are consumed, however this probably does not reflect what actually happens following training sessions. This presents a problem if hard training sessions are in close proximity to each other as glycogen will not have fully recovered, thus compromising training intensity.
Soft tissue injuries are common in endurance sports and even more so during contact sports. These are usually managed by techniques that reduce blood flow to the area (e.g. ice, compression) to minimise the inflammation that occurs. In contrast, alcohol is a potent vasodilator (increases blood flow) that has the potential to impede the repair process by causing unwanted swelling around the damaged area. In addition to this alcohol has a direct effect on the mechanism that regulates muscle protein synthesis, the process by which muscle growth occurs. This effect results in a reduced ability to repair damaged muscle as in soft tissue injury, but also reduces the growth of the muscle following resistance training for example. Taken together, alcohol clearly has detrimental effects on the rate of recovery from injury but also the rate of muscle growth.
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The issue with providing recommendations on the effects of alcohol on training and recovery is that there is a lack of well-balanced literature providing conclusive evidence. More research needs to be carried out in this area to establish exactly what the responses are. Indeed most of the research to date has been conducted in animal and cell models, hence the dilemma of providing conclusive evidence.
Given the culture of alcohol consumption especially within team sports that facilitates positive social bonds, it seem counter intuitive to advise against any alcohol consumption, government guidelines of drinking in moderation are the best approach.
(1) Small amounts of alcohol do not appear to affect muscle contraction, however they may still be detrimental given the lack of evidence – best practice is not to consume alcohol before training
(2) Alcohol consumption appears to enhance dehydration thus impacting training and recovery – best practice is to avoid alcohol until re-hydrated
(3) Reduce alcohol intake during periods of injury as this may help the recovery process
(4) Alcohol reduces muscle growth – to maximise muscle growth and repair avoid alcohol consumption following soft tissue injury and resistance exercise
(5) Once post-exercise recovery priorities have been addressed, there is no reason not to enjoy alcohol in moderation
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