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The team explore the myths and health benefits around alcohol on performance.

Many of us do Dry January each year, but do we really understand the benefits to going alcohol free for a month? And more importantly are there health and performance benefits beyond the month of January. There has, and will no doubt continue to be conflicting advice and theories, but as best we can we’ll share with you what appears to be pretty unequivocal.

Alcohol has long been associated with many evils but what are the truths surrounding the consumption of alcohol and it’s effect on performance?

The risk of developing a range of cancers increases when consuming any level of alcohol. This is supported by the Committee on Carcinogenicity. Literally a sobering thought. Alcohol also disrupts sleep, resulting in poor sleep patterns and in the long term, opening the door on a huge range of potential issues associated with mental decline.

Is that one glass of red good for you?

It also appears that the old adage that alcohol is good for the heart may only apply to women over the age of 55 who only drink 5 units of alcohol a week, this is equivalent to two standard glasses of wine.

Whilst we’re on the subject of weekly units, don’t forget that government guidelines on alcohol consumption have changed. The old guidelines suggested men should not exceed 21 units of alcohol per week and woman no more than 14 units. As of 2016, the guidelines suggest both men and women shouldn’t exceed more than 14 units per week. This is equivalent to 6 pints of average strength beer or 5.5 glasses of wine.

The other big take home here is by storing up our units and bingeing over 1 or 2 days. This again increase our risk of long term illness.

Overall and I know we’re stating the obvious here, our bodies don’t particularly like alcohol.

Alcohol and Performance

If we think about how boozing might affect our training and performance, a few years back Luke Vella and David Cameron-Smith of the Molecular Nutrition Unit of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences at Deaking University in Victoria Australia carried out a really compact review entitled Alcohol, Performance and Recovery. It’s a great go to paper for the nerds amongst us and provides some useful insights.

Some key performance related Issues we explore below.

Reduced Strength

Alcohol can inhibit the action of calcium in the muscle fibres. This results in reduced excitation-contraction coupling, in other words you decrease your strength output. You’ll potentially also experience pain and muscle cramps not to mention lack a of coordination.


Hydration or should I say dehydration is often associated with alcohol consumption and although it isn’t unequivocal as to how exactly or if this may occur. However, it does appear that alcohol inhibits the anti-diuretic hormone (ADH). Along with this we see increased peripheral vasodilation in other words blood being pumped to the skin and extremities. This may further increase dehydration through evaporation whilst simultaneously dropping your core temperature.

Low Blood Sugar

Alcohol also provides a readily accessible source of energy for your body to use and it is believed that alcohol also causes hypoglycaemia or the lowering of your blood sugar levels. This happens as alcohol effects the livers ability to produce glucose. Amongst lots of other effects on the body’s energy systems it also impairs the body’s ability to metabolise glucose for energy, none of this is good for performance or weight management. Indeed, alcohol is high in sugar which means alcohol contains lots of calories – seven calories a gram in fact, almost as many as pure fat.

Central Nervous System

Alcohol also effects your central nervous system, and despite all the obvious things such as impaired balance, reaction times and memory, it’s also important to remember alcohol is a well-documented depressant.

Heart Health

Drinking may also affect your heart, causing irregular heart rhythms. During exercise when your heart rate is already elevated this puts extra strain on your heart, not good in the long term.

Effects on Aerobic Exercise

Most research into the effects of alcohol on aerobic or endurance exercise demonstrates a significant impact on aerobic ability. Most of this research also suggests the more you drink the greater the impact.

Weak Muscles and Poor Recovery

Alcohol will also affect the uptake or synthesis of protein into your muscle, not good for recovery or building muscle. Some research has also demonstrated that alcohol may make you weaker, with muscles producing less force sometime after alcohol consumption and exercise.

In Summary

There are so many more issues we could discuss but this would go on and on, so let us give you a small list of problems alcohol may contribute to or cause, courtesy of the charity Drink Aware.

  1. Increases in blood pressure
  2. Liver disease
  3. Heart disease
  4. Migraines
  5. Damaged digestive system
  6. Pancreatitis
  7. Bowel cancer
  8. Breast cancer
  9. Diabetes

We’re not trying to frighten you and it is important that this is all kept in context. Many of the negative impacts we are outlining relate to long term illness, results from alcohol abuse. As such, the governmental guidelines provide a good starting point toward a healthier relationship with alcohol, and if it’s not Dry Jan you are doing, perhaps pick another month and see how no alcohol can positively affect your performance.


References and sources

  1. Review – Alcohol, Athletic Performance and Recovery – by Luke D. Vella and David Cameron-Smith -Molecular Nutrition Unit, School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences, Deakin University, Burwood, Victoria, 3125, Australia
  2. www.gov.uk/government/news/new-alcohol-guidelines-show-increased-risk-of-cancer
  3. www.drinkaware.co.uk/alcohol-facts/

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