What are the effects of alcohol on strength training? Anecdotally, I know alcohol affects my recovery which in turn affects my performance.

I also know alcohol is inflammatory. But until now I had never truly read the research regarding alcohol and athletes.

There isn’t lot of it, but what exists is pretty compelling.

Are carbs from alcohol equal to carbs from food?

Alcohol has 7 calories per gram (carbs & protein are 4 calories per gram, fats are 9 calories per gram), so alcohol is very calorically dense

If trying to count calories or macros, alcohol displaces nutrients your body actually needs for energy.

The calories consumed via alcohol are not 100% available to the body for energy because the liver can only process so much in one sitting before the rest is excreted as urine.

 

Effects of Alcohol on Strength Training:

In general, acute alcohol consumption, at the levels often consumed by athletes may negatively alter (1):

  • normal immunoendocrine function,
  • blood flow and
  • protein synthesis
  • so that recovery from skeletal muscle injury may be impaired.

Other factors related to recovery, such as

  • rehydration and
  • glycogen resynthesis,
  • may be affected to a lesser extent.

Alcohol & Anabolic Response

In a randomized cross-over design, 8 physically active males completed three experimental trials comprising 2:

  • resistance exercise (8x5 reps leg extension, 80% 1 repetition maximum) followed by continuous (30 min, 63% peak power output (PPO)) and high intensity interval (10x30 s, 110% PPO) cycling.
  • Immediately, and 4 h post-exercise,
    • Subjects consumed either 500 mL of whey protein (25 g; PRO),
    • alcohol (1.5 g/kg body mass) co-ingested with protein (ALC-PRO),
    • or an energy-matched quantity of carbohydrate also with alcohol (25 g maltodextrin; ALC-CHO).
  • Subjects also consumed a carbohydrate (CHO) meal (1.5 g CHO/kg body mass) 2 hours post-exercise. Muscle biopsies were taken at rest, 2 and 8 hours post-exercise.
    • reduces rates of MPS following a bout of concurrent exercise, even when co-ingested with protein.
    • The authors conclude that alcohol ingestion suppresses the anabolic response in skeletal muscle and may therefore impair recovery and adaptation to training and/or subsequent performance.

Alcohol after competition

Taking it to the next level, one study looked beyond just alcohol and strength training, and investigated the effects of alcohol on rugby players drinking after a match:

Showed to have some detrimental effects on

  • peak power
  • 10% decrease in mean and peak power for as long as 16 hours after alcohol consumption
  • cognitive recovery the morning after a Rugby League match.

 

Recovery and alcohol

Heart rate variability (HRV) is a relatively simple measure that athletes can use to test how well they are recovering.  HRV is the change in length of time between heartbeats. The activation or suppression of different parts of your nervous system can change this level of variability. Greater stimulation of the nervous system will often decrease HRV, which means the time in between heartbeats won’t change as much from beat to beat.

One study on athletes showed that one drink of either red wine or ethanol had no effect on HRV, however, after the second drink HR increased and HRV decreased

Another study monitored HRV and sleep quality after alcohol consumption in university aged healthy males.

There was a

  • control group,
  • a low dose (LD) group (0.5g of alcohol/kg of body weight)
  • and a high dose (HD) group (1g/kg).

There was a dose related effect of alcohol on HRV and sleep:

  • The HD group saw the lowest HRV value, highest resting heart rate (RHR) and poorest sleep quality.
  • The LD group also saw reduced HRV, increased RHR and reduced sleep quality compared to control.

Alcohol itself is dehydrating

Low cellular hydration levels are associated with negatively altered protein turnover; amino acid, carbohydrate, and fatty acid metabolism; ammonia clearance (a byproduct of exercise linked to fatigue); and plasma membrane transport. Dehydration also contributes to cellular acidification, which is pro-inflammatory, and can inhibit recovery from both training and competition.

 Alcohol changes the mucosal barrier in the intestines which decreases the immune system and increases inflammation.

Conclusion

The research indicates that athletes participating in intense or heavy training or competition, along with even just moderate alcohol consumption, can expect slower recovery and reduced force production in subsequent training sessions.

 

Therefore it should be avoided, or limited to time periods away from competition and/or rigorous training schedules.

If you are a recreational lifter and seeking ultimate balance in life, consume alcohol if it fits your lifestyle, just know you may be a little more sore or struggle through training a little bit after a night of several drinks.

Ready to take your nutrition and strength to the next level? Check out Eat for Strength!

References:

  1. Barnes MJ. Alcohol: Impact on Sports Performance and Recovery in Male Athletes. Sport Med. 2014;44(7):909-919. doi:10.1007/s40279-014-0192-8
  2. Parr EB, Camera DM, Areta JL, et al. Alcohol Ingestion Impairs Maximal Post-Exercise Rates of Myofibrillar Protein Synthesis following a Single Bout of Concurrent Training. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0088384

 

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