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Drinking Habits

How Does Alcohol Use Affect Exercise Performance and Fitness?

June 19, 2023
11 min read
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Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
June 19, 2023
11 min read
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
June 19, 2023
11 min read
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
June 19, 2023
11 min read
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Reframe Content Team
June 19, 2023
11 min read

It's a sunny Saturday morning, and you're going for a run to kickstart your day. You lace up your sneakers, stretch your muscles, and head out the door feeling energized and ready to conquer the world. However, unbeknownst to you, last night’s cocktail could affect your performance today.

Alcohol, often seen as an escape, can be a deceptive detour on your path to achieving optimal exercise performance and fitness –– and it can seriously derail your goals. How does it do that? 

Let's dive into the latest research on the connection between exercise, fitness, and drinking. 

Impaired Performance

Alcohol affects our bodies in various ways, and its impact on exercise performance is no exception. Besides impacting exercise motivation, mental focus, and our ability to get out of bed in time for our workout, one of the main effects of excessive drinking is dehydration. 

Alcohol is a diuretic, which means it makes us go to the bathroom more frequently, ultimately leading to fluid loss and dehydration. Our body does this to get rid of the alcohol: first by converting it to acetaldehyde, then to acetate, in our liver.

At the same time, alcohol lowers the amount of a hormone called vasopressin. Vasopressin helps our body hold onto fluids. Less of it means our body produces more urine, which can quickly lead to dehydration.

It’s important to note the reason our body amps up this mechanism is to get alcohol and its byproducts out of our system. 

Because of this, if we’re out on a run on a hot summer day –– having had a few drinks the night before –– our body struggles to maintain a proper fluid balance, exhausting us much sooner than usual. 

Dehydration negatively affects athletic performance by reducing endurance, strength, and coordination. When we are dehydrated, our muscles can't perform at their best, and our endurance may suffer. We may experience muscle cramps, fatigue, and an overall decline in physical output.

Limiting alcohol intake and ensuring adequate hydration improves our body's ability to efficiently transport oxygen and nutrients, enhancing our endurance and overall athletic performance.

Disrupted Sleep

Alcohol, even in small amounts, disrupts our sleep patterns. Quality sleep is crucial for muscle recovery and growth, and it plays a vital role in overall performance. Even that nightcap may make it harder to get the restorative sleep your body needs.

Imagine you're a weightlifter aiming to increase your muscle mass. After a night of heavy drinking, your body struggles to repair the microtears in your muscles caused by intense exercise. As a result, your progress stalls, and you find it harder to reach your desired goals.

Although alcohol may make us feel drowsy initially –– leading us to believe that it can help us fall asleep faster –– it actually disrupts the natural sleep cycle. As a result, it prevents us from reaching the deepest, most restorative stages of sleep. This disruption can also result in fragmented sleep, frequent awakenings, and reduced sleep quality overall.

Alcohol also affects the production of the hormone melatonin, which regulates our sleep-wake cycle. Reduced melatonin levels can lead to difficulty falling asleep and maintaining a consistent sleep schedule. This inconsistency can further disrupt our body's internal clock, making it challenging to establish a routine that supports optimal athletic performance.

By cutting back on drinking, we can improve our sleep quality and enhance our exercise performance. Prioritizing restful sleep gives our body the opportunity to repair and regenerate. This leads to better muscle recovery, increased energy levels, and improved cognitive function for optimal performance.

Hormonal Imbalance

Alcohol consumption can cause a significant disruption in hormonal balance, which is a key factor in both exercise performance and overall fitness. Two hormones that are particularly affected are testosterone and cortisol.

Testosterone plays a crucial role in muscle growth, strength, and energy regulation. When we consume alcohol, our body's production of testosterone may decrease. Lower levels of testosterone are linked to reduced muscle mass, increased fat storage, and diminished athletic performance. The result? Those lung-busting runs or weightlifting sessions may not yield the results we’re striving for. Our body won’t be as efficient in repairing and building new muscle tissue, thus limiting progress over time.

Cortisol, known as the "stress hormone," tends to increase with alcohol consumption. Elevated cortisol levels can have a catabolic effect, breaking down muscle tissue for energy and slowing down metabolism. This is counterproductive for anyone looking to improve their physical performance and body composition. Elevated cortisol can also suppress the immune system, making us more susceptible to illness and further disrupting our exercise routine.

So if you're a cyclist trying to improve your time, a swimmer wanting to perfect your stroke, or just someone wanting to get in shape, alcohol can disrupt the very hormonal balance that supports athletic growth and performance. By moderating alcohol intake, you can maintain a hormonal profile that is more favorable for physical performance, muscle growth, and overall fitness.

Inflammatory Responses

Another overlooked aspect of alcohol's impact on exercise performance is its role in inflammation. Alcohol can provoke an inflammatory response in the body, leading to muscle and joint inflammation that can negatively affect our physical capabilities. The inflammatory process is a normal part of the body's healing response to injury, but when exacerbated by alcohol, it may interfere with recovery post-exercise.

Inflammation can cause muscle soreness, stiffness, and swelling, which not only hamper our performance but also prolong the recovery period needed between workouts. The domino effect of this is less time spent training and more time spent recovering, leading to slower progress in reaching our fitness milestones.

For example, if we’re a runner, muscle and joint inflammation can slow us down and potentially increase your risk of injury. The same goes for those engaged in high-intensity training or team sports. Inflammation can affect speed, agility, and reaction time, all critical components of athletic performance.

Moreover, inflammation has a systemic effect, potentially impacting internal organs like the liver and gastrointestinal system, thereby affecting our ability to absorb nutrients and detoxify the body. Over time, this could lead to decreased stamina, higher susceptibility to illness, and longer recovery periods — a trifecta that seriously hampers any fitness journey.

Nutritional Roadblocks

Alcohol not only affects our physical performance; it also affects our nutritional status.

When we drink, our bodies prioritize metabolizing alcohol over other nutrients, such as carbohydrates and fats. This metabolic preference can interfere with muscle glycogen replenishment and nutrient absorption, hindering the body's ability to recover and adapt after exercise.

Additionally, alcohol is calorie-dense, providing “empty calories” without essential nutrients. These extra calories can quickly add up and potentially lead to weight gain if not properly accounted for. 

Further, it can block your body from absorbing key nutrients, such as zinc, vitamin B12, thiamin, and folic acid. These are important for processes like cell regeneration, immunity, and the metabolism of protein and fat––crucial for maintaining optimal athletic performance.

Drinking excessively may also increase appetite and lower inhibitions, making it more challenging to stick to a healthy eating plan––and making it harder to rack up muscle gains.

Striking a Balance 

Alcohol's impact on exercise performance goes beyond the body: it can also affect our mental well-being. While drinking may initially make us feel relaxed or more social, it can also disrupt our mood and the way our brain works.

Drinking too much can lead to increased feelings of anxiety, depression, and decreased motivation––all of which can affect our desire to exercise and maintain a consistent fitness routine.

Moderation and mindfulness are key. Enjoying a drink occasionally, and with intention, is unlikely to severely impact your long-term exercise performance and fitness goals. However, it's crucial to be mindful of how drinking is showing up on the field and in other areas of your life.

Improving Exercise Performance and Fitness

When it comes to alcohol and exercise, finding the right balance is essential. Work toward habits that let you wake up refreshed and energized, ready to tackle your workouts with vigor and determination.

To improve your exercise motivation, mental focus, and sleep quality, consider these actionable steps:

1. Cut Back on Drinking

Reducing alcohol consumption, particularly in the hours leading up to sleep, can make a significant difference in your sleep quality and, by extension, your exercise performance. Alcohol can disrupt the REM stage of sleep, which is critical for cognitive functions and mood regulation. Poor sleep can lead to reduced mental sharpness and endurance, hampering your athletic performance.

If you do decide to drink, make it a conscious choice rather than a mindless habit. This approach will not only help you enjoy your drink more but will also make you more aware of the quantity you consume. The aim should be to drink less, but enjoy it more.

Furthermore, planning is crucial. Never consume alcohol the night before a significant athletic event, be it a marathon, a local CrossFit competition, or even an intense personal workout. Your performance metrics like speed, stamina, and coordination could take a hit.

2. Make Hydration a Priority

Alcohol is a diuretic, which means it causes you to lose more fluids than you take in. This can lead to dehydration, which is a performance killer in any sport or exercise.

Counteract this by drinking plenty of water before you start drinking alcohol, throughout the time you are drinking, and afterward. Proper hydration can help your body metabolize alcohol more efficiently and offset some of its dehydrating effects.

Consume alcohol at times that are as far removed from your workout sessions as possible. This allows your body to recover from the alcohol's effects and be ready for physical exertion. Ideally, give yourself a window of several hours between drinking and exercising.

3. Establish a Consistent Sleep Schedule

Sleep is an often underestimated factor in achieving fitness goals. During deep sleep, your body goes through several repair processes, including muscle recovery.

Aim for 7-9 hours of quality sleep each night. Falling short can lead to issues like reduced speed, low energy levels, poor concentration, and increased injury risk — all detrimental to athletic performance.

Additionally, sufficient sleep isn't just about feeling rested. It's an active part of your recovery process. During sleep, blood flow to your muscles increases, allowing for effective repair and growth. This is crucial for athletic improvement and injury prevention.

4. Create a Predictable Bedtime Routine

Establishing a calming pre-sleep routine can signal your body that it's time to start winding down, making it easier to fall asleep. Try to go to bed at the same time every night. This helps regulate your body's internal clock and improves the quality of your sleep over time. Improved sleep quality means better performance during your workouts and quicker recovery afterward.

Engage in activities that calm your mind and prepare your body for sleep. This could be reading a book, practicing deep breathing exercises, or even doing some gentle, restorative yoga.

The Key Takeaway

Understanding how alcohol affects our bodies lets us make informed choices that support our fitness goals without sacrificing the occasional drink. By incorporating these changes into your daily routine, you'll set the stage for improved exercise performance, enhanced mental clarity, and a well-rested body ready to tackle your athletic goals head-on. 

Cheers to a balanced approach and unlocking your true athletic potential!

Summary FAQs

1. Does alcohol consumption affect athletic performance?

Yes, alcohol can significantly impact athletic performance by causing dehydration, impairing muscle recovery, and reducing focus and coordination. It can also disrupt sleep patterns, which hampers overall performance and recovery.

2. What is the impact of alcohol on hydration?

Alcohol is a diuretic, causing your body to lose more fluids than you take in. This can quickly lead to dehydration, affecting your endurance, strength, and overall physical performance.

3. Should I drink alcohol the night before a significant athletic event?

It's advised to avoid alcohol the night before a big athletic event, as it can impair your performance by affecting hydration, sleep, and muscle recovery.

4. Can I balance occasional drinking with my fitness goals?

Yes, occasional and moderate drinking is less likely to have a significant long-term impact on your fitness goals. However, it's crucial to be mindful of the timing and amount to minimize its effects on your performance and recovery.

5. How can I ensure proper hydration when consuming alcohol?

To counteract the dehydrating effects of alcohol, drink plenty of water before, during, and after alcohol consumption. Also, try to avoid alcohol immediately before or after exercise to allow your body to recover fully.

Perform at Your Peak and Thrive With Reframe!

Although it isn’t a treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD), the Reframe app can help you cut back on drinking gradually, with the science-backed knowledge to empower you 100% of the way. Our proven program has helped millions of people around the world drink less and live more. And we want to help you get there, too!

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At Reframe, we do science, not stigma. We base our articles on the latest peer-reviewed research in psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral science. We follow the Reframe Content Creation Guidelines, to ensure that we share accurate and actionable information with our readers. This aids them in making informed decisions on their wellness journey.
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