Helen Money - How does Alcohol affect Performance Over the festive period?

As we get to the holiday season, we look towards the general free-flowing of alcohol that goes with it. Helen Money of The Bosworth Clinic talks to us about just how alcohol can impair our training. Drinking in moderation can have its benefits, though the Christmas indulgence over a prolonged period will have it's negative impact on training; a one of session with the family may be part of your holiday season rituals. Don't let your alcoholic tolerance get in the way of enjoying yourself with the family but be mindful of when too much can show its detrimental effects!


What are the down sides of sensible drinking quantities on the athlete?

This will depend on the point in the triathlon calendar. Generally sensible drinking is not a concern, less so during the off session but alcohol should be avoided or at least reduced during peak training periods and race season - this is explained in more detail below.

What are the implications of a heavy Christmas session?

One or two heavy drinking sessions at Christmas will have few implications. It will probably mean that you don’t train the next day but at this point in the Triathlon calendar this is less of a concern. However if December has been one long Christmas party there is likely to have been fat gain which will need to be lost in the New Year. Reducing calories as training picks up is not optimal as it increases risk of injury and reduces training performance.

Is there any way that we can argue drinking "better than bad" for training? (in other words, there are health benefits)

There are long term health benefits of drinking. It is a J shaped curve with 5% of calories deriving from alcohol (this is equivalent to a small glass of wine)  being the lowest point of mortality risk. However, past this point the risk to health rises sharply.  Tipple of choice makes a difference, for example red wine is high in antioxidants which remove free radicals from the body and reduce inflammation. I don’t think it can be argued that alcohol is beneficial to training but the benefits of exercise with small amounts of alcohol is a winning combo for long term wellbeing!

Will drinking alcohol make you fat?

Yes, too much is very likely to. Low levels of drinking will not make you fat if part of a healthy balanced diet. However, alcohol is high in calories and does not fill you up so tend to find additional calories which is likely to lead to weight gain.

There is a new term ‘drunkorexia’ used to describe people that undereat so to save calories for alcohol, with alcohol often being used as a coping strategy for stress. It is common for drunkorexics to also exercise intensely. These people stay slim but are causing damage to their body due to nutritional deficiencies in their diet.  

What is it that is bad about drinking and training?

Alcohol is bad for training as it:

  1. Reduces strength output by inhibiting calcium ions which are essential to muscle contraction

  2. Impairs glucose availability and therefore energy delivery

  3. Reduces muscle synthesis rates plus reduces testosterone production which is linked to total muscles mass

  4. Is a diuretic which causes dehydration and electrolyte imbalance

It is thought to be a dose-dependant relationship, with very low levels of alcohol not showing a significant decline in aerobic performance but beyond which, performance decrements become significant.

Studies have shown that consumption of alcohol 24 hours prior to exercising reduces performance by 11% and that alcohol consumption increases the likelihood of sports related injury, with an injury incidence of 54.8% in drinkers compared with 23.5% in nondrinkers.

Does drinking remove all the training effect from the day before?

Not not at all! Again the impact would be dose dependant but if you want to gain every last ounce from a training sessions stay off the booze.

When should you not train and drink?

When you want to get the most out of your training and before a race. I recently met an athlete that drank the night before an event to calm their nerves, this is not a strategy that I would recommended. For that we have Mark Bellamy (Sports Psychologist).