Getting Smart About Alcohol and Athletic Performance

Getting Smart About Alcohol and Athletic Performance

Published on Wednesday, May 10, 2023 by Kari Tallent

Being mindful of alcohol is important when you’ve put in the work.

Whether imbibing for social aspects or having a post-race celebration, there are things to consider when including alcohol in your beverage rotation. As an athlete, the goal is always to be able to perform at optimal levels, and fueling yourself is a huge part of that. 

Let’s be realistic though, as an adult, there are times when having a drink can be an enjoyable experience. The problem arises when one or two drinks turn into more than that or is a habit that continues on consecutive days. From having prime aerobic conditions to peak power output, having too much alcohol can result in some serious setbacks.

Please understand, I would be lying if I didn’t admit to the fact I am part of a run group that is based out of a brewery, that I partake in post-race festivities, or that I just enjoy the social aspects around alcohol (insert gasp). Recognizing the impacts that alcohol consumption has on athletic performance is an important factor that I consider when I decide if I am going to have a drink.

The impact alcohol has on your body can cause short-term and long-term effects. Things that are impacted in the short term are hydration, aerobic performance, strength, motor skills, and sleep. The long-term effects can include weight gain, potential disease, higher prevalence of illness/injury, and nutritional deficiencies.

Short-Term Effects

  1. Hydration – as a diuretic, alcohol dehydrates you so you need to drink twice as much water to rehydrate.
  2. Aerobic Performance – lactate threshold is decreased, and there is more stress on your breathing, which all leads to fatiguing at much faster levels.
  3. Strength – reductions in speed, grip strength, and decreased growth hormone/testosterone which support muscle growth (this can last up to 72 hours post-consumption).
  4. Motor Skills – Balance is impaired as well as reaction time is slower, as well as hand-eye coordination (this can last up to 72 hours post-consumption).
  5. Sleep – Sleep is imperative to muscle synthesis, alcohol disrupts REM causing hormone suppression and impaired performance.

Long-Term Effects

  1. Weight Gain – Alcohol contains “empty calories” meaning no nutritional value. These calories are converted into fatty acids and stored as fat.
  2. Potential Disease – heavy drinking over a long period increases the risk of anemia, liver damage, heart disease, dementia, and depression.
  3. Illness/injury – Alcohol contributes to delayed healing and depressed immune function. Injury rates for people who consume alcohol are over double that of non-drinkers.

This is a lot of scary information about side effects that can make you think twice about alcohol consumption. There are some ways you can still enjoy a cocktail without the sidecar of guilt. A good way to gauge if it’s worth it is to see how you feel during your workout after a night of libations. I have learned I cannot drink the night before a long run, hard workout, or race. Remember, it can take up to 3 days for your performance to get back on track after one big night of heavy drinking so keep it under control. 

If you plan ahead then you can avoid performance setbacks.

Eat while you are drinking. You won’t drink as much and it slows the absorption rate of alcohol entering your system. Pace yourself by doing activities such as dancing, playing a game, or just walking around. One trick I learned was to have a non-alcoholic beverage in between such as sparkling water. Having something in my hand made me feel included and it was carbonated so I still enjoyed that aspect. Some breweries and most alcohol-serving establishments offer non-alcoholic options or very low alcohol content seltzers, ciders, or brews. 

Another great option is to let your friends and family know what your goals are. Ask them to help you be accountable or to do activities that don’t involve alcohol. Also, Hydrate!! Make sure you are replenishing your fluid starting while you are drinking alcohol and continuing after you get home and into the next day. 

Only you can decide if it is worth it to include alcohol in your lifestyle. You can have a happy balance if you understand how alcohol affects your performance and you aren’t over-consuming. Have a plan and know how your body metabolizes alcohol. Most importantly make sure your plan includes hydration and eliminates binge drinking. 

  1. Downloadable resources. Downloadable Resources - CPSDA | | Collegiate & Professional Sports Dietitians Association. (n.d.). Retrieved April 25, 2023, from 
  2. Vella, L. D., & Cameron-Smith, D. (2010). Alcohol, athletic performance and recovery. Nutrients, 2(8), 781–789. 
  3. Claire Siekaniec, M. S. (2017, June 1). The effects of alcohol on athletic performance. National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA). Retrieved April 25, 2023, from 

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