Friday, February 21, 2014

The Unpopular Truth About Alcohol & Recovery

The Unpopular Truth About Alcohol & Recovery
photo by Chihping Fu
by Ras

     I've been vexed and chagrined by a recent spate of articles in running magazines and on health websites that have addressed the issue of alcohol intake and athletic performance, with an emphasis on recovery. The conclusion put forth by these fluff pieces has unanimously been, "Well, alcohol may not be an ideal post workout beverage, but everyone loves a cold beer, right?!" While pandering to public opinion may assuage readers' gourmand guilt, I feel an obligation to uphold a higher journalistic standard. After all, it's a matter of biochemistry, not opinion.

     Recovery not only prepares you for your next effort, but it is the process wherein you reap the benefits of your most recent workout. The goal of every workout is to strengthen and adapt your body to your sport or activity, and this is accomplished in recovery. During this time, your body needs carbohydrates to replenish glycogen stores (1), protein to repair damage to existing tissues and build new tissue (2), and antioxidants to counteract the flood of free radicals (cell damaging unstable molecules) produced by training and exercise (3). The truth is that alcohol counteracts every one of these vital processes.

     According to a publication by t
he National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, part of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, when your body metabolizes alcohol it has numerous deleterious effects, including, but not limited to:  
  • Reducing the amount of antioxidants
  • Producing additional free radicals 
  • Impeding glycogen assimilation
  • Increasing systemic inflamation    
  • Damaging cell mitochondria (4)
  • Interfering with amino acids that form key proteins, including:

    1. those found in the membranes surrounding red blood cells
    2. tubulin, which is necessary for protein transport within cells as well as cell division
    3. hemoglobin and albumin, two crucial blood proteins
    4. collagen, the main structural protein of human connective tissues  

     It doesn't take a biochemist to see that the effects of alcohol consumption exactly countermand the needs of the body during recovery. And these consequences are inescapable. When alcohol enters your system, whether it be beer, wine, or hard liquor, the body treats it as a poison and prioritizes metabolizing the alcohol, halting assimilation of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats (5, 6). 

     I am not emotionally invested in whether or not other athletes have a beer after a race or take a shot at an aide station or guzzle a suitcase of PBR on a wild Friday night. But when respected information sources in the running and health communities fail to make substantive information available to their readers, the iconoclast in me must make himself heard. And for the record, I only have access to the same information sources as anyone with an internet connection. All of the alcohol related information in this article came from the first page of a Google search.

     If you think of your recovery as the Andrea Gail, alcohol is the perfect storm.

(1) "The key to enhancing the replenishment of muscle glycogen is to ingest carbohydrates immediately after your workout. Science shows that this is related to the hormone insulin as well as the enzyme glycogen synthase (discussed above). Insulin stimulates glycogen synthase which then converts more carbohydrate to glycogen. Insulin simultaneously increases the transport of this glycogen from the blood into the muscles. Choreographed perfectly, the hormonal system and associated enzymes work to not only replace the glycogen you lost during exercise but they do it in the most efficient and rapid way.

Once scientists began to focus on insulin's role in glycogen replenishment, another connection was made that impacts the recovery routine. It turns out that ingesting protein along with the carbohydrate increases your insulin response. As a result, up to 30% more glycogen is stored than if you just ingest carbohydrates." – Greg McMillan source

(2) “Protein repairs exercise-induced muscle damage, reduces the response from the stress hormone cortisol and even helps speed glycogen replacement, the goal of taking in carbohydrates, says Jackie Dikos, a registered dietitian and competitive runner who competed in the 2008 U. S. Olympic marathon trials.”  Runner's World source

(3) "Excess free radical formation has been hypothesized to contribute to cancer, atherosclerosis, aging and exercise associated muscle damage. Regular low to moderate physical exercise enhances the antioxidant defense system and protects against exercise induced free radical damage. Heavy exercise increases the level of free radicals. Free radical production or loss of antioxidant protection can adversely affect performance. Effects of free radicals and antioxidants on exercise performance source

(4) “Mitochondria are responsible for creating more than 90% of the energy needed by the body to sustain life and support growth. When they fail, less and less energy is generated within the cell. Cell injury and even cell death follow. If this process is repeated throughout the body, whole systems begin to fail, and the life of the person in whom this is happening is severely compromised.” – United Mitochondrial Disease Foundation source

(5) “Alcohol is considered a poison by your body, and all efforts are made to excrete it, including the cessation of maintaining healthy blood glucose levels. Studies have shown that alcohol interferes with all three sources of glucose and the hormones needed to maintain healthy blood glucose levels.” – source

(6) “The effects that alcohol has on your health start with how it's metabolized. Once alcohol is in your system, your body makes metabolizing it a priority. That means that it will stop metabolizing anything else in order to first get the alcohol metabolized. The reason for this is because unlike protein, carbohydrates, and fat, there is nowhere for alcohol to be stored in our body so it has be metabolized first.” – Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS source


  1. Gosh Ras, with respect this post is a bit sensationalist. With so many talking points in bold and with so many assumptions and so little detail to apply this to a real life situation I'd suggest you don't elevate your journalistic standard too high. :)
    - Guilt...? I don't have any guilt about drinking beer. I'm pretty confident I know what it does to my body and I'm okay with that.
    - Public opinion? I'll go out on a limb and say that people drink beer after hard efforts not because they think it is a great recovery beverage but because they like the taste, it's a social activity and because what the alcohol does feels good. Lots of folks joke about beer being a recovery drink but personally I am not being deluded. For most of us running is a social activity anyway so having a beer after only prolongs the good things.
    - What about quantity? None of the 'evidence' you bring to bare indicates how good/bad one beer is vs. 10 beers, etc. Or how a person's weight figures into the equation. To what degree does one beer affect a 100 lb. person's ability to recover well vs. a 180 lb. person?
    - I do like to drink beer but I also like to have a recovery drink within the 30-60 minute glycogen window, do some stretching and then have a proper meal. I am never only getting shit canned and not eating proper food. If I ever do tip the alcohol/proper recovery scale in the wrong direction I have ZERO illusions about how recovered I will be the next day.
    - Poison? Really? I'll wager that anything/everything is bad for you in excess from chocolate chips to water to your favorite trail food to you name it. It would be good to know just how much beer you need to drink before it adversely affects your body's ability to recover optimally and if having it right after a run is better or worse than having it six hours after, etc. Terms need defining.
    - Aside from the biochemistry, it is my opinion that you need to consider other things. If a beer after a run helps relax you or makes the post experience more enjoyable or even if it has slight analgesic properties it might also offer some good to offset some of the bad. The good might not be in the traditional/classical recovery sense but everything counts in my opinion.
    Everyone is entitled to their opinion obviously - blogs are usually just that - but when you toss in words like biochemistry and truth and call everything else fluff it helps to put your opinion into a larger context and to own it rather than use a limited amount of 'science' (which Bill Nye and Ken Ham can't agree on) as your only foundation.

    And my words are just MY opinion by the way. :) I figure if people put stuff out there it's okay to discuss.

    1. Martin,
      Comments are always welcome. If everyone agreed with me all the time, I would know something was seriously wrong.
      Most of your objections are covered in the article or the footnotes. I stated the info as clearly as I know how above, and gave links to sources.

  2. I appreciate your bravery, Ras, in shining some biochemical luminescence on a contentious topic. Your point being that biochemically, there is little argument on the ill effects of alcohol on recovery mechanisms, and you are disappointed at the manner in which articles from sources which should be bringing awareness to optimal modes of biological health apparently gloss over this science. I agree, Martin, that some people rely on alcohol to enhance their social life, and that alcohol is a depressant which could bring some form of relaxation. I'm taking a Physiology class from Stanford right which has an entire unit on the topic of aging. The body's inability to repair cell damage increases as we age - with exercise being the main vehicle we have to slow this negative effect. Alcohol is one of several things that is known to enhance the rate of cellular damage. As I flow through my late 40's, I'm looking for ways to slow the ill effects of aging so I can enjoy a higher quality of living - going ultra-distances plays an important part for me - and your blog brings great encouragement!

  3. Ras. I've struggled with this. Over the last six months I have enjoyed the benefits of running on a plant based diet. More and more these simple truths have revealed themselves. Last weekend I ran a long race and "rewarded" myself with a few drinks. After abstaining in the lead up to the race I felt good and had a great performance. Once the afterglow of the event, and after party, had faded, I was left with only a headache and a depleted body. Pretty black and white, though we do love our delusions. Thanks.

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  5. Reading about your recent adventures brought me to this article. Thank you for helping explain recovery using good information about nutrition. And that's the point I take away from it. I've been trying to focus on better eating and better understanding of what our bodies really need during and after workouts. Had you not been passionate about these subjects, would you have transformed the way you have?

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