Alcohol and Sports. Do they mix?

So with the Olympics on everybody’s minds it crossed my mind, should athletes be drinking? It’s obvious that alcohol has an effect on ones performance while intoxicated or hung over, but are there lasting effects that could jeopardise an athlete’s ability to perform optimally in the long run.

In addition to waking up with a pounding headache, dry mouth, nauseous with an upset stomach drinking alcohol can affect an athlete’s performance because it dehydrates them. Alcohol also lowers the action of the anti-diuretic hormone. This is the hormone that tells the kidneys to conserve water. When this hormone is reduced it increases the need to urinate and increases the risk of dehydration.  This puts serious stress on the kidneys.

The reason this is particularly relevant to athletes is that the water balance in muscle cells can also be disrupted, because their ability to produce adenosine triphosphate is weakened. Adenosine triphosphate is the fuel that allows muscles to contract.
Excessive alcohol consumption can result in deficiencies in water-soluble vitamins such as niacin, vitamin C and thiamin, all of which are vitally important to muscles. Alcohol consumption also cause the body to have trouble absorbing important nutrients like magnesium, iron and zinc, key minerals that help the body metabolize protein, fat and carbs.

So are those the only side effects? Actually no. Alcohol consumption also hinders balance, hand-eye coordination and skills that require fast reaction time, all abilities needed for athletes to perform at their peak. The body will experience a decrease in strength as well as muscular and cardiovascular endurance. So basically alcohol and athletes don’t mix. Alcohol consumption will decrease an athlete’s ability to train and perform at their best.

So how long after consumption will the alcohol affect an athlete’s performance? Even moderate alcohol consumption can affect your athletic performance for up to 48 hours after drinking, depending on the amount of alcohol consumed.

So alcohol affects athletes in the following ways:

  • It increases the risk of the body becoming dehydrated because alcohol acts as a diuretic. It also dehydrates muscles don’t function properly, and shut down sooner. Also, dehydration may cause intense headaches and muscle cramping.
  • It impairs the body’s heat regulating ability which in turn affects endurance. Something that every athlete needs. Alcohol can cause a large number of issues, including heat exhaustion and even death).
  • Alcohol reduced your blood sugar levels which lowers energy level needed for prolonged physical activity.
  • Alcohol impairs your reaction times, coordination and balance
  • It reduces endurance, strength and speed
  • The risk of injury is increased and increases the recovery time needed.
  • Alcohol decreases the body’s ability to absorb necessary nutrients and deplete vitamins already stored. It depletes the body of valuable vitamins and minerals.
  • Alcohol also slows down the respiratory system.
  • Alcohol abuse can interrupt normal sleep patterns and interferes with an athlete receiving a good night’s rest.
  • It delays recovery after exercise by slowing the replacement of muscle and liver glycogen, this is the primary fuel of the body used during exercise.
  • Alcohol consumption also increases blood pressure.
  • Drinking has also been found to delay recovery from soft tissue injuries. Injured athletes need to get back into the game and competition ready as quickly as possible—anything slowing down this process should be avoided including alcohol.
  • It slows down reaction time for 48-72 hours after intoxication depending on a number of factors including gender, weight etc.  It also impairs coordination for up to 72 hours after consumption, something that athletes cannot do without. It can also impair concentration.
  • Athletes are more often than not watching their weight. Alcohol is fattening. It provides a lot of empty calories and has been proven to increase fat storage.
  • Alcohol is a depressant, which can affect a person’s mental and emotional state.
  • It inhibits protein binding (absorption) which prevents tissue repair following a workout. Some have gone so far as to say that athletes may as well throw out that protein shake if you choose to drink alcohol afterwards as it’s not going to have the desired effect.
  • Alcohol also shrinks muscle tissue and lowers natural testosterone levels.

Athletes should remember to: 

  • Stay away from alcohol consumption for at least 48 hours before strenuous exercise/training/playing sport.
  • After exercise you must re-hydrate with non-alcoholic drinks, but this is something all athletes should know and be doing anyway.