Alcohol and Athletic Performance

Athletes tend to work hard, are competitve and want to be the best they can be athletically. Before deciding whether or not to consume alcohol, consider these questions:

  • How important is my sport to me?
  • How important is drinking or partying to me?
  • How important is it that I perform to the best of my ability?
  • How will drinking affect my ability to perform?
  • How will my body feel if I drink?
  • How will I feel if I don't drink?
  • Will I violate team, University, or state laws and regulations if I choose to drink?
  • What can I do instead of drinking heavily?
  • How can I stay motivated to stick with my decision?

Key things to know

  • Alcohol does not affect everyone equally. The effects of alcohol on a person depend on the amount consumed and individual tolerance.
  • Alcohol is not considered to be a performance enhancing substance. It slows the body down and can have effects for up to one day after consumption.
  • There is no benefit from alcohol use for sport performance.

The effects of alcohol on muscle development and recovery

Impairs muscle growth

Not only does working out under the influence increase your likelihood of injury, but it can also impede muscle growth. Long-term alcohol use diminishes protein synthesis, resulting in a decrease in muscle growth. Even short-term alcohol use can affect your muscles.

Dehydrates your body

If you want to optimize your athletic performance, then you want your recovery from sore muscles to be as fast as possible. Alcohol has been shown to slow this process because it is a powerful diuretic, which can cause dehydration and electrolyte imbalances. And when dehydrated, an athlete is at a greater risk for cramps, muscle pulls, and muscle strains.  

Prevents muscle recovery

Getting enough rest is essential to building bigger and stronger muscles. However, because drinking alcohol negatively affects your sleep patterns, your body is robbed of a chemical called human growth hormone (HGH) when you drink. HGH plays an integral role in building and repairing muscles, but alcohol can decrease the secretion of HGH by as much as 70 percent. Additionally, binge drinking can reduce serum testosterone levels. Decreases in testosterone are associated with decreases in lean muscle mass and muscle recovery, which can impair performance.

Depletes your energy

After alcohol is absorbed through your stomach and small intestine and moves into your cells, it can disrupt the water balance in your body. And an imbalance of water in your muscle cells can hamper their ability to produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is the essential fuel for all cells, including those in our muscles. A reduction in your body’s ATP can result in a lack of energy and loss of endurance.

Slows reaction time

Lastly, even small amounts of alcohol can result in a slowed reaction time and decreased hand-eye coordination. Not only can this impair performance, but a slowed reaction time can increase your risk for injury.

Impairs performance
Drinking alcohol the night before or after a game can affect your performance. Hangovers can result in symptoms of headaches, nausea, diarrhea, fatigue, dehydration, and body aches that can diminish athletic performance. Performance impairments depend on the dose of alcohol and individual habituation to alcohol intake.

Effects of alcohol on nutrition

Alcohol cannot be used as energy

While alcohol has 7 calories per gram (about halfway between the caloric value of carbs and fat), your muscles are unfortunately not able to use alcohol calories for fuel. Alcohol calories are not converted to glycogen, a form of stored carbohydrates, and are consequently not a good source of energy for your body during exercise. Your body instead converts the energy from alcohol into fatty acids and stores them in our fat tissue.

It inhibits nutrient absorption

Alcohol itself is devoid of vitamins and minerals, and therefore is extremely limited in its nutritional value. But beyond that, it also keeps your body from absorbing these nutrients from other sources:

  • Thiamine (vitamin B1): Thiamine is involved in metabolizing the food we eat into fuel as well as the formation of hemoglobin. Because vitamin B1 plays a role in metabolizing carbohydrates, it is essential for optimal performance.  
  • Vitamin B12: Vitamin B12 helps maintain healthy red blood and nerve cells. Because alcohol prevents b12 from being used in key processes in your body, chronic excess alcohol consumption may contribute to b12 deficiency symptoms, which manifest as anemia.
  • Folate: Folic acid is a part of a coenzyme involved in the formation of new red blood cells. A deficiency in folic acid can result in a reduced VO2max, which can negatively affect your endurance.

  • Zinc: Zinc plays an important role in the process of energy metabolism. Alcohol depletes your body’s zinc resources, which can result in a reduction in endurance.

Source: Shirreffs, Susan M. PhD; Maughan, Ronald J. PhD The Effect of Alcohol on Athletic Performance, Current Sports Medicine Reports: August 2006 - Volume 5 - Issue 4 - p 192-196