I remember learning in nutrition school about the myriad of benefits fermented foods can offer (such as boosting digestion and supporting intestinal health). As alcohol is a fermented food, should runners be imbibing regularly to reap the benefits?
Enjoying a post-hike brew at Whyte Lake (carried out our cans of course…)
If we look at the preparation of alcohol, we know all alcohol is subject to some form of fermentation (typically via fibrin, a fibrous organic matter), some form of grain (often contains gluten/wheat) or fruit, and includes casein (an enzyme found in dairy), egg whites or yeast. This fermentation, while typically in the presence of sugar and high heat, does mimic the beneficial fermentation of probiotic rich foods such as yogurt, kefir, pickled vegetables such as sauerkraut, tempeh and miso.
Probiotics, such as those in the previously mentioned food sources have been shown to reduce cholesterol by breaking down bile in the colon, inhibiting its re-absorption into the blood. Probiotics can also help to reduce inflammation in the body, which can also decrease your cardiovascular disease risk.
Downing a nightly brew or vino sounds easy to rationalize doesn’t it?
Celebrations! Photo Cred @MickLim
Regardless of athleticism and fitness levels, a meta analysis (analysis of multiple studies) from the University of Calgary (c/o: Dr. Paul Ronksley and Dr. Susan Brien) concluded that one drink per day for women and two for men has shown to increase HDL Cholesterol (the good one!),and decrease biomarkers for cardiovascular disease and strokes such as fibrinogen levels. The increase in HDL Cholesterol levels was shown to be greater than any currently available individual pharmacological therapy.
“…Alcohol, in moderation, may have overall health benefits that outweigh the risks in selected subsets of patients” says Dr. William Ghali (senior author of the analysis).
Please note: it’s not all “drink up” advice. While the analysis includes positive support for the incorporation of a drink or two a day in individuals with no contraindications, there does exist a flip side. Take for example, a study from the University of California that indicates the correlation between alcohol consumption and arrhythmias (irregular heart beats, heart flutters etc…). This study noted an increased risk with an increase in alcohol intake.
“Even at the recommended one to two drinks per day, there was an increased and significant risk for atrial flutter. While alcohol in limited amounts is known to be cardioprotective, many patients with atrial fibrillation might be under the impression that they should be drinking one or two drinks per day.” Dr. Gregory Marcus (University of California) indicates.
For athletes focused on performance improvements, in training or building phases for a goal race, or in the taper weeks before a big race, alcohol intake has to be looked at critically for it’s role in your preparation. While a night cap, or a weekend spent on a sunny patio with a beer in hand (sound familiar?) might easily be rationalized as an appropriate “RnR” strategy, what’s the impact on your performance?
Imbibe this: Recovery Sports Drink (Vega Recovery Accelerator) vs Recovery Beer
Alcohol inhibits the normal metabolism of vitamins, and increases the urinary excretion of calcium and magnesium (two crucial electrolytes for runners) (1). The result can mean increased muscle cramping, general weakness, and cardiac arrhythmia. Evidence also suggests alcohol can negatively affect reaction time, coordination and energy metabolism (2).
Furthermore, alcohol has been shown to reduce performance in middle and long distance running, increase your susceptibility to dehydration (alcohol has a diuretic effect), and negatively impacts recovery (impairs muscle glycogen storage which helps with repairing torn muscle tissue post-workout) (3).
For these reasons, alcohol is considered an “anti-nutrient” for runners, not a super food.
My interest in this topic stems from my own personal enjoyment of a quality micro-brew, organic wine, or fine whiskey…sometimes more than one a night. Yes, it’s true. Nutritionists drink too! Sometimes it’s easy to rationalize a drink (or two, or three…), whether a celebration, a stressful day, or you’ve just finished your long run for the week (that’s my go-to alibi). However it’s far less common for elite athletes to drink regularly, and the research regarding performance effects is in compelling support of reducing your intake.
I have experimented with month long booze free challenges, in particular before big races (such as my first marathon), and while I can’t say conclusively whether the reduced intake was the “why”, I can say running injury free and achieving my goal time was worth more than any drink I might have had. At the very least I recommend scaling back alcohol consumption the week prior to a goal race, and the night before hard training runs. It’s time to perform because of clean dietary choices, not in spite of your intake. Also, save your celebratory beers post race until you’ve consumed real whole foods! There’s something to be said for being able to wake up easily, feeling strong and recovered…
Refueling with whole foods, between segments of the Ragnar Relay (Ultra) SoCal, 2014
Overall, I recommend celebratory enjoyment of a good quality drink (no more than 1/day for women, and 2/day for men), for those who have no current pre-disposition to addiction, arythmia, or mental health disorders, especially in your off season, or “maintenance” phases, based on the cardio-protective research. For performance focused runners in training or building phases for a goal race, or in the taper weeks before a big race, it’s best to taper your alcohol intake too.
1) Bernardot, Dan. Advanced Sports Nutrition, 2nd ed. (2012)
2) El-Sayed MS, Ali N, El-Sayed Ali Z. Interaction Between Alcohol and Exercise: Physiological and Haematological Implications. Sports Medicine. 2005; 35(3):257-269.
3) L.M. Burke and R.J. Maughan, 2000, Alcohol in Sport. In Nutrition in Sport, edited by R.J Maughan (Oxford: Blackwell Science), 405-414.