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Should You Stop Drinking For Better Performance?

BY John Post, MD

A physician and IRONMAN Certified Coach reports on his most recent group experiment: abstaining from alcohol in the pursuit of better performance.

I come in contact with a lot of athletes through my writing, teaching and coaching and the various triathlon forums I’m a part of. In the closing months of 2017, I began collecting their comments about alcohol. More specifically, their comments about how alcohol was possibly affecting their performance/weight/mood, etc.

I hoped to respond to them with first-hand experience coupled with medical expertise, and so I targeted another “Drynuary” experiment (no alcohol whatsoever between January 1 and January 31). 

One thing I have learned is that more athletes than you think have an uneasy relationship with alcohol. We range from a little worried that our consumption isn’t the healthiest thing we could be doing, to wondering if it might be hindering our performance. Just a few of these concerns are illustrated by the following quotes from athletes just like you and I:

  • “Somehow I managed to put on 30 pounds since IRONMAN Louisville—a lot of which can be blamed on beer and wine.”
  • “Last year I missed a Kona spot by one place and wonder what would have been had I made better choices in regards to my alcohol consumption throughout the year (12 to 20 craft beers almost every single weekend). It could have made the difference between my actual 180-pound race weight and my ideal 165-pound race weight. In hindsight, I’m positive it was those weekend binges that derailed my Kona dreams yet again.”

What’s the Problem With Alcohol?

The National Institute of Health reports that 28% of adults in the U.S. report habits that classify them as “heavy drinkers.” Physician and author Michael Bierer, MD of the Harvard Medical School writes on The Harvard Health Blog that “people who exercise more also tend to drink more alcohol.”

One of them is a multiple IRONMAN finisher who lives in my town: “Every Friday, I’ll down two or three scotch and sodas, and I doubt I could stop,” he admitted to me recently.

Bierer goes on to state that alcohol disrupts healthy sleep cycles so that when we do sleep, we don’t do so as efficiently. This can have serious implications for recovery and the ability to handle high loads of training.

Noted nutritionist and sport scientist Asker Jeukendrup has reported that excess consumption is also associated with impaired recovery and lower power output the following morning. All these factors do not for a PR-year make.

Moderate Alcohol Consumption Isn’t So Bad

While some of these studies were conducted with relatively high consumption rates (upward of three pints of beer and four glasses of wine daily), it should be noted that there are many of us who enjoy a single glass of wine or a beer or two and are thus affected to a lesser degree.

There is, after all, widespread research on the health benefits of a daily single glass of red wine. “The research typically reports that limited intake based on weight has no negative effect on health or performance,” says notable triathlon coach and author Joe Friel. There is an important distinction to be made between excess and moderation; but again, each of us must find the elusive line for ourselves.

My point in all of this? If your goal is big enough and important enough to you, then so will be your desire to achieve it. While I’m certainly no expert in complete sobriety, as a 30-plus-year triathlete, I do know a bit about motivation. For some of you, this means picking a date well before your “A” race to harness the enormous desire you have to meet a certain race goal and change your relationship with alcohol as a step towards it.

Feedback From Our Drynuary Experiment

A few years ago, I wrote a piece for IRONMAN titled, The Case for a Dry January. In it, I challenged readers to join me in giving up alcohol for an entire month.

This year, I did the same, and learned once again that all you have to do is start a friendly alcohol-free suggestion among fellow triathletes — a competitive group if there ever was one — to realize that there’s actually quite a bit of passion behind the topic.

Below is some of the feedback I received from athletes who took part, at various points, in the process. Perhaps it will inspire you to try your hand at taking a month off (or more!) yourself.

  • “I love red wine and as I get closer to races, I usually stop having any two months out mostly to help myself lose the last two to three pounds to get back down to race weight. This would help me start that four months out.”
  • “I will be joining in. This is going to be very difficult for me but I need to show myself I can do it. I live around a heavy drinking culture and I partake in it on a weekly basis. I could easily, and have, drank a half-fifth of alcohol at night and got up at 5 a.m. to hit the pool or soul-crushing bike trainer workout.” 
  • “I’ve now realized how much I used to drink just because I was bored or watching something on TV that I felt justified drinking, and because I didn’t have any non-alcoholic beverages on hand (which I do now). I’ve substituted tea every night so far and find that it fills the same function.”
  • “I’m starting to lean out in the midsection and my workouts are higher quality.” (posted in mid-January)

Benefits of Cutting Out Alcohol on Performance

As the month progressed, a number of us noted not only a change in weight but a sense of well-being and true improvement in training. As we approached the end of the month, I was really impressed by the overall success of the group.

What astonished me was, rather than the amount of alcohol not consumed, were the lessons so many learned about themselves. A high percentage of athletes reported improved recovery, sleep and weight loss:

  • “I made it! In addition, I tried to cut out crap food. I dropped from 150 to 142 without losing any power and noticed a huge increase in recovery. I put in a lot of hours the whole month and physically they felt much easier than they should’ve, recovery-wise.”
  • I will drink a nice pint or two today but am going to keep it next to nil until IRONMAN Texas. Thank you for pushing this challenge, I learned a lot about how beer affects my training and potential.”

Achieving Balance and Other Key Takeaways

I’m really proud of this group, many of whom did not know if they could actually last a whole month. I even got a message from one athlete considering extending the experiment:

  • “It’s February 3rd, and I thought I’d restock the Jim Beam bourbon at the stroke of midnight on the 31st. But now, three days in, I remain bourbon-less and doubt I’ll get any this weekend. Who knew?”

Not all of us succeeded in staying 100% clear of libations. The near confession of one such triathlete is below, which actually does a nice job of framing the balance needed on this issue:

  • “I gave in Saturday night. We had a good friend visiting—the person who introduced me to my wife. She had just come back from Chile and brought a bottle of Malbec. I had a sip of my wife’s and said forget it, I want a glass. I don’t feel bad. I really enjoyed it. Overall, the benefits I noticed are weight and expense; I plan to keep my consumption low indefinitely. Thanks for starting this challenge. I’ve found some other substitutes for my nightly beverage choice and realized that I don’t need to use alcohol to cope with stress.”

My response to this athlete:

  • “When I was little, my grandfather would drag me around North Jersey on Sunday afternoons to visit his old Princeton buddies. When we got back into his old Pontiac, he’d say, as if it were the first time, ‘keep your friendships in good repair.’ That’s what you were doing with the friend and the Chilean Malbec. The personal and financial benefits of less alcohol surprises each of us in our own unique way; there is no one-size fits all prescription or silver bullet. Only an invitation to experiment.”

How alcohol affects your training is personal. If you think abstaining from alcohol might give you the performance boost you need to reach your goals, I recommend trying it for a minimum of four weeks and seeing how you feel. You might just discover that the occasional glass of Malbec with a friend is all you need.

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About John Post, MD

Dr. Post has a long history with triathlon including 6 Kona finishes and an Orthopedic Surgery practice in Virginia caring for, among others, injured triathletes. He now enjoys giving back to the sport by being a World Championship Transitions volunteer every October. If you find yourself on the pier in Kona, please stop and say hi to “the man in the red hat.”

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