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As I rolled toward the finishing chute of The Rut 28K in 2016, the time on the clock reading well over five hours, I knew I hadn’t run up to my potential.
But it wasn’t just the altitude, or the technical mountain terrain, that did me in.
“Let’s give it up for Alex,” the announcer said over the PA system. “We hear he had a late night last night.”
It was true. This wasn’t an “A” race for me, and after over a year off due to injury I was just happy to be there. Combine that with a hoard of friends I rarely saw, and I found myself at one of Big Sky’s bars past last call the night before the race – drinking beer, then more beer, then appletinis when someone bought them as a joke. Then more beer, I think.
It’s not unusual for me to be up until 2 a.m. the night before a race – but that’s usually with pre-race jitters. When my alarm went off at 5 a.m. the next morning, I was full of regret. Then water. Then ibuprofen. And the pain, it turned out, was only beginning.
Just what had I done to myself?
Alcohol and Running Performance
We’ve written about the intersection of beer and trail running before. Lots of runners have a healthy appreciation for alcohol; after all, it can be a tasty, fun way to wind down after a long day on the trails. But overconsumption can have negative health effects, which can keep you from training, performing or recovering optimally. Let’s look at how.
Long-Term Training Effect: Recovery, Hydration, and Weight
For optimal health, the Centers for Disease Control recommend moderating drinking: a limit of up to one drink per day for women and two for men. The CDC, it’s worth noting, says those are daily limits, and not intended to average out; in other words, if you abstain six nights a week and have 14 drinks on the seventh, you’ll be at higher risk for liver and cardiovascular disease, not to mention the acute risks that come with heavy consumption like accidents, memory loss and severe dehydration.
But how are athletes affected? If you are training hard and your metabolism is revving, can you consume more alcohol before it affects you negatively? How much can you drink before your training might suffer?
According to Jana Dengel, a Registered Dietician and the incoming President of the Minnesota Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the guidelines for general health are also good guidelines for optimal running. “Moderation by [the CDC’s] definition is still a good guideline overall for health, which is a good guideline for your training, both now and in the long term,” she says.
Overconsuming can cause sleep disruptions, which hamper the body’s ability to recover from big training sessions. “Even if you can fall asleep faster after a few drinks, you don’t stay asleep,” says Dengel. “Alcohol raises your body’s levels of epinephrine, which has the effect of tearing your muscles down rather than building them up.”
“And if you have a condition like sleep apnea, alcohol tends to worsen that,” she continues.
Making matters worse, drinking more than moderately can increase your risk of injury—Dengel says it increases swelling—and decreases your body’s immune function, which can contribute to delayed healing of existing injuries.
On top of that, excessive drinking isn’t going to help you maintain your racing weight. Alcohol itself is calorie-dense at seven calories per gram (compared to four in protein and carbohydrates). Plus, overconsumption is rarely accompanied by a salad; bar nachos or late-night fast-food runs can lead to weight gain or nutritional deficiencies. “This isn’t just problematic for your training right now,” Dengel says. “If you develop a fatty liver, your liver can’t detox or help with glycogen conversion like it should, which means you won’t recover as fast and you won’t perform your best in the long run.”
The Night Before: Alcohol’s Acute Effect on Performance
When I shut down the ski bar the night—and morning—before The Rut, I was saddling myself with more than just a headache and a lack of sleep. A 2001 study in Human Psychopharmacology: Clinical and Experimental found that even after alcohol has technically left your system, overconsumption will leave you hypoglycemic with electrolyte imbalances and gastric distress; in other words, you’re setting yourself up for a bonk, and possibly several pit stops.
Even if you can handle the discomfort, your aerobic capacity will be reduced up to 11 percent if you’re hungover, according to a 2000 study in Sports Medicine.
Additionally, your liver will be working overtime to clear toxic by-products from your system, which means, for example, your body can’t clear lactic acid at its normal rate, leaving you more prone to fatigue and more likely to be beset by performance-hindering pain at an earlier point than your fitness should allow.
“There is still an after effect of your body playing catch-up,” says Kelly Trom, a registered dietician and triathlete based in Minneapolis. “When you have alcohol in your system, your body shuts down other processes, so your running performance won’t have the body’s full attention.”
Suffice it to say, I regretted every sip of appletini on the chin-scraping climb up Lone Peak.
Not that you’re probably fretting over minutes and seconds if you’re going on a bender the week of a race, but—we were curious—just how long should you leave before a solid night out and your race?
“Typically 72 hours is what [the CDC] would estimate,” says Dengel. “Before that, your heart rate will be elevated and there’s sort of an attack on your whole body system as you detox, so you’ll see some impact on your overall performance.”
Post-Run: Alcohol’s Effect on Recovery
Following a race—or an otherwise epic effort on the trails—is probably the most natural time for the trail runner to crave a beer. (Unless, like me after The Rut, the sight, smell or thought of one makes you sick.)
But drinking too much, too soon after a race can prolong your recovery and delay your getting back to normal training.
“You’re dehydrated to begin with after a race, and alcohol is a diuretic, which will make your dehydration worse,” Dengel says.
Alcohol can also interfere with your body’s glycogen replenishment and muscle repair in the minutes following intense effort. “Glycogen synthesis is one of those pathways that can be stalled while your system is focused on ridding itself of alcohol,” says Trom. “And if you’re drinking a beer, you might not be eating any protein during that 30- to 45-minute window that’s optimal for recovery.”
So how much is too much following a race, assuming you want to minimize your recovery time and be back to hard training and racing soon?
A 2014 study in Sports Medicine found that, with some variance for weight, tolerance, genetics and so on, a dose of less than 0.5 grams per kilogram of body weight is ideal to prevent hampering recovery. A standard “unit” of alcohol—12 ounces of 5.0-percent ABV beer, five ounces of 12-percent ABV wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor—contains 14 grams of alcohol, and a 140-pound runner is 63.5 kilograms; so a 140-pound runner would want to consume less than 31.75 grams of alcohol, or 2.26 ounces of 5-percent ABV beers, to keep recovery optimal following a run. Keep in mind that many of our favorite craft beers have an ABV higher than 5 percent, meaning less than two of that local IPA is optimal.
But hey, we’re all human. And very few of us are pro runners who need to fret over every performance edge we can find. In my case, I cherish the memories I made in the early Montana hours before The Rut; plus, the epic sufferfest and infamous PA finish-line welcome made for a pretty great story.
We aren’t by any stretch encouraging overindulgence, but part of what makes trail running great is its participants’ frequent refusal to take the sport too seriously, as well as their herculean feats of masochism. Live your best life out there, folks. And if you choose to drink, at least know what it’s doing to you.
“I think most vices can fit in with a very healthy lifestyle, and sometimes the perfect can be the enemy of the good,” says Ian Sharman, a four-time winner of the Leadville Trail 100 and record holder in the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning. “Aiming to live in an unsustainable, so-called ‘ideal’ way is likely to lead to less happiness and mental balance.” Sharman has been open about his healthy love of alcohol, and has plenty of breweries from which to pick in his hometown of Bend, Oregon.
“For example, when I ran the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning in 2013 and had around three weeks between 100-mile races, a couple of times it really helped to let off steam and have more beers than is healthy,” he says. “The discipline and pure effort needed to perform well was psychologically exhausting, so being able to relax and take a breath by going out with friends and overindulging was probably very useful as a release valve … but not too often.”
“If you normally have a drink at night, feel free to do so the night before a race,” Dengel says. “That can relax you if it’s in moderation, and help you get out of your head game.”
“As long as you don’t need five or 10 drinks to get out of that head game,” she continues. “Then you might have a problem.”