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When I found trail running, I had already been doing the road-and-track thing for a decade. Coming from that world, my first impression of the trail scene was: It was fun.
The race courses were prettier and more engaging. People didn’t take themselves too seriously. They wore flannel shirts and trucker hats. How whimsical! And at the end of races or group runs, there was frequently beer on offer.
Craft beer and trail running culture seemed to be booming together and intersecting during the 2010s. I was so intrigued that I wrote an article about it, which examined the at-once complementary and contradictory nature of running and alcohol. My main takeaway was that beer probably wouldn’t help your running, but, as Ian Sharman said, “Life’s too short not to enjoy it, and I think I have a good balance.”
I figured that was pretty uncontroversial – but it’s not the message I’ve been seeing since then.
Lately, there’s been a flurry of articles about the detrimental effects of alcohol on running performance and recovery. Trail Runner and its Outside partner titles have published six in the last 15 months.
To those I say: No kidding. No one in their right mind thinks drinking alcohol the night before a race will help them perform to their full potential. No one actually thinks beer is the ideal recovery beverage. (It might improve your sense of humor though – hint hint.)
These articles presume my only goal is to run as fast as possible, past the point of diminishing returns. They’re part of a growing trend in modern media that promotes Optimization™: How to maximize productivity, flow and focus in all aspects of our lives.
The problem with the optimization complex is that it tends to overlook one crucial thing we should be optimizing: Our happiness. It’s not that anyone wants us to be miserable. But happiness is harder to quantify – and thus harder to write about. Some people thrive on structure and direction. Others need to be a little unstructured or unproductive to be at their best. Imagine the headline: “These Ten Habits of Tech CEOs Might Make You Happier – But They Might Make You Miserable!”
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How does this relate to alcohol and running? Let’s say studies show alcohol might negatively impact your HRV, a key recovery metric. That’s easy to write about: “Alcohol will make you less good at running!” Boom, scary headline – and the clicks follow. But on the flip side, for some people, responsibly-consumed alcohol can be something that enriches your life, and the friendly and familial settings in which you consume it can especially enrich your life. They provide social fulfillment, necessary distraction, and spontaneous joy. That’s harder to quantify than your HRV, but it’s at least as important to your well-being.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t want trail running to be usurped by the optimization complex. I came here to escape that stuff. If you want to have fun, work up a sweat, and make friends, get into trail running. If you want to be humorless in the pursuit of a grandeur you probably won’t reach, get into road cycling. Or cryptocurrency.
For some people, responsibly-consumed alcohol can be something that enriches your life – and the friendly and familial settings in which you consume it can especially enrich your life.
So: Have a beer if you want. (Just don’t overdo it.) Or don’t have one, if you don’t want to. But if you’re considering stopping because you feel shamed into it by an article in a running magazine, just be sure you’re considering the full picture of what it brings and takes away.
For instance: I don’t need a peer-reviewed study to tell me that if I enjoy a few drinks on Friday, I’m going to regret it when I get up for my long run on Saturday. I learned that quite well on my own as my roaring 20s gave way to my creaky 30s. So I choose not to do it very often.
You know what else I’ve found over the years? I’m much more happy and whole after I spend an evening laughing with my friends over an IPA (or two, max). That’s not my imagination – my WHOOP app – that ultimate optimization accessory – asks me if I felt socially fulfilled each day, right after it asks me if I had anything to drink.
I’ve found exploring the tapestry of a nice glass of wine with my wife is a pretty great way to celebrate shipping a big project at work or getting a promotion.
I’ve found that a cold lager while icing my legs in a river after a 50-mile trail race is the best thing I have ever tasted in my life – an exclamation point on the euphoria of a great day.
And I’ve found that the finger-wagging articles (like this one, written by some DWEEB) forget to consider that moderate alcohol consumption can bring joy to people who are able to enjoy it responsibly. And what exactly is the point of trail running – or anything else – if we aren’t experiencing joy?
This all deserves an enormous caveat, of course. There’s a reason I keep emphasizing the moderate, responsible side of drinking. Excessive alcohol consumption doesn’t just make you feel like trash in the short term – it puts you at risk of a lot of chronic health issues in the long term. Many people contend with addiction and dependency, and are bravely fighting that battle and/or have chosen to abstain. Many more people rightly wonder whether they could stand to drink less – especially as the pandemic seemed to drive consumption and drew even more attention to mental health. Drinking too much is bad. Drinking every day is probably bad. (I don’t!) Drinking and driving is terrible. And so on.
But do you know what else puts you at risk of chronic disease? Eating sugar, and processed foods high in saturated fat – like pizza. Saturated fat could also cause inflammation and stymie recovery, similarly to alcohol. But there aren’t any articles telling me pizza will hurt my running. Because pizza is great, and it would be sort of … Alberto-Salazary to admonish people for enjoying it at the expense of small performance returns.
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So: Let’s lighten up. Or at least add a little broader context to all the booze talk. If people want to avoid alcohol, for any reason, more power to them. At the same time, I’m going to remember an evening with friends and a drink or two a lot longer than I’m going to remember running a scootch faster on any given training run. The former will also mean a lot more to me, and I’m good with that. It’s okay if you are, too.