ALCOHOL AND ULTRA-RUNNING
Alcohol and ultra-running seem to go hand-in-hand. Booze is found at the finish lines of the majority of ultramarathons. Whether it be a celebratory beer that the runners bring for themselves or a “finishers beer” that many ultras now provide.
Some ultra-runners don’t wait for the finish line either. Many will even pound down some brew during their events. It’s not uncommon for aid stations to have some liquor (Fireball seems to be a popular choice) stashed away for runners that need a little “kick” late in the race.
The question is – how does all of this impact performance and recovery? Are alcohol and ultra-running a match made in heaven or a recipe for subpar performance? The purpose of this blog is to examine the relationship between alcohol and ultra-running and the subsequent impact on performance. We will discuss the various effects that alcohol could potentially have on training, performance, and recovery.
Let’s start with how alcohol influences immediate endurance performance.
Alcohol and Ultra-Running: Drinking During an Ultramarathon
I’m not going to bother exploring the consequences of ingesting large amounts of alcohol (to the point of intoxication) on performance during activity. I think we can all agree that doing so is quite stupid for obvious reasons, safety being the most obvious.
But what about just a drink or two? What about when an ultra-runner chooses to partake in a drink or two DURING a race or ultramarathon?
Well, let’s just say it’s probably not going to do you any favors to have a drink during an ultra. A study by Lecoultre and Schutz (2009) examined the effect of small doses of alcohol on the endurance performance of well-trained cyclists.
The result? A significant decrease in cycling power and increased perceived exertion…yikes.
But is this really relevant to ultramarathons and aerobic performance? Sure, this study was done on cyclists and for a significantly shorter duration than any ultramarathon. There’s not a lot of studies out there (that I could find) that examined the relationship between ultra-running and alcohol. But we can make some educated assumptions based on alcohol’s well-known impact on just a few physiological elements. FYI, more performance-related characteristics are pertinent to alcohol and ultra-running, but for the sake of length and reader (and writer) attention span, I’ll highlight just a few.
We all know ultra-running is primarily an aerobic sport. So what impact does alcohol have on aerobic performance? Unfortunately, even small quantities of alcohol impact aerobic metabolism (O’Brien & Lyons, 2000). Alcohol metabolizes quite slowly, and exercise has no influence on its speed. If your body is metabolizing alcohol, the consequence is that it’s not metabolizing carbohydrates and fat as efficiently.
This leads to an aerobic-performance detriment. Additionally, alcohol slows the citric acid cycle, further slowing aerobic metabolism (O’Brien & Lyons, 2000).
Alcohol is a diuretic that will increase urine production, which leads to dehydration and electrolyte imbalances. This effect is obviously more pronounced with increased intake. But don’t think for a minute that you’re doing your hydration status any favors by taking in a beer or two during an ultramarathon. In the heat, when hydration is critical, it’s good practice to stay away from booze altogether during (and before) activity.
So it’s all good when it’s cold, right?
During a cold winter ultramarathon, don’t get too carried away with the Fireball. Yes, I know it’s delicious and can make you feel all warm and toasty. This warming feeling is because alcohol has a vasodilating effect, widening blood vessels, bringing blood towards the skin, and creating a feeling of warmth on the surface. Because of this warming sensation, most don’t realize that their body is actually losing heat, causing their core temperature to drop. Additionally, alcohol reduces shivering – an essential function for thermoregulation (Freund et al., 1994). This probably isn’t an issue in many cases, but be cautious of this effect during long cold ultras.
Most people might believe that hand-eye coordination is only impaired after a few drinks or more. Turns out that isn’t the case. A runner might THINK and feel like they have no impairment whatsoever after a drink, but that doesn’t mean it’s true. A recent study by NASA scientists shows that impairment can begin at a BAC of only .015% (0.08% = the legal limit to operate a vehicle), which is only about ½ beer for a 165 lb. individual (Tyson et al., 2021).
Seriously, I don’t make this stuff up. The study was published in the Journal of Physiology, check it out here.
Conclusion: Drinking Alcohol During an Ultramarathon
As I said, alcohol will not do you any favors during an ultramarathon. But am I telling you that you should NEVER drink during one? No, of course not. Ultimately, that’s up to you and is 100% dependent upon your own ultra-experience. If having some drink(s) during your race improves your experience and you’re well aware of the potential drawbacks, then go for it.
Alcohol and Ultra-Running: Drinking After Hard Endurance Efforts
Ok, so we know pounding a few down during an ultramarathon isn’t exactly going to turn you into Courtney Dawaulter and will likely impair performance slightly. Let’s shift gears now and look at a much more common scenario relating to alcohol and ultra-running – drinking AFTER a run.
I think most would agree that the primary concern when drinking after a run is alcohol’s impact on recovery. So, the question is – what effect does drinking alcohol AFTER a grueling endurance training effort, or even after an ultramarathon, have on recovery?
To me, the two are a bit different. After a hard training effort, I’m looking to recover and bounce back as soon as possible.
After a race, on the other hand, sure, I want to recover well, but I’m usually at the front end of some extended recovery time. Plus, who doesn’t want to celebrate a little after a race, right? Anyway, that’s just me. Let’s look at how alcohol impacts recovery following a strenuous endurance session.
Does Alcohol Negatively Impact Endurance Recovery?
Again, there’s a big difference between having a couple of drinks and getting trashed. But to be blunt and clear about this – getting drunk after a productive endurance session is absolutely devastating to recovery. It’s the perfect recipe to destroy the hard work you just put in. Which is kind of ironic in that many ultra-runners do their long runs on weekends, often Saturdays, the same day that they are most likely to drink in excess.
So how does getting drunk sabotage your recovery? Soooo many ways, unfortunately. I’ll highlight just a few. But first, let’s quickly reflect on what creates an environment for optimal recovery in the first place. To recover optimally after endurance exercise, ultra-runners (and all endurance athletes) should aim to accomplish the following objectives;
Primary Goals of Endurance Recovery
- Rehydrate (restore fluid and electrolyte balance)*
- Replenish Glycogen*
- Halt muscle breakdown and stimulate muscle protein synthesis (MPS)*
- Prioritize activities and practices conducive to recovery – QUALITY sleep, nutrition, relaxation, bodywork, etc.
*FYI, if you’re looking for a super-easy way to accomplish #1, #2, and #3 from this list. Use Terminus by Ultraverse Supplements. It’s hands down the best endurance recovery formula on the planet. Sorry, we can’t help you with #4. That one is all on you!
Right away, if you know how alcohol impacts our metabolism and physiology, this isn’t looking good. Let’s examine each in just a bit more detail as they relate to alcohol and ultra-running recovery.
How Alcohol Affects the Primary Goals of Endurance Recovery
Rehydrate: Alcohol dehydrates you. Everyone knows that (I hope you knew that). I already went over how alcohol is a diuretic and causes electrolyte imbalance earlier, so I won’t talk more about it now. But, to reinforce the point – a study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology found that when “rehydrating” with a 4% ABV beverage following exercise-induced dehydration, rehydration was significantly slower when compared to drinks containing LESS or ZERO alcohol. Additionally, the 4% ABV beverage didn’t lead to significant improvements in hydration status compared to the original dehydrated state (Shirreffs & Maughan, 1997).
Replenish Glycogen: It is inconclusive whether or not alcohol has a DIRECT effect on glycogen resynthesis after exercise, and if so, it’s likely minor.
However, studies have shown alcohol to have an INDIRECT influence on glycogen restoration. Burke et al. (2003) found that when athletes drink alcohol after prolonged endurance exercise, they do so in place of sufficient carbohydrates. In other words, often when endurance athletes reach for booze after exercise, they are doing so at the expense of essential nutrients – like carbohydrates.**
Halt muscle breakdown and stimulate muscle protein synthesis (MPS): After an endurance workout is over, it’s essential to stop breaking down and start rebuilding.
Unfortunately, alcohol F’s this up as well. Studies show that alcohol, when ingested after a combination of resistance training and cycling, reduces MPS even when co-ingested with protein or carbohydrate (Parr et al., 2014). Bummer. Well, that’s already three strikes for alcohol post-exercise. Nonetheless, let’s stagger forward to #4.
Prioritize activities and practices conducive to recovery – Recovery doesn’t end 30 minutes, an hour, or even 5 hours after endurance exercise. Recovery ends when, well, you’ve recovered. This will never come before a good night’s sleep, and it can take significantly longer for strenuous, exhaustive efforts.
Outside of immediately post-run, many factors influence recovery. I will focus on the two that I believe deserve the most prioritization.
Sleep – To put this in scientific terms – without good sleep, your recovery will be super-sucky.
Seriously, you can think of sleep as the time you actually become a better endurance athlete. Yes, you set yourself up to become better with high-quality training, nutrition, etc. Still, the place where all those things manifest into positive adaptation is in the bedroom…sleeping! REM sleep is essential for recovery. Excessive alcohol intake results in a significant, dose-dependent reduction in REM sleep (Ebrahim et al., 2013).
So yes, you might fall asleep immediately (in your neighbor’s backyard) when you’re in a drunken stupor, but your quality of sleep is a nightmare (pun intended). Getting drunk is devastating to sleep. Those of you who have a fitness watch that tracks your sleep know what I’m talking about – going to bed with a body battery of 23 and waking up with an 11 is not a good sign.
Nutrition: Everyone knows that solid nutrition is key to optimal recovery. As someone who went to grad school for nutrition, I’ve spent a lot of time studying how nutrition impacts all facets of ultra-running. Now there’s a lot of different ways you can eat and still be a great ultra-runner, more on that here. But, avoiding any deficiencies at all costs is not debatable as performance and recovery will be significantly impacted. Alcohol reduces the absorption of several critical nutrients, including B-vitamins.
Endurance athletes are already more susceptible to vitamin and mineral deficiency because of the high demands of their sports. It’s best not to exacerbate the issue even further.
**Beer for endurance recovery?
Beer has even been touted as a good post endurance recovery drink because it contains some carbs and electrolytes. That would be wonderful if it were true, I admit. I want it to be true; I really do. But unfortunately, beer does not contain nearly enough of either of those to be an effective post-endurance recovery drink. Its negative impact on hydration status (and other recovery aspects) far outweigh any positives it MIGHT have. Beer is not what you want immediately post-workout IF you hope to recover optimally. Again, that’s Terminus… you’re thinking of Terminus.
Alcohol’s impact on hormones relating to recovery.
In addition to the previously mentioned consequences of drinking too much booze following endurance exercise, excess alcohol also negatively impacts hormones conducive to the recovery process. It does so by decreasing testosterone and increasing cortisol (Bianco et al., 2014). For more information on cortisol, see Cortisol in Endurance and Ultra-Endurance Sport. Keep it in Check.
The degree of testosterone impairment seems to be dose-dependent and most notable when ingestion reaches 1.5g/kg or greater (Bianco et al., 2014). This equates to about 4-5 drinks for a 155 lb person or 3-4 drinks for a 125 lb person.
Alcohols Impact on Endurance Recovery: Key Points
Drinking after strenuous efforts is quite common and, probably, the most relevant topic when discussing alcohol and ultra-running. Which is why that was a long section, sorry. Here is a breakdown of the main points.
- Alcohol is dehydrating. It shouldn’t be used in place of beverages that actually promote rehydration.
- Alcohol has an indirect effect on glycogen replenishment in that it often comes at the sacrifice of carbohydrates.
- Alcohol impairs muscle protein synthesis, even when combined with protein.
- Alcohol in excess negatively impacts sleep, nutrient absorption, and hormones beneficial for recovery.
- Beer is not an effective post-endurance workout recovery drink.
Summary: Drinking After Hard Endurance Efforts
By now, you probably are thinking – damn, this guy’s a downer. You might be thinking that alcohol and ultra-running are entirely incompatible. Hang in there; it’s not all doom and gloom. There is some light at the end of the tunnel.
Remember, most of the issues are primarily dose-dependent when it comes to alcohol and ultra-running recovery.
The big problems stem from drinking alcohol in excess and drinking alcohol in place of nutrients necessary for recovery. It’s entirely possible to still recover well without totally abstaining from alcohol after a hard effort by taking a few simple steps;
- Rehydrate immediately following a hard workout. Don’t drink booze until you feel you have adequately replaced the electrolytes and fluid lost.
- After a hard effort, don’t replace essential nutrients like carbs, protein, and micronutrients with alcohol.
- Don’t drink too much. This is essential. A couple of drinks will have minimal impact, assuming you take care of the first two things. Getting trashed, however, is going trash your recovery as well.
So, you can have that delicious beer after a long, hard effort; just make sure you are properly rehydrating and replenishing, FIRST.
Below is a super-easy way to do this while considering all of the primary goals of endurance recovery that we talked about earlier.
Take a serving of Terminus immediately following your run. Terminus contains all electrolytes in their best forms (rehydrate – #1). It also has super-fast absorbing dextrose to quickly top off glycogen stores (replenish glycogen – #2). Terminus also sports a perfect ratio of organic pea and brown rice proteins, creating an optimal amino acid profile (#3). Lastly, the addition of BCAAs, glutamine, and carnitine further prevent muscle breakdown and stimulate muscle protein synthesis (#3 again).
After that, depending on the effort and the amount of sweat lost, you might need to continue to drink a bit more water and/or a sports drink. You’ll have to feel this out for yourself. But by no means do you have to sacrifice your celebratory beer (or two).
Just don’t go around saying that they’re actually beneficial for recovery, OK?
Alcohol and Ultra-Running: Drinking on Easy/Recovery Days
What about drinking during your training season, but on “easy” days or “recovery” days. I’m not going to talk too much about this because, for the most part, it would be somewhat repetitive of the previous sections. That is, alcohol will impact the same things during a day of rest and recovery as it does the day of a hard effort. Therefore, if the goal of your recovery day is to ACTUALLY RECOVER, then getting annihilated is going to screw that up pretty quick for all of the same reasons stated previously.
On the other hand, as long as you are otherwise using good recovery practices, a couple of drinks aren’t going to totally derail your efforts.
The Dose Makes the Poison
Moderation is Key
Like so many other aspects of life, moderation is essential when it comes to alcohol and ultra-running.
It’s clear that excess alcohol has deleterious effects on various endurance-related elements. However, most adverse effects can be significantly reduced by establishing limits and following good recovery practices before drinking.
Nonetheless, even small amounts aren’t going to come without a bit of sacrifice. If being your absolute best is your priority, then when it comes to drinking during the heavy training season, minimization is probably a more appropriate term than moderation.
Keep in mind that alcohol is calorie-heavy. Calories from alcohol cannot be converted to glycogen and contain no real nutritional value. Even if an ultra-runner limits themselves to two beers three times/week, that calorie load is around 900 kcal. That’s far from insignificant since a 3500 kcal surplus is the amount needed to produce 1 lb of fat. Essentially, that’s about 1 lb/month that you are either putting on OR could lose in excess weight.
So, if you’ve been trying to shed a few pounds, you might want to ditch the booze altogether. Even if you don’t need to lose weight, there are obviously better ways to use 900 kcal.
Alcohol and Ultra-Running: Last Words
Anyone who has read many of my blogs knows that I’m all about using high-quality endurance supplements to improve recovery and endurance performance.
One could almost consider EXCESS alcohol an anti-supplement…is that a thing? Anyway, hear me out. A good supplement regimen will give you a slight yet significant edge in recovery, adaptation, and performance. On the other hand, excess alcohol will impair all of the same things.
As an ultra-runner, if you hope to recover optimally, train efficiently, and improve consistently, then you need to keep the booze in moderation during your heavy training season.
SAVE THE BENDERS FOR THE OFFSEASON!
As a race director of three ultramarathon-style races, I love to provide my runners with a lovely celebratory drink when they cross the finish line. In fact, in all three Ultraverse races, we have an alcohol sponsor!
Summary: Alcohol and Ultra-Running
This is a blog about alcohol and ultra-running, written by an ultra-runner who enjoys drinking some alcohol. If you read the article in its entirety, hopefully, you see that I applied an open-minded, evidence-based approach.
Alcohol and ultra-running CAN be compatible with a bit of knowledge, common sense, and, sometimes, willpower.