“Just 1 more mile until beer!” How many times have you seen a sign like that while participating in a marathon, half-marathon, or triathlon? We all feel like we have earned a drink, or two, after finishing a race. But is consuming alcohol after exercise really a good idea? The following is a summary of current research on this subject. Unfortunately, this research is limited in quantity.
- Rehydration – With considerable loss of fluids during exercise, rehydration is a priority. The concern with alcohol is that it has been shown to increase output of urine. Therefore, it has the potential to worsen dehydration. This effect, however, is dose-dependent. A study has shown that, after exercise, the consumption of doses of alcohol less than 0.49 gm per kilogram of body weight does not significantly affect rehydration. In the United States, a standard drink is 14 grams. Therefore, in a 160 pound person, which is about 72.6 kg, this dose (0.49 gm/kg) is about 35.6 grams, or about two and a half drinks.
- Glycogen resynthesis – Another priority is restoring energy stores after they have been depleted by exercise. A published report showed that, after exercise, a dose of alcohol up to 1.5 gm per kg of body weight (about seven and a half drinks for a 160 pound person) does not impair glycogen resynthesis as long as a high-carbohydrate meal is also consumed.
- Immune function – Inflammation, which is mediated by the immune system, is an essential mechanism of recovery from exercise. While studies have not been performed to assess the effects of alcohol on immune function after exercise, alcohol consumption has been shown both to reduce pro-inflammatory proteins and increase anti-inflammatory proteins. The unproven implication is that alcohol consumed after exercise can, therefore, reduce the capacity of the immune system to aid in recovery from that activity.
- Endocrine function – The endocrine system helps coordinate recovery and beneficial adaptations, such as muscle hypertrophy, from exercise. Only a few studies have examined the effects of alcohol, consumed after exercise, on the endocrine system. The most recent study was performed with subjects who were resistance-trained. These athletes completed heavy-resistance exercise, then consumed 1.09 gm of alcohol per kg of body weight. At 140-300 minutes post-exercise, testosterone levels were increased. Since testosterone leads to muscle hypertrophy, these results imply that consuming alcohol after heavy-resistance training can lead to endocrine changes that could support muscle hypertrophy. This finding is surprising, since alcohol is known to generally have inhibitory effects upon testosterone production. Furthermore, a much older study showed that 1.5 gm of alcohol per kg of body weight, consumed after exercise, led to decreases in levels of testosterone.
- Skeletal muscle repair – Intense exercise leads to damage of skeletal muscle. The repair of this muscle is part of the process of adaptation and improvement that athletes receive from training. In a model of exercise-induced muscle damage (repeated eccentric contractions of the quadricep muscles), lower doses of alcohol, such as 0.5 gm per kg of body weight, consumed 30 minutes after exercise did not lead to negative effects upon muscle performance. However, doses of 1.0 gm per kg of body weight was shown to lead to reduced muscular performance.
- Protein synthesis – As part of muscle repair, muscle proteins need to be synthesized. In a recent study, subjects participated in resistance exercise (leg extensions), then cycling. Immediately and 4 hours post exercise some of the subjects consumed 1.5 gm per kg of body weight of alcohol. Muscle biopsies showed reduced rates of myofibrillar protein synthesis in the subjects who consumed alcohol (even in the subgroup who also consumed protein).
Alcohol consumption after exercise, especially beer, is a commonplace feature of endurance sports. Aside from the sense that a cold beer is a nice reward to look forward to during a race, the consumption of alcohol is also a popular social event. But is it deleterious? Should we ask race directors to ban beer sponsors, based on the dangerous effects of the consumption of alcohol after exercise? The current data, though limited, indicates that the answer to this question is “no.” It appears that the negative effects that alcohol may have after exercise are probably dose-dependent. Indeed, I was unable to find a study that demonstrated any negative biological effects of up to 0.49 mg of alcohol per kg of body weight (roughly two and a half American beers) consumed after exercise. Please note, however, that all of the studies cited used male subjects. Furthermore, there is a wide range of alcohol tolerance among different individuals. Finally, the summary, above, is not intended to condone or encourage the consumption of alcohol, but to shed light on current research and to dispel some popular misconceptions, such as the idea that alcohol after exercise is universally dehydrating. Indeed, when I began writing this summary, I expected to find data that would state that any alcohol after exercise is harmful.
Published February 11, 2015
Barnes MJ. Alcohol: impact on sports performance and recovery in male athletes. Sports Med. 2014 Jul; 44(7):909-919.
Barnes MJ, Mundel T, Stannard SR. Acute alcohol consumption aggravates the decline in muscle performance following strenuous eccentric exercise. J Sci Med Sport. 2010;13(1):189–193.
Barnes MJ, Mundel T, Stannard SR. Post-exercise alcohol ingestion exacerbates eccentric exercise induced losses in performance. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2010;108(5):1009–1014.
Barnes MJ, Mundel T, Stannard SR. The effects of acute alcohol consumption and eccentric muscle damage on neuromuscular function. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2011;37(1):63–71.
Barnes MJ, Mundel T, Stannard SR. A low dose of alcohol does not impact skeletal muscle performance after exercise-induced muscle damage. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2011;111(4):725–729.
Burke LM, Collier GR, Broad EM, et al. Effect of alcohol intake on muscle glycogen storage after prolonged exercise. J Appl Physiol. 2003;95(3):983–990.
Heikkone, E, Ylikahri R, Roine R, et al. The combined effect of alcohol and physical exercise on serum testosterone, luteinizing hormone, and cortisol in males. Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 1996;20(4):711–716.
Parr EB, Camera DM, Areta JL, et al. Alcohol ingestion impairs maximal post-exercise rates of myofibrillar protein synthesis following a single bout of concurrent training. PLoS One. 2014 Feb 12;9(2):e88384
Shirreffs SM, Maughan RJ. Restoration of fluid balance after exercise-induced dehydration: effects of alcohol consumption. J Appl Physiol. 1997;83(4):1152–1158.
Vingren JL, Hill DW, Buddhadev H, et al. Post-resistance exercise ethanol ingestion and acute testosterone bioavailability. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2013;45:1825–1832.