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5 Ways Alcohol Inhibits Athletic Performance

I am world’s away from being an elite athlete, but I’m no slouch either. As an avid skier, I vowed to ski everyday in 2021 when the resorts were forced to shut down last year. 

So far, I’ve been good to my word, with today being my 32nd day of skiing Jackson Hole, a notoriously steep, unforgiving mountain.

My experience pushing myself to be a better skier, and the impact of social drinking on that process, motivated me to write this blog post. As I’ve spoken about on a recent podcast episode, a nightly cocktail hour became a much more regular occurrence during the pandemic. I’ve noticed that my stepped up alcohol intake, even though it’s modest by most standards, diminishes my stamina and performance skiing, especially on deep powder days when maximum effort is required.

By contrast, when I’m not drinking, I see increased stamina and better performance on the slopes.

Curios as to exactly why alcohol hurts athletic performance, our research team put together 5 primary reasons why drinking alcohol isn’t a great idea for athletes.

#1. Alcohol hurts sleep quality and duration

Athletes train, and training takes its toll on the body. Sleep is especially important for athletes because of the role it plays in recovery and repair. According to a 2016 review in the Strength and Conditioning Journal, getting adequate rest is associated with:

  1. Better cognitive performance
  2. Increased motivation
  3. Improved concentration
  4. Greater thresholds for exertion and pain perception
  5. Heightened immune system
  6. Greater cardiovascular performance
  7. Better blood sugar control
  8. Improved muscle repair and growth

Because of how active they are, most athletes require even more sleep than the general public. While having one glass of wine a night a few hours before bed probably won’t make a meaningful dent in most people’s sleep quality, it has long been established that as the alcohol dose increases, sleep quality and duration goes down, especially REM sleep. This is a bad deal for the athlete, who relies on sound sleep for greater performance.

If you still aren’t convinced that drinking alcohol hinders sleep, this TED video by sleep expert Dr. Matt Walker is worth a watch.

See also: Disturbed sleep and its relation to alcohol use

#2. Alcohol increases heart rate

Anyone who has worn one of the popular sleep trackers, like an Oura Ring or Whoop Strap, follows their resting heart rate and heart rate variability, or HRV.

Athletes tend to have lower resting heart rates, and this is for the most part, seen as a good thing.

Similarly, HRV is an important metric for athletes because it measures the time between heart beats, which is thought to give a window into depth of relaxation and recovery. Lower HRV is associated with a body that is under stress, while higher HRV is associated with rest and good sleep. 1

Studies have shown that regular alcohol intake increases heart rate and decreases HRV.

For example, this study, which appeared in the American Journal of Hypertension. Researchers followed 121 healthy male volunteers, average age 50, who consumed between 0 and 2,050 grams of alcohol a week. For readers playing along at home, 2,050 grams of alcohol is roughly equivalent to a six pack of beer per week.

The study evaluated the “ambulatory” heart rate and blood pressure of the subjects, which is just a fancy way of saying they measured BP and heart rate inside and outside of the doctor’s office, so as to avoid the “White Coat Effect,” which is the phenomenon where blood pressure spikes due to the anxiety associated with a medical office setting.

Interestingly, the authors found that the White Coat Effect was to blame for much of the association between blood pressure and alcohol consumption (so a good bit was fear of the doctor’s office), but drinking alcohol was also associated with elevated heart rate irrespective of the White Coat Effect.

Consider this quote from the study:

It is possible that regular alcohol consumption was associated with an increase in cardiac sympathetic activity or a reduction in vagal tone. The clinical significance of the association between alcohol intake and HR remains to be determined, but may be a factor associated with an increased incidence of arrhythmias in heavy drinkers.

Similarly, this study, which appeared in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, found that as alcohol consumption increased above the daily limit of 1 drink for women and 2 for men, HRV variability went down on a J shaped curve.

Also of interest: a study published this year by the European Journal of Cardiology found a 16% increased risk for atrial fibrillation (irregular heartbeat) when just one drink was consumed each day.

Although the evidence is somewhat mixed, it does appear that alcohol consumption beyond moderate doses increases heart rate, decreases HRV, and can change the way the heart beats. For athletes looking to maximize rest and recovery, a close eye should be kept on HRV and resting heart rate when consuming alcohol.

#3. Alcohol hinders aerobic performance

Again, this effect is dose dependent, but there is a family of studies which demonstrate how drinking alcohol limits aerobic performance.

In this study from 1993, researchers gave well trained athletes alcohol 10 minutes before, and 30 minutes into, a 60 minute treadmill run at 80% of VO2 max. Despite the fact that the athletes were well conditioned and used to running long distances, three out of four couldn’t finish the workout. The study authors noted a drop in blood sugar after the second dose of alcohol as well as significant increases in heart rate.

Similarly, this study, which evaluated the performance of 13 trained cyclists after a small, single dose of alcohol. Even a low dose of alcohol caused a decline in perceived exertion, cycling power output, slower speed, lower oxygen consumption, and increased heart rate.

#4. Alcohol lowers nitric oxide production

Nitric oxide (NO) is a molecule that plays a crucial role in the body as it’s responsible for making blood vessels relax so blood and nutrients can flow to muscle and tissue.

NO is especially important for athletes because it helps deliver oxygen to muscles. Dietary supplements, like beets, that can increase NO levels have been shown in some studies to increase athletic performance and endurance.

While tiny doses of alcohol actually increase NO levels, normal social drinking rapidly decreases NO levels, and in alcoholics, NO levels may never fully recover even after years of abstention. The last thing you want when competing as an athlete is lower NO, and it’s not clear exactly when NO production returns after a night of hard drinking.

It’s also important to note that NO plays a role in male sexual health.

Increased production of NO in the penis is the mechanism behind popular erectile dysfunction medication like Cialis and Viagra. I spoke to sexual health expert and anti-aging doctor, Dr. Amy B. Killen, on the Podcast about natural ways to increase NO if this is a topic you’d like to explore further.

#5. Alcohol increases inflammation

What do Crohn’s disease, Rheumatoid arthritis, and Plantar fasciitis have in common? They are all medical conditions driven by chronic inflammation.

Inflammation, characterized by the immune system becoming overactive and attacking parts of the body in the process, is heightened when we drink alcohol. Of course any type of exercise creates some stress on the body which results in temporary inflammation, but the body recovers and grows stronger. The same cannot be said for the type of inflammation caused by drinking to excess.

Research has linked drinking alcohol to increases intestinal permeability, or leaky gut, elevated cRP (a generalized marker of inflammation in the arteries), and of course extra strain on the liver, which is the organ tasked with metabolizing alcohol.

Drinking alcohol also raises uric acid levels, which can lead to a condition known as gouty arthritis in which joint pain is a common symptom. Marque Medical, a large urgent care facility with over 60 physicians in California, estimates that a gout flare up could sideline an athlete for 10 days or more. Although elevated uric acid and gout can sound like an obscure condition, it affects millions of Americans. In fact, Emmitt Smith, the famous Dallas Cowboys running back, has been public about his battle with gout.

The bottom line

On some level, this blog post shouldn’t surprise anyone. Alcohol and athletics simply don’t mix, which is why most of our best athletes, Tom Brady being a good example, completely avoid alcohol.

Having a few glasses of red wine on the weekends won’t make much of a difference for most of us, but if you want to perform your best, it’s best to reach for a glass of water rather than a beer.

John O'Connor

John O'Connor is the founder of Gene Food, a nutrigenomic startup helping people all over the world personalize nutrition. John is the host of the Gene Food Podcast and a health coach trained at Duke's Integrative Medicine Program. Read his full bio here.

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