The post-workout beer: Is it harming your recovery?
While moderate consumption of alcohol can add enjoyment to our meals and lives, is having a drink after working out harmful to your training? Read on to learn more.
First, let’s review the basics of what alcohol does in your body. Alcohol is a diuretic. This means that having an alcoholic drink will send you to the bathroom to pee sooner than if you were drinking lemonade. Why? It suppresses a hormone in your body called vasopressin (also known as anti-diuretic hormone). Vasopressin’s job is to help you regulate your blood volume and maintain fluid balance. The extent that an alcoholic drink suppresses vasopressin (causing you to pee and get dehydrated) depends on how much non-alcoholic fluid is in it. For example, regular beer (approximately 4% alcohol) will not make you need to visit the bathroom as frequently as if you drink a shot of hard alcohol (approximately 40% alcohol).
When you exercise, particularly in hot and humid conditions that make you sweat, your body increases the amount of vasopressin it makes, helping to conserve fluids so you can continue to sweat enough to keep your body temperature in a happy range. Put another way, sweating helps to keep you cool, but peeing doesn’t.
What Does the Research Say?
Research examining alcohol intake and its effect on hydration after exercise mostly includes small studies of healthy young men cycling and running in a variety of uncomfortable conditions intended to dehydrate them quickly. Examples from the research included hot weather, high humidity, and extra layers of clothing. These studies typically then involved a fluid intake protocol with various combinations of water, light and regular beer, some with and some without added salt. (Side note: if it wasn’t for free beer, who would sign up to be in a study like this??)
Overall, what these studies have found is this:
Light beer (2.5% alcohol) can help rehydrate you after exercise similarly to a non-alcoholic drink
Regular beer (4% alcohol) can slow down rehydration by making you pee more – it takes longer to ‘catch-up’
Beer is low in sodium, making it a less than ideal solution to rehydrate you
So What Exactly Does This Mean?
Exercise and alcohol are working in opposition to one another when you workout in conditions that make you sweat a lot and then consume alcohol afterwards. When you’re dehydrated and then you drink alcohol, your body can’t produce as much pee. You can help your body out by making hydration a priority before, during, and after exercise so your body fluid will recovery quicker from exercise when you sweat a lot and have a beer.
Alcohol & Recovery
In addition to interfering with rehydration, alcohol may also affect how your muscles recover from exercise.
Most research on this has looked at sports such as rugby, where heavy post-game drinking is often part of the culture of the sport. This is very different than an occasional beer after a workout, so the results aren’t really applicable here.
The research that has been done looking at the impact of alcohol on replenishing stored muscle energy (glycogen) tells us that while it may take longer to replenish glycogen stores, this may have more to do with what we choose to eat (or not) along with drinking alcohol than alcohol alone.
If you’re having a drink with a carbohydrate-rich snack (pretzels or a piece of pizza) that will help you replenish the stored energy in your muscles, you’re likely going to recovery quickly. However, if you’re having a drink instead of having a meal or snack, you’re not providing your body with what it needs to replace your stored energy, which could mean that you may not be recovered very well for your next workout. This has important implications for triathletes and others who may workout in the evening and then get up early the next day to fit in another training session.
It’s also important to note here that alcohol impairs judgement when it comes to most things, including the food choices that you make. Let’s be honest, no one gets drunk and eats a salad. Try to remain mindful of the foods you eat when drinking alcohol, or order food before you start drinking.
If you’re really focused on optimizing recovery and repairing muscles between workouts, little to no alcohol after exercise is best.
If you do enjoy a post workout drink, try the following:
Drink a light beer for a refreshing drink that won’t compromise your hydration
Pack extra fluids to consume during your workout– a post workout drink will have less of an impact your hydration if you can try to keep up with your fluid intake
Eat something with carbohydrates and sodium to help replace fluids and replenish your glycogen stores
Consider your training goals as well as your quality of life in making a decision about your post workout drink.
Dietitians of Canada. Does alcohol consumption interfere with post-exercise recovery? In: Practice-based Evidence in Nutrition® [PEN]. 2017 Jan 23 [cited 2019 May 22]. Available from: http://www.pennutrition.com. Access only by subscription. Click Sign Up on PEN login page.
Burke, L. (2015). Nutrition for recovery after training and competition. In Burke, L. & Deakin, V. (5th Eds), Clinical sports nutrition (pp 420 - 462). Sydney, NSW: McGraw-Hill